Kludging it up for their own good


Wikipedia description: “An early morning outside the Opera Tavern in Stockholm, with a gang of beggars waiting for delivery of the scraps from yesterday”

Yesterday Dylan Matthews put up an interview with Joel Berg, the “executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.” Don’t be discouraged by the length, as it’s well-worth reading the whole piece. Berg comes across as a smart, passionate, fellow on this subject. He makes a convincing case that the characterization of the SNAP benefit expiration that occurred last Friday as being “no big deal” is absurd. The program wasn’t generous to begin with, and the reduction will bring the average benefit down to $1.40 per meal. Likewise, the sequence of events that led to cuts in food assistance — meals for seniors, WIC, food pantries — due to sequestration should be particularly galling to the left given the president’s complicity.

Yet there’s a broader point that deserves some attention too. Berg is asked about his preferred reform structure for the food safety net, and responds by advocating for a single food assistance program with one application tied to applying for the Earned Income Tax Credit. This type of consolidation is appealing because it would reduce (in his view unnecessary) bureaucracy, but also greatly increase ease of access to needed assistance. In the next response he interestingly describes the status quo patchwork of low-income food assistance as something of a bipartisan consensus to keep things kludged (re: unnecessarily complicated).

Some of this is that the left still wants poor people to come into an office and have their case managed. The right wants it because they want stigma. The left doesn’t want stigma, but they have the patronizing attitude that low-income people won’t understand any of this unless someone sits down and talks them through it. They’re working; they don’t need a long lecture on their social work help, they need their benefits.

This whole debate on dependency has obscured the fact that a quarter of people eligible for SNAP aren’t getting it. In California it’s as much as 50 percent. Compare that to Social Security where basically 100 percent of people get the senior benefits. I’ve tried to find a number for the share eligible for Social Security who don’t get it. No one has such a number. It’s like 0.0001 percent. Everyone gets it, and at least a quarter of people eligible for food stamps don’t get it.

It’s because of the ideologies and the processes that flow from the ideologies. Social Security we think should be easy to get, since you earned it, you paid for it. Food stamps, the view is you don’t deserve it, and so we’ll make it a pain in the ass to get it. Social Security is run by federal government offices at the local level, with the same set of legal protections everywhere in the country. Food stamps has some protections, but it’s administered differently in all the different states, and the counties are ultimately responsible at the grass-roots level. You have to reapply for it every time, whereas the vast majority of income tax compliance is voluntary.

The emphasis in bold is mine, of course. Earlier in the interview Berg observes this distinction that programs that serve the poor are often considered ‘handouts’ while programs like Medicare and Social Security are though of as ‘earned benefits.’ The temptation to think the latter are simply equal returns on equal investment is strong, but certainly in the case of Medicare is highly inaccurate as many will get ‘more’ than they strictly paid in. Even the looser idea that one should at least contribute in some way doesn’t support the ‘dependency’ framing, as low-income individuals who receive assistance do pay into the general system of revenue that funds it. At this point you’re probably reduced to any number of qualifying arguments to preserve the justification for higher systemic hurdles for the poor to access food assistance than the wealthy for, say, the mortgage interest tax deduction.

Berg doesn’t exclude liberal tendencies to over-complicate processes, which is fair in the way he describes it, but the divergence between right and left seem significant — and not particularly equal. This would be the difference between latent stigmatization and manifest marginalization. The former is distasteful and inefficient, but the latter goes the extra mile to ensure that the process is especially pernicious. In this sense you may agree that there should be a economic floor, but it shouldn’t be easy to get help and that process should be shameful. This strikes me as perversely paternalistic in it’s own right, that the system should treat low-income need for assistance as a de facto judgement of inferiority. These programs are means-tested, not virtue-tested: unless, of course, you believe market incomes are an inherent ranking of character or intelligence. If not, then it seems idiotic to distribute resources in such a way as to satisfy priors based on stereotypes in order to perpetuate stigmas. Yet if the processes for this design flow from our ideologies, then maybe we should be speaking about those kludges as well.


5 responses to “Kludging it up for their own good

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