Monday, February 7, 2022

Hoops for the Poor

It's tax time. That means it's time to wait anxiously for the mail each day, hoping that final W2 or 1099 will show up, and we finance weirdos can start in on the fun of entering figures into our favorite tax software.

I know I'm not the only one who enjoys this annual task. I imagine the five of you reading this blog look forward to the unpaid labor that so many other Americans, the normal ones, think of as a special torture. That's fine. Some people enjoy the time right up until the safe word, some of us like making an IRA contribution for the prior calendar year. It takes all kinds.

This tax year generated a large return for us, since moderate Democrats momentarily forgot their neoliberal principles, and let the government actually send money to citizens in a time of crisis. Along with most Americans, we received a $1400 stimulus payment, and retroactively will get one even for twenty pound, six ounce Baby JC, who did not exist at the start of 2021. But thankfully she was delivered in time to get the stimulus payment in the tax return, along with a cool $3,600 in the expanded child tax credit.

I'm struck with how little we had to do to get this money. There were no hoops to jump through whatsoever. One day the checks just showed up in our bank account.

When it came time to do our taxes, we just entered in the name & social for our children, and bam, our return shot up by thousands of dollars.

This is by design. Money from the government comes easy when you're wealthy or middle class. We get our tax deductions and government handouts without having to hand over our dignity in return.

Not so with poor people. 

No, for them to get even small amounts of money back from the government they pay into the same as we do, there is a price to pay. Let's look a bit at that.

You may not know this, but SNAP, the program that provides food to over 42 million Americans each year, has a damn work requirement. A work requirement in order to receive food. So that you and your family will not, you know, starve and then die. 

If you don't have any dependents, you have a second, harder-to-meet work requirement on top of the general work requirement: 

"If you are age 18–49, able to work, and don’t have any dependents, you might need to meet both the general work requirements and an additional work requirement for ABAWDs to get SNAP for more than 3 months in 3 years (the time limit)"

Why would the federal government impose such a work requirement? Why to teach the value of work, of course. From the USDA: "While SNAP is intended to ensure no one in our land of plenty should fear going hungry, its rules also reflect the importance of work and responsibility." 

But food is not the only benefit from the government that has hoops for the poor to jump through. At the behest of the Trump administration, several states have tried to add a work requirement for Medicaid, the federal program providing healthcare to 76 million Americans

"In January 2018, the Trump Administration issued guidance for Section 1115 waivers that impose work and reporting requirements as a condition of Medicaid eligibility. Eight states have approved waivers with work requirements and four states have had such waivers set aside by courts....The Trump Administration made a significant change to the program by allowing some states to impose work requirements for individuals covered by Medicaid. Currently, none of these programs are in effect as several have been blocked by court orders and other states have delayed implementation due to the coronavirus pandemic. Conversely, the Biden Administration has initiated a process to reverse the Trump changes."

While many states have embraced the idea that citizens should not necessarily get sick or eat food unless they are working, that isn't quite enough for some states, who have decided that those receiving public assistance should also submit to drug tests. From the Center for Law and Social Policy:

"In the last decade, numerous states began requiring those applying for and/or receiving cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to undergo screening for the possibility of illicit substance use and, dependent on screening results, chemical drug testing. As of February 2019, at least 13 states have such policies. More recently, states have tried to apply similar rules to other programs, including food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance (UI)...In states that have implemented drug testing policies, few applicants have been identified as likely users, and even fewer have tested positive (in most cases, less than 1 percent of applicants). This practice is based on erroneous stereotypes which, among other things, suggest that people with low incomes are more likely to use controlled substances than those with higher incomes. Such testing is an unwise use of state taxpayer dollars since operating costs far exceed the money saved from denying people benefits."

Besides being a waste of taxpayer dollars based on an erroneous bias, such drug test requirements may not even be legal.

But all that is beside the point. Perhaps due to a bias against the poor in America, some polls have found that a majority of Americans support work requirements for public benefits like Medicaid. There's a notion that certain benefits (i.e. - those designed to help the poor) must be safeguarded, to ensure these precious programs are only utilized "by those who really need them" or those who, by evidence of their hard work and clean urine, are shown to be deserving.

Still, I wonder why this logic does not extend the much larger government benefits given to the middle class and the wealthy. Let's take a look at the largest federal tax breaks, from the Pew Center:

I wonder what percentage of Americans would be in favor of employees submitting to random drug tests in order to receive their tax-subsidized healthcare insurance?

When well-off homeowners are doing their taxes, would they be open to losing their mortgage interest deduction if they had also lost their job or retired in the past year? After all, the government should encourage citizens to learn the value of hard work.

When senior citizens get monthly Social Security checks and universal healthcare from Medicare, should they be required to work twenty hours a week in order to receive these generous benefits? Do we not worry about an entire generation of Americans getting hooked on free money from the government?

These are facetious questions. Politicians wouldn't dare mess with the generous tax benefits given to homeowners or senior citizens.  

And giving drug tests to any employee receiving tax benefits on their health insurance would be immensely wasteful. What would be the benefit of such a punitive, wasteful program? Surely these citizens already know that working is a good thing.

But there's a different set of rules for the poor. We have no problem with the double standard, because the poor are in need not just of money, but of valuable life lessons, too.

The difference, it seems, is that when the wealthy & middle class get a stimulus check or subsidies helping to pay for their huge mortgages, it is not a handout. The government is giving just a bit of our own money back to us. It is our money. So means testing or work requirements or drug testing would be absurd. If anything, the government should be sending us even more checks and tax breaks. All that money is ours in the first place, right?

But when the poor get a box of groceries, or take their kid to the doctor, & the government pays for it, that is a different thing. That is a handout.

At the root of this difference is a belief that, in this country, the poor are different. A different class. A different kind of people. An other.

But they don't have to be. With some hard work, maybe some education, they can change their lot in life. We're even willing to give some help. 

We just have to make sure they really need the help first.

*Photo is from sonstroem at Flickr Creative Commons.