On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc

Someone by the name C. Atkins responded to a comment of mine. It’s from the lengthy comments section of a worthy article, I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump by Jonna Ivin (STIR Journal).

He was disagreeing with me and I disagree with him, but he was courteous and seemed sincere. I wanted to respond fully to him, not an easy task because I needed to gather the info to make my case. The main problem was that he was speculating based on his own biases. He took his speculations as being obviously true according to his experience. Even though he offered two links, he pointed to no specific evidence. Speculation isn’t necessary, since there is a ton of good data out there, some of which can be found below. It’s an extremely complicated topic demanding a thorough analysis. I’ll try to cover the main points at hand.

To start off he wrote that, “Actually, the negative effects of SSI, the lack of incentive to get off it (most recipients are long-term recipients) and the need for reform have been fairly well documented in recent studies and articles.” Well, actually, that isn’t true, as far as I can tell, although I’d welcome evidence to the contrary. To supposedly back up his claim, he offered an article from The Boston Globe (A legacy of unintended side effects by Patricia Wen), but nowhere in the article does the author discuss anything about most recipients being long-term recipients. All the data I’ve seen, including what I offer below, agrees that most welfare recipients are temporary.

He then offers a personal observation in saying, “Anecdotally, I have lived in an impoverished rural area, and most families I knew and worked with relied on SSI as a permanent source of income for the whole family. Instead of providing financial planning services or anything that could help families get out of poverty, the government cut whole communities monthly checks.” My main response is anecdotal evidence is mostly meaningless. As he lives in an impoverished rural area, his experience doesn’t apply to most Americans, including most poor Americans and most welfare recipients. Rural people in general and poor rural people specifically are a small and shrinking part of the population. Disproportionately, they are those who were too old, disabled, uneducated, or whatever to move elsewhere to find work when good jobs left the area (e.g., closing of mines, factories, and such)—the people left behind, both by their fellow citizens and by the economy.

Let me pull out a couple of things from Patricia Wen’s article. Here is a central point made by the author: “A Globe investigation has found that this Supplemental Security Income program — created by Congress primarily to aid indigent children with severe physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and blindness — now largely serves children with relatively common mental, learning, and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. It has also created, for many needy parents, a financial motive to seek prescriptions for powerful drugs for their children.” There has been an increase in the diagnosis of many psychiatric and neurocognitive conditions. No one knows to what degree it’s an actual increase in incidents or simply greater diagnosis. There are environmental factors that have been proven to contribute to such things: social stress, economic problems, growing inequality, parasite load, environmental toxins, etc. Take lead toxicity as a key example—the rates are highest in poor communities and they are positively correlated to numerous problems: lowered IQ, learning disabilities, ADHD, aggressive behavior, self-control issues, autism, asthma, diabetes, obesity, etc (obesity is an interesting, if non-intuitive, example—as one way the body protects itself from toxins is by storing them in fat cells; plus, the heavy metal toxicity itself causes metabolic disorders). Besides lead, there is other heavy metal toxins such as mercury with its own diverse set of problems. Plus, there is a vast increase of diverse chemicals that humans are exposed to and, because toxic dumps are mostly located in poor communities, those most exposed are the poor.

There has been little research done on the majority of these chemicals, much less what effects they have when combined. Still, there has been some useful research that offers damning conclusions: “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.” That is limited to just deaths, not lost income from sickness and disability, not the costs of increased need for healthcare, not all the other problems that follow when high rates of pollution-related diseases and death hit entire communities.

To continue with the article, Wen writes that, “In New England, the numbers are even higher — 63 percent of children qualify for SSI based on such mental disabilities. That is the highest percentage for any region in the country. And here and across the nation, the SSI trend line is up, with children under 5 the fastest-growing group. Once diagnosed, these children often bring in close to half their family’s income.” That caught my attention because regional differences are a useful way of looking at variations in populations. Many differences are seen from one region to another, such as personality traits, for reasons not entirely understood. This might relate to the regional disparities in certain environmental factors, such as New England having higher rates of toxoplasmosis, from the feline-spread parasite toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasmosis can severely alter neurological functioning with a quite interesting array of effects. As Americans have increasingly kept cats in their homes, the rates of toxoplasmosis have increased. One might predict certain kinds of disabilities, specifically mental disabilities, would increase at the same time.

I would point out one important detail. Such things as lead toxicity and toxoplasmosis harm the young most of all. When the brain and nervous system is developing, these environmental factors can play havoc with normal development, leaving behind permanent damage, some of which can be measured but not all. Research has found that, for every drop in IQ point, there is a large amount of money lost in lifetime earnings. That doesn’t even include other costs such as for healthcare and personal struggle and suffering. The point being that we should expect to see these problems primarily in children, but of course they will be carried over into adulthood.

