The big Washington news this week was the announcement of a budget deal between Paul Ryan, who chairs the House budget committee and Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate committee. I’ve been checking out the details of the bill, as best I can, and from what I can see, it’s awful. Exactly the wrong thing for the country right now, likely to hurt people and further weaken our economy. It’s also probably the best that could be hoped for, should pass, and some version of it likely will.
First, the good news: House Republicans and Senate Democrats might actually agree about something. The most dysfunctional Congress in US history might actually accomplish something. One of Congress’ constitutional duties is to pass an annual budget. They’ve punted on it for years, keeping things afloat with a whole series of continuing resolutions. The idea that Paul Ryan and Patty Murray actually sat in a room together without permanently rupturing the space/time continuum is, perhaps, cause for some very very quiet huzzahs. yay. rah. hurray. awesome. I can’t even bear to capitalize.
I don’t want to get into what’s wrong with the entire bill. No stimulus for the economy, cuts in vital programs for the poor, no cuts in military spending to pay for it, the back of the hand for federal employees. It’s a rotten bill. But here’s one specific: 1.3 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits on December 28. Merry Christmas. Murray fought for an extension of those benefits. That turned out to be a deal-breaker for Ryan, and that extension is not part of the bill. Democrats will try to pass such an extension as a separate bill. Prediction: it will pass the Senate, and not even come up for a vote in the House.
Just as hospitals cause illness and trained medics cause war casualties, many (probably most) Republicans believe that unemployment benefits cause unemployment. Because some unemployed people receive up to 40% (yes, 40 whole percent!) of their previous salaries as unemployment compensation, they’re not motivated to look for a job. Or, as Paul Ryan once famously put it: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains of their will and incentive to make the most of their lives.”
Welfare dependency is a favorite conservative meme; by giving people food stamps and housing benefits and unemployment insurance, we’re creating a permanent underclass of people uninterested in working. Talk to conservatives about this issue, and I promise, you’ll hear all sorts of anecdotal evidence: “my brother-in-law/cousin/guy-that’s-dating-my-niece/neighbor/guy-I-heard-about-on-Fox is this worthless bum who can’t be bothered finding a good job. McDonald’s is hiring. Flip burgers if you can’t do anything else.”
Lots of economists have investigated this question, and concluded that there’s something to it, that welfare dependency does exist, that some people really would rather get food stamps and live in subsidized housing than work. It happens. Its effects, however, are tiny. Most people on unemployment/food stamps/other kinds of welfare really really hate it, and only receive such benefits for a very short period of time. Ending unemployment benefits is going to hurt lots of people, and there’s no evidence that it will do any good whatsoever. There are still three job-seekers for every job.
I love this song by the great Stan Rogers. “Well, I could have stayed to take the Dole, but I’m not one of those. I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose.” The song is called “The Idiot” and I love it’s defiant spirit. “The government dole will rot your soul.” But I don’t see this as an anti-welfare song. Rather, it’s how it feels to face the possibility of welfare. It’s a song that says ‘I’ll do any job, anywhere.” That’s the attitude of the huge huge majority of poor people in America.
I vividly remember a time when I was in grad school in Indiana when my wife and I learned about a government program that would help us pay our winter heating bills. Our apartment was poorly insulated, and we were cold most winters. So we went to a local welfare office to apply for this heating bill subsidy. I was in grad school then, working two jobs and taking a full load of classes, and we had three small children at home. We were assigned a case worker, and she went over our circumstances with us. It turned out, we were poor enough to qualify for absolutely everything. Food stamps, housing, medicaid; we qualified for everything.
We ran out of there. I mean it; packed up our stuff and took off. It terrified us. We did end up getting the heating subsidy, for just one winter. But mostly, we weren’t so much offended as we were frightened. We were doing fine, we thought. We paid our bills–we were hanging in there. I was a grad student, for heaven’s sake; making provisions for my future.
And in my experience, that’s how most people see it. Most folks are under-served by federal and state agencies dealing with the poor, not because those agencies are incompetent, but because it’s kind of humiliating to apply for aid, and you end up only applying for the minimum you need.
I’m not saying welfare dependency is a myth. I do say that worrying about it is a poor guide to policy. We’re the richest nation in the history of the world. And we have children who don’t have enough to eat. That’s kind of disgraceful, is it not?