Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Devil in the Details

with 4 comments

So, back to the original question–some people can fend for themselves, and some people can’t.  What do we do about them?

For the moment, I want to put aside the issue of how to define “can’t,” at least in terms of who should get aid.

I don’t much like the idea of things like “the deserving poor” and “the undeserving poor.”  It seems to me to put government right back to where I don’t want it to be–making moral judgments about its citizens and responding accordingly.  There’s just as much coercion in “you can’t have food stamps for your children if you don’t get off the heroin” as there is in a mandatory seat belt law or regulations on smoking in privately owned restaurants.

Hell, there’s more.  And if I had to change “social services” in one way today, it would be to get rid of that entire idea that they’re empowered to “fix” people in exchange for giving them material aid. 

But let me back up a little.

First question:  helping the needy isn’t a core function of government.  Is it a necessary one?

I’d say that that depends–well, all necessary functions of government that are not also core function depend on circumstances.

I’d say that two things are necessary to a free society than is going to function well:

All government institutions, at the least, should treat each citizen as someone of full worth and dignity.

That would mean an end to any government entity–public schools, social welfare programs, you name it–insisting that they were going to “help” over the objections of the individual to be helped.  Ever.   To tell somebody he doesn’t REALLY want what he says he wants, because you know better, is to show the worst kind of disrespect.

The second thing, however, is this: it must be possible for the vast majority of citizens to build a decent life–not extravagant, decent–by his own work.

In other words, society will not function well unless everybody can, if he or she is willing, provide for his or her family by going out and doing the right things:  having a job and being diligent about it, saving his money, practicing deferred gratification at least some of the time, etc.

It is true that some people cannot do this because they are truly incapable.  CT has a wonderful state system for the educably mentally handicapped.  Instead of institutionalizing them, or shuffling them around to make-up “jobs,” we give them the education they are capable of handling, then train them for real jobs in the community–grocery store bagger, for instance–that they can actually do.  They get paid, and we provide them with group homes that operate like actual homes.  They’re houses.  The people in them can come and go as they like.  The relatively more difficult functions of being a homeowner are taken over by a couple of adults who serve as house parents.  We make it possible, in fact, for such people to live pretty much a regular life.

I love practically everything this program does.  And it’s also obviously necessary for the people involved, because even on the strictest definition, they could not make it on their own.

But there are other senses in which people may not be able to make it on their own.  For one thing, we go back to the choices we want people to make that will at least possibly make it more difficult for them to cope for themselves in the future.  We want our firefighters to rush into burning houses, our police officers to catch violent criminals, and our innocent bystanders to jump in when a child is drowning and nobody is around to save her.

But, in fact, we want more than that.  We want our families to look after their old and sick, to care for their children with handicaps, to see their old people through the early stages of Alzheimers, and all the rest.   Most of us do not want families to abort when they know a child will be born with handicaps.

Individuals and families who do this sort of thing, though, almost always do it at great expense to themselves, not only in actual money but in the loss of income that comes with spending your time taking care of Grandma instead of working for Walmart.  A family that might be perfectly capable of getting by on its own when all its members are healthy may not be able to if one of its members need extra care.

But even this doesn’t completely cover it. What do we do about people who work in necessary professions that for reasons of the market value of labor will not make enough money to do the following:

a) put a roof over the heads of the family

b) put food on the table of a quantity sufficient for what THE FAMILY ITSELF feels it needs

c) provide clothing for the family

d) provide an education that THE FAMILY ITSELF feels is adequate or better for the children

e) provide medical care as needed, and dental care as needed, for the family.

In other words, if I get up every day and go to work and do my job, I should be able to feed, clothe, house, educate and medically care for my family, whether I’m working the stock room at the pickle factory or practicing law.

The BASIC elements of a decent life ought to be available to all the citizens of a country as long as they’re willing and able to work for it. 

I don’t, as I’ve said before, really care that much about “gaps” between “rich and poor.”  I don’t see anything wrong, per se, with Warren Buffet having billions of dollars and Billy Bob down at the the drive-in making minimum wage.

I do, however, think that we get ourselves into a lot of trouble, long term and short, when it becomes no longer possible for a significant hunk of people to, as my late father in law put it, “make an honest living.”

And I think that there are structural reasons why that may be difficult for what are called “the 40%.”

In case you haven’t run across this–the 40% are those adults in this country who work blue collar jobs.   For all the talk about “middle class,” they’re not middle class, they’re working class.  They’re the people you hear about working two and three jobs and often still fighting to make ends meet. 

They’re the people who, when polled, express enthusiastic support for most of the New Deal–social security and medicare in particular–and for public schools, universal health insurance, and most of the rest of the Democratic Party agenda.

They’re also the people who then go right out and vote Republican.

And no, I don’t think they’re addled, or stupid, or voting “against their own interests.” 

But I’ll continue this tomorrow, because I have, alas, got work to do.

Written by janeh

August 9th, 2011 at 7:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Devil in the Details'

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  1. Okay, here’s one of the problems in what you wrote, Jane, and it’s a biggie.

