Welfare: reducing freedom, increasing independence

Yesterday we talked food stamps and housing.  Now to welfare.  Here I’m going to get even more speculative, but I think my logic is still sound.

Welfare provides cash benefits to the poor, mostly poor mothers and their children.  Obviously, the poor have other needs besides housing and food, such as clothing, transportation, household goods, and school supplies, and one easy way to provide it is to give them cash to spend as they need to.  The problem is, a lot of this money doesn’t go to buy these essential things. It goes to buy alcohol, drugs, and guns.  So here is the big problem area.  Junk food and live-in boyfriends are small potatoes compared to drugs and murder.

How do I know that welfare money is going to pay for these things?  Because addiction and gun violence are disproportionately problems of the poorer segments of the population.  This is no reflection on the poor as a group.  It’s only a sad reflection on what happens to people when they live in poverty.  It’s only logical that some portion of welfare money is going to pay for guns and drugs.

What’s the solution?  Well, the answer lies partially in how easy it was to make the list of the other needs of the poor, such as transportation and school supplies.  If there is only a finite list of things people really need, then why don’t we just give it to them?  How hard would it be to set up a nationwide system like food stamps that would provide the necessities of the poor?  It could be a system of debit cards like the food stamps program now uses.

Local stores would line up in droves to apply to accept the cards.  We could put the power of the Wal-mart distribution chain to work serving the poor.  Instead of welfare funds going to buy cheap liquor, it could go to buy pencils for schoolchildren and new dresses for little girls.

Who are to make a list of what the poor need?   For one, the taxpayers and their representatives, who deserve to get responsible services for their tax dollars.  Ultimately, it will be determined by the responsible public policy community.  What should go on the list?  Let’s be generous: along with notebooks and shoes, we could add toys and fancy dresses if we want.  We may choose to draw the line before expensive shoes, jewelry, and the latest tech gadgets.  Then again, if the best jobs go to those who have computers and gadgets, then how can we deny these?  So some of the choices may not be easy.  I would err on the side of generosity.  The important things to keep off the list are much more obvious: guns, ammunition, drinks over a certain percentage alcohol, pornography, and phone sex lines.  I’m sure that the real policy people can think of several more.

I’m not saying that the poor shouldn’t be able to taste whiskey or see the occasional porn movie.  There could still be very limited cash benefits for the poor to fill in the gaps and provide a little spice in their lives.  But it would be very limited so that they can’t support drug habits or collect an arsenal.  And of course, they could get a job to earn a little extra cash.

Now let’s take this idea a step further.  The border between welfare and work has always been a sticky wicket.  Now with necessities paid for in kind, there is less need to restrict benefits from those who work.  In other words, the usual dilemma over how to provide incentives to get a job and escape welfare would be solved.  By restricting benefits to the sort of value-conscious items that allow one to live but not live well, there is a built-in incentive to get educated, get a job, and get out of the system.  If assistance is in cash, and one gets a job on the side, you can add the earnings to the cash benefit and spend it all as you wish, which is unfair to others who aren’t collecting benefits.  But if the benefits are cheap clothes and pencils, then if you get a job, you probably won’t even bother to use the benefit.

In the extreme, if the list of covered goods is restricted to the bare essentials and the least glamorous items, the program could maybe be self-regulating.  That is, it could be open to all citizens.  Anyone could take the free goods available if they wished.  The only limitation would be how much you wanted to carry out of the store.  But once outside, the items would have no cash value, because anyone could get them the same way.  So they would only have their inherent value of use.  There would be no point in taking anything you couldn’t use.

The idea may be repugnant to some to create a system that would clearly label people as poor by forcing them to wear and use second-class goods.  But the benefits would be extraordinary.  A self-enforcing system would be extremely inexpensive to run, and would be amazingly effective at providing incentive for people to become independent of it.  At the same time, it could provide an abundance of durable if unfashionable merchandise to the truly needy.  By standardizing a limited number of staple goods, they could be manufactured extremely economically by the private sector.  So there would be victories for both liberals and conservatives.

And by limiting the amount of dollars that go into revenue streams for crime or to buy guns, it helps to de-link guns and drugs from the people plagued by them.  As to gun violence in particular, if we can’t find the political will to control guns on the supply side, maybe this policy will help control them on the demand side.  So there is a liberal goal achieved via a conservative means.

This is not a radical approach.  But it takes political will, and I think it will not appeal to those on the far left.  It restricts the freedom of those who are already down and out.  And it probably won’t be popular on the right either, from a business or free-market principled perspective.  As seen with the food stamp program, there are powerful lobbies for letting money be spent on a wide variety of high-profit goods.  There are powerful political reasons something as reasonable and efficient as this hasn’t already been done.

Food Stamps: a win-win solution that needs reform

I’ve shown my liberal side in the last couple of posts.  Now it’s time to balance that out.  The topic is assistance for the poor, including food stamps and housing benefits today and welfare tomorrow.

I’ll begin by saying that we obviously need these programs to help people.  There are many reasons people find themselves economically unable to fend for themselves, including mental and physical illness, broken families, and the simple fact of historical poverty being difficult to rise out of.  But the way in which we provide help to people could be improved, providing more benefit to recipients at less cost to society.

Let’s start with food stamps, because I fundamentally like the approach taken by that program.  Food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and provided through debit cards, not stamps) began as a brilliant win-win program that was designed to benefit farmers and the hungry.  It gave food coupons, or stamps, to needy people which they could exchange for food.  By limiting the program to food products, the risks of cheating and corruption of other benefits programs were largely avoided.  Basic foodstuffs have little use except to feed people who are hungry, so there is little profit to be made by stealing them or cheating the system into giving them to you.