C. Atkins added a second comment with another personal observation: “Again, anecdotally, many people were on SSI for reasons entirely preventable by diet (diabetes, etc.). And yet, the government doesn’t limit SNAP purchases to foods that won’t slowly kill you. The government doesn’t support education about healthy diet, or programs that seek to make healthy food more accessible. In rural areas, people have traded kitchen gardens for free potato chips and soda (they’re cheaper than vegetables – I get it). People were starving before, but now we have a crisis of obesity-related diseases killing people. Which is worse? (I wish I knew, statistically speaking).” Again, anecdotal is what it is and nothing more. It might be true for the particular community he lives in, although his perception of his own community could be severely skewed by the people he knows or chooses to focus upon. All I can say is that I know of no data that supports his claims. For example, welfare recipients don’t eat any less healthy than the rest of the population. That isn’t necessarily saying much, as the average American doesn’t eat the healthiest diet, but the point being that welfare doesn’t particularly alter people’s eating habits. It is true that many welfare recipients live in food deserts which makes eating healthy more difficult. That is also true of many poor people who aren’t welfare recipients. It simply sucks being poor for many reasons because life is made a thousand times more difficult. Having to drive long distances or spend long periods of time on public transportation looking for stores that sell healthy food does not incentivize healthy eating habits, not that this has anything to do with welfare.

Along with that comment, C. Atkins included a link to another article. It’s an NPR piece by Chana Joffe-Walt, Unfit For Work. That is a much better article, but maybe I’m being biased since it favors the conclusion of my original comment. There is a lot more going on than is apparent from a casual look. Even those on welfare in poor communities generally don’t have the perspective to understand the larger context of their situation. I give Joffe-Walt great credit in willing to challenge her preconceptions and talk to people to figure out what is going on. One lady she talked to had back problems, a common disability for poor people who spend their lives doing physical labor. It’s not easy growing old while poor. The lady explained that she was on disability because she couldn’t stand for long periods of time and the only jobs available to her were those that required the very thing she was unable to do. Joffe-Walt was surprised by this because, in her professional class world, sitting jobs were the norm. From the transcript, she explains:

“At first, I thought Ethel’s dream job was to be the lady at Social Security, because she thought she’d be good at weeding out the cheaters. But no. After a confusing back and forth, it turned out Ethel wanted this woman’s job because she gets to sit. That’s it. And when I asked her, OK, but why that lady? Why not any other job where you get to sit? Ethel said she could not think of a single other job where you get to sit all day. She said she’d never seen one.

“I brushed this off in the moment. I was getting in my car. It was getting late. And also, it just did not seem possible to me that there would be a place in America today where someone could go her whole working life without any exposure to jobs where you get to sit, until she applied for disability and saw a woman who gets to sit all day. There had to be an office or storefront in town where Ethel would have seen a job that’s not physical.

“And I started sort of casually looking. At McDonald’s, they’re all standing. There’s a truck mechanic, no. A fish plant, definitely no. I looked at the jobs listings in Greensboro– occupational therapist, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, truck driver heavy lifting, KFC, registered nurse, McDonald’s. I actually think it might be possible that Ethel could not conceive of a job that would accommodate her pain.

“It is that gap between the world I live in and Ethel’s world that’s a big part of why the disability program has been growing so rapidly. A gap that prevents someone from even imagining the working world I live in, where there are jobs where you can work and have a sore back, or, in her husband Joseph’s case, damaged nerves in his hands.”

Like Joffe-Walt, this is something few of us ever think about. It brings me back to my grandfather who worked in the same factory most of his life. He had almost no education and wasn’t particularly smart, but he got a good job at a time when none of that mattered. With on-the-job training, he worked his way up to a floor supervisor position. The thing is that is all he knew how to do. If he had become disabled, such as a back injury, he simply would have been out of work with no prospects of finding a new job, despite his having lived in a fairly large city. There just aren’t many sitting jobs for people who spent their lives doing physical labor. And in areas where poverty is most concentrated, there just aren’t many sitting jobs at all. Chana Joffe-walt continues with this line of thought:

“Joseph and Ethel Thomas live in a depressed town in a poor state in a national economy that is basically in the process of fully abandoning every kind of job they know how to do. Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability.

“This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy. Places that made cars and steel and batteries and textiles.

“The disability programs are acting like a sponge, sopping up otherwise desperate people. This is happening so often in so many parts of the country, this shift from work to disability programs, that I have actually been reporting on it for years, and I didn’t even know it.”

