Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hole in the Safety Net

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where this "Bubble" appeared on 8.20.14.  Topic credit: Thebluesprite posted , which reminded me of something I wrote for Associated Content many years ago. This was a shorter update of that article. Yardman-at-work image from KConnors at Morguefile:

In the United States, for at least seventy years, we've been talking about our "welfare safety net." Unfortunately the talk always seems to be about fixing the "safety net" by throwing more money at it, allowing some people to work the system for years as welfare cheats, rather than reforming the rules to keep people who really need help from falling through the holes in the safety net.

After spending several years in Washington, D.C., where this kind of story is rare, I initially thought the story of a man in my mother's neighborhood in Kingsport, Tennessee, was unique. I'd never heard of such a thing and worried that by publishing the story of "Joe Eastman" I'd violated his family's privacy. No such luck. There were lots of families like that in Kingsport.

"Joe" had got one of those coveted steady full-time jobs at the Eastman Chemical Company. He'd even bought one of the nice little houses on the less overpriced side of the neighborhood people retired into. Nobody in Kingsport even remembered him as an alcoholic who'd been married to an addict. The addict had kept the children, and Joe had to pay child support, but he and his wife could afford that.

Then an accident at the factory damaged Joe's spine. For some time there was real concern that he might never be able to walk again. Around the time the corporate disability compensation fund ran out, a doctor determined that Joe could walk, and could do some kinds of work, but not the heavy labor he'd been doing. He was trying to get a job he could still do when some troublemaker noticed that he'd missed a few child support payments. According to Tennessee law, if a non-custodial parent misses child support payments s/he loses his/her driver's license. Joe continued job hunting, but according to Kingsport custom, if a person is seen walking the person is presumed to be unfit for employment. Joe fell behind on other payments. Utilities were disconnected. The house became an uncomfortable place to live. Joe's wife left.

Neighbors tried to help by hiring Joe to work as a yardman. Although this was not enough to pay all the late fees and put Joe's economic life together, seeing how hard he was working eventually brought his wife back. However, Joe still was not allowed to reclaim his driver's license and his place in local society. He lost the house. I was at Mother's house for Thanksgiving when Joe came around to say goodbye. He was worried that, by losing his home in Kingsport, he'd have to go back to the neighborhood where the friends and relatives who would take him in would be alcoholics.

I was worried about that, too. I made some indignant phone calls because I didn't want to believe that this was the way the system was set up. Yes, it was. The welfare system is not set up to reward poor people for working hard and trying to lead decent lives. Joe would have to "hit bottom" as an alcoholic again before the system could do anything for him. This had happened and was happening to a lot of people.

Well, in that particular case, the man didn't have to fall all the way to the "bottom" of alcoholism again. His wife kept them afloat long enough for Joe to be awarded a disability pension. Now, all this time, Joe had been walking around the neighborhood, mowing yards and raking leaves. He could have gone on doing that. He could have been keeping a store, driving a taxi, or making deliveries--although in Kingsport those jobs mostly seem to be done by women. But nobody was paying him enough for doing those things for him to keep his home. So the case could be made that he really was disabled. Anyway, he stopped working and moved into a low-income housing project.

Long story short...there are people in the U.S. welfare system who don't want the system to work that way, but that is the way it works. And that's why I think real compassion for people in real need does not mean throwing more money at the welfare system. It may mean keeping the welfare system, and in the long run it may even mean keeping the system at its current level of funding, but it does demand massive reforms to a system that forces people to become paupers when it would have been cheaper and easier to help them stay in the upper middle class.