Our inability to imagine a better kind of freedom


This Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig piece in the New Republic (which it must be said in your best NBA Jam voice that “She’s on fire!” in her new position there as staff writer) on poverty vs welfare’s impact on family stability is spot-on. In a response to an Economist article that questions whether we care too much about the poor vis a vie disability payments, she correctly highlights that a lack of empathy really is an issue for the upper-class (via Pew Research). But the more meaningful point is that poverty itself is the force behind corroding social cohesion among the precariat, not the treading-water pittance of a monthly SSI check, and not being able to imagine the former could be true precludes pursuing one of the most pro-family policy ideas out there.

First, though, Bruenig;

So empathy, insofar as it means stepping into someone else’s shoes, does appear to be more of a problem than The Economist gives it credit for in this piece, which is more or less what the Pew study would predict. But that isn’t the article’s only curious revelation. It also inadvertently admits a reality about poverty and welfare that few on the right are willing to: that poverty, rather than welfare, breaks up families; and that welfare can actually stabilize rather than disrupt the family unit.

The extended argument written later in her post is that the ability to remain with family, thanks to state-provided support, is inherently less socially disruptive than moving to where capital tells you to move. I’m having difficulty how this basic point couldn’t be true, but in concrete terms it may also be a bit irrelevant because in big-picture terms Americans are moving a lot less than they used. For most types of workers it basically just isn’t worth it anymore.

There are a lot of ideas behind why that may be the case, but to the aspect of what’s being discussed here it shouldn’t be difficult to suss out why. More, let’s not submerge the fact that we’re largely discussing a segment of society that is disproportionately lower-income and less-educated. Those are the categories that are more likely to report the types of chronic pain (back, neck, and knee) that’s routinely derided as a reason for receiving disability benefits:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 12.52.38 PM

(SourceH/t to Stephen Pimpare)

So you’re an unemployed, or underemployed, low-end service worker suffering from chronic pain. Under different circumstances you could still work or work more often. Yet those different circumstances don’t really exist, probably because you’re uninsured and your realistic job prospects only promise to exacerbate your chronic health issues. Furthermore, and this part is vitally important in the spatial mobility research, you may also be locked into home ownership. Do we really believe that leaving your family to move across the country for what could be another dead-end service job is not an easy option to discard? (And even removing the home-lock issue does little shift that option into the ‘viable’ category; consider, for one, how important exercising agency in an economically marginalized social network is to employment opportunities). In what world is punitively removing disability payments from this hypothetical person the best possible solution?

Besides, there’s a relatively straight-forward case that in terms of actual policy discussions this isn’t about genuine concern for the economic stability of Americans on disability: it’s mostly an excuse to punch downward, and then later clarify that you meant to be much, much more insensitive. Rand Paul wasn’t being glib when he belittled those with chronic pain but perpetuating widely-accepted stereotypes — the primary misconception that underlies the erstwhile serious Economist-style tone-deaf musing on how to help the disabled. Welfare coddles the weak, who just need a good policy kick in the pants to get a haircut and get a real job, or some such nonsense. The point is that one dude’s anecdote does not a coherent systemic criticism make.

However this also highlights why ‘reformocons,’ and conservatives in general, should embrace a basic income guarantee. Jeff Spross (cue that NBA Jam bit for him as well), and others, have argued as much. If you worry that the world is making it less-likely for civil institutions to successfully exist, then forcing folks to constantly uproot themselves isn’t the answer. It would be far better to free people to form those small-c institutions without risking the ability to fulfill basic survival needs:

When we are dependent solely on the job market for our income, a tyranny of need sets in: We must go where the job market dictates, when it dictates, and do as its vagaries determine. That’s why the closing of a factory can decimate a town, and why a layoff can ruin a marriage. The time and energy we pour into work is time and energy we cannot give to our children, our spouses, our community gardens, our church bible studies, our hobbies and talents, or to our bowling leagues. The job market can poison and rend the social fabric as easily as bolster it. But by rolling back the ubiquity of the market, while minimizing the government’s bureaucratic footprint (it requires minimal administrative overhead to send people checks), a UBI would thread the needle between the market and the state.

Yeah. This paragraph is why I daydream of UBI.

Yet we still fail to imagine a better path. Our inability to decouple basic needs from poverty labor is the dream of a new type of freedom unfulfilled. But striving closer to that quintessential, and too-often flawed, American ideal demands a kind of fearful change. It obliges us to fully recognize our own agency in determining how we survive.  It compels us to finally de-prioritize the pursuit of employment at all costs. It requires reducing the complexity of government in an effort to actually empower workers and not just the markets they depend on. And it necessitates deconstructing the perverse bipartisan paternalism in how we help each other.

Heck, in a lot of important ways it would mean letting go. That’s scary, I get it, but isn’t that almost always the case with newfound freedom?



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