Because there is less danger of cheating and because basic unprepared food items are relatively inexpensive, food stamps is a relatively cheap program to run.  This means it can be extended to a larger group of people than other benefits programs.  The qualification for the food stamp program is actually above the poverty line, higher than most need-based aid programs.  Of course, this may also be because there is another natural constituency of the program which is always happy for the program to expand: farmers.

Of course, the food stamp program isn’t without fault.  The biggest flaw I can see is what is covered.  Food stamps can be used to purchase any non-prepared non-alcoholic consumable, including sodas and junk food.  Various attempts have been made to curtail this practice, both from a dietary and a cost perspective, but lobbying by poverty rights groups and the food industry have prevailed.  The latest attempt was by the Bloomberg administration in New York City, who have been attempting to fight the consumption of junk food and soda by any means available.  The pilot program they attempted to create was nixed by the Food Stamp program regulator,

It’s understandable why the soda and junk food industries would fight the restriction of food stamps from the purchase of their products.  But why would advocates for the poor argue that the poor, who suffer disproportionately from most diseases including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, should be given junk food and soda?  Apparently, the argument is that it’s labeling them as irresponsible children to protect them from these items.  Advocates say the poor should have the same freedom as anyone else to eat as they want, and the way to improve their diet is by education.

I disagree with this completely.  At the most elemental level, the public willingly (or grudgingly) pays for benefits for the poor because they believe they are just that: benefits.  If we know for a fact that they’re not, we shouldn’t provide them.  Additionally, the line as to what food to provide has to be drawn somewhere.  We don’t provide prepared foods or alcohol because it isn’t efficient use of public money, because it doesn’t have sufficient nutritive value or because it could endanger the recipient.  The same criteria could be cited to deny candy, junk food and sugary sodas to recipients.  All three of these can endanger the recipient by leading to obesity and diabetes.  And none of the three is an efficient means of delivering nutrition.

So with some pretty important exceptions, the food stamp program is a simple, well-designed, and efficient program for helping the poor.  What about housing benefits?  Housing is mostly provided either by in kind provision of public housing or by rent supplement payments to landlords (called the “Section 8” Program).  Either way, the provision of benefit is direct and there is little chance that the recipient not receive the benefit.  The problem is that often there are others that also receive the benefit.  For example, single mothers often receive housing, but then share it with the man in their life.  Sometimes this man is simply poor himself, but other times he is a criminal who sells drugs or runs some there kind of criminal business out of the accommodation.  This is the reason that housing projects are such dangerous places.

However, while it’s true that the housing benefit can be partially diverted to the wrong people and thus also become a danger to the recipient as well as a benefit, it still does fundamentally provide an actual benefit at a reasonable price to the public.

Tomorrow I’ll move on to the welfare program and cash benefits, where we’ll see the really big idea.

See Food Stamps article in wikipedia.

Sunscreen – Part II

When last we talked, we had discussed the most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and in order to understand what basal cells are, we talked a little about the structure of the epidermis.  It’s like the bark of a tree, where the new cells form on the inside and then slowly migrate out, dying along the way but toughening into the structure that protects us.

BCC is cancer of the basal cells before they differentiate into true keratinocytes.  Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the cancer of squamous (latin for scaly) cells, which is just another word for the keratinocytes once they differentiate and start to become hard and scaly.  SCC is also caused mainly by UVB rays.  It is less common than BCC, but more likely to spread (metastasize) and therefore more likely to be fatal.

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Sunscreen – Part I

The topic for today is sunscreen and sun protection in general and why it’s important, and of course an idea I have to protect more people from skin cancer.  There are a few important facts that everyone ought to know.

Let’s start with why we use sunscreen: sunburn (painful) and skin cancer (even worse).  Sunburn is caused by ultraviolet rays hitting the skin and damaging skin cells, much like a burn from heat.  The effects can be similar, with pain, blistering, and premature death of skin cells.

Skin cancer is also caused by damage to the skin, but usually it’s damage that builds up over time.  There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.  Each is named after the type of skin cell that’s affected.

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Joe the Plumber, Used Again

After writing my last post, I discovered that Joe the Plumber (real name: Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher), is running for Congress.  He won the Republican nomination in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District and is running against the Democratic nominee, Marcy Kaptur, in November.  How did Joe go from a plumber’s helper to Republican candidate for Congress in 4 years?  The answer lies not in the American Dream, but in the reality of American congressional districts.

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Where Are You Now, Joe the Plumber?

Ahhh, the joys of blogging.  I just contributed to a wikipedia article and it was so constraining, having to cite sources and write from a neutral point of view.  Now I can say whatever I want and don’t have to justify any of it!

My topic was the thing Democrats have noticed (and Republicans seem to ignore) where the “red” (Republican) states vote for people who say they want to shrink the government, but the red states actually take much more from the government.  In other words, if you take the data of how much each state pays in taxes per capita and then subtract how much it gets back in government spending, you get the net contribution of each state to the federal government.  For most blue (Democratic) states, the net contribution is a positive number.  But for most red states, it’s negative.

The wikipedia article is here, the bit I did is the table near the bottom with all the numbers, and the paragraphs in the two sections above that, starting with “Politics and Controversy of Unequal Contribution by States to the Federal Budget”.

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