This is why so many people remain clueless about how bad it has gotten for so many. The permanently unemployed also aren’t added to the unemployment rate. The government, since Reagan, has been hiding the data from the public. That is the time period when the economy was beginning its decades-long descent for most Americans, such as with wages continually stagnating for the average worker and dropping for lower income workers since 1974, this trend still having yet to stop. So, even for those lucky enough to be employed, times have been getting tougher for quite a while now. Even many professionals with college degrees are struggling. It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to live below the poverty line, especially preschool teachers, one of the most important jobs in any society.

As David Autor explained (from the same transcript), “Well, that’s kind of an ugly secret of the American labor market, that part of the reason our unemployment rates have been low until recently is that a lot of people who would have trouble finding jobs are on a different program. They’re on the disability insurance program. And they don’t show up in the labor force statistics. And so it artificially reduces the unemployment rate that we observe.”

Welfare is not only hiding how bad our economy is and has been for a long time. It also props up the economy. Without welfare, there would be poverty so severe and desperate that it would destabilize the entire society. Many of the lost jobs are never coming back and, as automation and computerization further takes hold, even more jobs will be lost. This is particularly true for the kinds of jobs that once helped the poor live decent lives and to move up into the middle class. The consequence of this is that socioeconomic mobility has decreased and the middle class shrunk. Recent generations of Americans, beginning with Generation X, are doing worse than their parents and grandparents.

There are many secondary effects to all of this. It’s not just economic problems. Increased stress has proven deleterious effects on individual health (physical and mental), on marriages and family life, and on communities. This has been exacerbated because at the same time the War on Drugs and mass incarceration has decimated entire populations. Some communities not only have a majority of their residents unemployed, since factories and mines closed down, but also a majority of their male residents caught up in the legal system and for those people it makes finding a job even harder. The sad part is a large reason they get caught up in the legal system is because, lacking employment opportunities in the legal market, they are looking to make money on the black market which is the place of last employment. It’s unsurprising that when you take away people’s gainful employment and cut welfare, ever larger numbers of people will become stressed and desperate. For the poor who are employed, many of them end up working multiple jobs, leaving little time left over for spending time with spouses and children, for shopping for healthy food and cooking meals, etc.

Will live in a severely dysfunctional society that is getting ever more dysfunctional as time goes on. These problems are so vastly beyond what individuals can deal with. The poor are struggling just to get by on a daily basis. Even if they magically found the time and money to seek education and training, the economy is so bad right now that even many with education and training are struggling to find good work or to find work at all. If you’re an older worker who loses their job, few companies want to hire you. You’re just fucked and our heartless society cares little about what becomes of you. Throw some mental health and physical health issues on top of that and you are even more fucked. Then your only hope left is to get disability pay so that you won’t spend the last years of your life sleeping on someone’s couch or, worse still, homeless.

* * *

Relevant articles:

Who’s on Welfare? 9 Shocking Stats About Public Assistance
By Megan Elliott

About 39% of children received welfare benefits during an average month in 2012. Roughly 17% of adults between 18 and 64 received benefits and 12.6% of people over age 65 did as well. Those under 18 also received larger average monthly benefits than adults between 18 and 64 ($447/month vs. $393/month).

Your Assumptions About Welfare Recipients Are Wrong
By Bryce Covert

In reality, many of these benefits that families rely on are paltry and, worse, have recently shrunk. The value of benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), formerly known as welfare, have fallen so that their purchasing power is less than what it was in 1996 for the vast majority of recipients. A family of three that relies solely on TANF won’t be able to make market rent for a two-bedroom apartment and will live at just 50 percent of the poverty line, or $9,765 a year. Food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were reduced in November to an average of less than $1.40 a meal and more cuts are likely on their way after Congress agrees to a new farm bill. Housing assistance from the Section 8 rental voucher program got hammered by sequestration and local authorities had to rescind vouchers from those who had gotten off waiting lists, freeze the lists, and reduce the amount of rent each voucher would cover.

Get a Job? Most Welfare Recipients Already Have One
By Eric Morath

It’s poor-paying jobs, not unemployment, that strains the welfare system.

That’s one key finding from a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that showed the majority of households receiving government assistance are headed by a working adult.

The study found that 56% of federal and state dollars spent between 2009 and 2011 on welfare programs — including Medicaid, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit — flowed to working families and individuals with jobs. In some industries, about half the workforce relies on welfare.

“When companies pay too little for workers to provide for their families, workers rely on public assistance programs to meet their basic needs,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the university’s Center for Labor Research and Education and one of the report’s authors.

Most people on welfare use it temporarily
By Emily Badger

This new data follows participation from 2009 to 2012. And it reveals, across those four years, that the vast majority of people receiving welfare — about 63 percent — participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for cumulatively less than 12 months. Less than 10 percent were enrolled in the program for most of that time. Similarly, about a third of people using food stamps and Medicaid were what the Census would consider “short-term program participants.” And the same is true of about a quarter of people getting housing assistance.