    My daughter and I have a friend who has worked for years in the industry that takes care of those who are truly unable to take care of themselves. She seeks out jobs like this, not because she can’t get a “better” job, but because she really likes working with people who need a lot of help.

    I know about the type of group home for the educably mentally handicapped you described above because my friend worked for years as a day worker in a group home for trainably mentally handicapped adults (not able to hold down jobs, even in a sheltered workshop). She got paid minimum wage, and her job was carefully kept below the “magic” 40-hours/week that would have required the State of Illinois to give her any kind of benefits like health insurance. The administrators of the program, who managed several of these houses, kept cutting her hours, and then the State of Illinois started closing a lot of the group homes (something about the governor of Illinois being a crook and draining the public coffers), and she ended up out of work.

    Now she lives out here in Utah, and she got a job she adores working in a sheltered workshop as a… not sure what her job title is, but essentially she assists or facilitates the developmentally disabled who are employed there. This job pays slightly more than minimum wage, but again, her hours are restricted to 38 hours or fewer per week so that she doesn’t qualify for benefits. All of the non-handicapped workers at this sheltered workshop except the top supervisors are “part-time” workers.

    Yes, she makes enough to live on, so long as she is single with no dependents. But she’s not. She’s in the process of adopting a brain-damaged child (mother’s boy friend, crying child, same old story). And she cannot make enough money to support herself and this child so long as she is prevented from working full time.

    So, Jane, have you ever checked to see what the people who work in the group homes in CT are earning? Or what the people who work as facilitators in sheltered workshops in CT are earning? Do you know if they are allowed to work full time, or if they are restricted to the ubiquitous 38-hour “part-time” week?

    It’s easy to say, “CT has a wonderful state system for the educably mentally handicapped,” but you really do need to check and see if the non-handicapped workers in that system are allowed to “make an honest living” before you call it a “wonderful” system.


    9 Aug 11 at 11:09 am

  2. A lot of the group homes, short and longer term ones here are contracted out to private companies. I don’t know the working conditions of the staff, but I do know that they can refuse to take certain people at all – one did recently refuse to take a violent and mentally disturbed young man, which meant that there was nowhere for him to go when he completed his latest prison term. They’re not set up for people like that, but then, nowhere is, except for short-term places like the local forensic ward. In St. John’s, a lot of the staff at such places seem to be students interested in doing part-time work while they study social work or education.

    When relatives were looking at such places, the main problems were that they weren’t always laid out to accommodate physical disabilities, and there was a tendency to lump all kinds of people together, so the middle-aged physically disabled can be lumped in with the violent mentally disabled who are barely adult.

    At the other end of the age spectrum, I suspect they tend to medicate and place people in locked wards more easily. I suspect this is going to happen to a distant connection who is no longer welcome in her private group home when her increasingly bizarre behaviour culminated in her physically assaulting her roommate.


    9 Aug 11 at 1:47 pm

  3. Largely in agreement with the original post. The hedge is that, while I also don’t want the state sitting in moral judgment, I think the adage that you get more of what you pay for and less of what you tax applies as well to frugal workers and layabouts as it does to corn and tobacco. It helps to keep that in mind when setting policy.
    But by the original standard–making sure someone who does work can support himself–the Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the best ideas on record. My one caveat here is that it assumes a constant condition. If the recipient increases his income, as it fades out it functions like a steep marginal tax rate. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to fix it.

    And our dumbest idea is means testing. Joe and Sam have worked at the same job for 15 years. Joe drank every penny of his wages. Sam saved all of his. When the same disaster strikes, only Joe qualifies for help. After all, Joe is poor, and Sam has money in the bank. What lesson can we learn from this?

    Anyway, put me down for loans rather than grants when possible, time limits when feasible, and no means testing. I thought one of the cleverer notions of recent years was an unemployment fund: unemployment taxes to go into individual accounts. If you’re out of work, you draw on the fund. When you’ve got work, you pay in. Now, the fund has, effectively, no bottom. If you finish your working days and you’ve drawn out more than you put in, the government is just out that much money. But if you retire with money in the fund, it’s yours. No one is forced to do anything, but the man who starts seriously looking for work the day he’s laid off should do better than the one who enjoys his “time off” first. I notice the powers that be haven’t taken to this one yet.

    As for the EMH, the Federal government can drive everyone involved nuts. They hand out a stipend, someone works the specified maximum number of hours, but the reporting periods don’t match up–monthly for the Feds, weekly for the employer, say–and Uncle Sugar wants $7,000 back, pronto. And of course if you’re receiving Social Security disability money for a mental condition–reading three years below grade level presumptively qualifies–you’d be very well advised never to get any better.

    Tomorrow’s problem tomorrow. But overnight: Contemplate Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson. Which of these two became the template national-level Democratic politician? Why?

    We don’t get to vote for policies. We can only vote for politicians.


    9 Aug 11 at 6:01 pm

  4. Might you be talking about the Truman Board, Robert?


    9 Aug 11 at 6:25 pm

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