This means that sizable shares of people moved out of these programs within a year of needing them (or that they needed them for stretches that amounted to less than a year over a four-year period). And this snapshot reflects a particularly rough stretch in the economy at the end of the recession.

At any given month in 2012, just 1 percent of the U.S. population was relying, for example, on welfare, the program that’s drawn particular scrutiny of late.

Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households
By Arloc Sherman, Robert Greenstein, and Kathy Ruffing

Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percentof the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.

Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.

A small number of discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement) programs also provide substantial benefits to individuals, but the lack of full funding for some of these programs means they do not reach all eligible recipients. Indeed, in some cases — such as in low-income rental assistance programs — the vast majority of people who are eligible receive nobenefits because of program funding limits.[4] If we broaden the universe of programs examined to include the principal discretionary programs that provide benefits — low-income housing programs, the WIC nutrition program for low-income women and young children, and low-income energy assistance — the result is essentially unchanged. Some 90 percent of the benefit dollars still go to the elderly, the disabled, and working households.

This figure also changes little if we tweak the definition of a “working household” or of who is “disabled.” This analysis defines a working household as one in which an individual works at least 1,000 hours in a year; raising the threshold to 1,500 hours makes little difference. This analysis defines a disabled person as one who receives Social Security disability benefits or the disability component of the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) or who qualifies for Medicare on the basis of disability; modifying the definition to include disabled people who are not in one of these categories also makes little difference.

Moreover, if we look only at entitlement programs that are targeted to people with low incomes, the percentage of benefit dollars going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households remains high. Five of every six benefit dollars in these programs — 83 percent — go to such people.

If anything, these figures understate the percentage of the benefits that generally go to people who are elderly, disabled, or members of working households. As noted, these data are for fiscal year 2010, a year when the unemployment rate averaged 9.6 percent and an unusually large number of Americans were in economic distress. In fiscal year 2007, the share of entitlement benefits going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households was a bit higher.

From Coalition Against Hunger

Myth #1: People who get SNAP don’t work.

FACT: The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children—more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.”

What’s more, many SNAP participants aren’t physically able to work. About 20 percent of SNAP participants are elderly or have a disability, according to the USDA. […]

Myth #3: SNAP is rife with fraud and abuse.

FACT: “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. SNAP fraud has actually been cut by three-quarters over the past 15 years, and the program’s error rate is at an all-time low of less than 3 percent. The introduction of EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards has dramatically reduced consumer fraud. According to the USDA, the small amount of fraud that continues is usually on the part of retailers, not consumers. […]

Myth #6: SNAP leads to unhealthy eating habits and obesity.

FACT: National studies show no significant link, positive or negative, between food stamps and healthy eating. Nor do they demonstrate a relationship between food stamps and weight gain.

The Myth of ‘Out of Control’ Disability Benefits
By Chad Stone

True, the disability insurance rolls have grown in recent decades, but most of that reflects well-understood demographic factors that have increased the number of insured workers, especially in the crucial 50 to 64 age group where risk of disability peaks. These factors include: overall population growth; the aging of baby boomers; the rise in the share of women in the labor force; and the rise in Social Security’s full retirement age from 65 to 66.

Properly measured, the share of insured workers receiving disability insurance benefits has risen much more modestly than the raw number of beneficiaries

New Government Study Debunks Social Security Myths
From Citizens Disability

A government study issued in April 2016 revealed that the vast majority of people denied their Social Security Disability benefits do not return to work. In a comprehensive study conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, only 27 percent of claimants who were denied ended up returning to work.

Social Security Disability Insurance is for those who have worked throughout their lives and paid into the system. If you have to stop working, in most cases you can collect Social Security Disability Insurance as long as your disability begins within five years of when you stopped working. This new study shows that, despite what some people may believe, the vast majority of people applying for disability genuinely cannot work.

If only 27 percent of people applying for disability return to work when they are denied, it is pretty clear that they honestly cannot work. Many people believe that many disability applicants are just trying to “fool the system.” This new study proves that people who genuinely cannot work are applying for disability.

If the myths of Social Security Disability fraud were right, we could expect to see considerably larger numbers of people going back to work once they are denied and need to support themselves. Instead, these number show that most people genuinely cannot return to work, and need the benefits that they paid into for so many years of their working lives.

* * *

Related blog posts:

A Sense of Urgency

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place

Minimum Wage, Wage Suppression, Welfare State, etc

What do we inherit? And from whom?

Unseen Influences: Race, Gender, and Twins

Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc

Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs

An Invisible Debt Made Visible

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

Capitalism as Social Control

Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration

American Winter and Liberal Failure

Italians, Homelessness, and Kinship

Are White Appalachians A Special Case?

Basic Income: Basic Solutions for Basic Problems

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