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By Diane Pagen
Each of the high rises in the United Kingdom that have combusted over the course of the past 20 years—Garnock Court in Irvine, Scotland, and Lakenal House and Grenfell Tower in London—happened to be public housing, with poor people the obvious victims. Whether in the U.K., or the U.S., wherever low income people need to survive, the better off see an opportunity to make money at the expense of poor people, who have to settle for less well-being and more danger. Every so often, the deaths of poor people happen in horrific fashion, such as in London at the Grenfell apartment building, when 79 public housing residents in London paid the price for the corporate profits of a few. The images of the tower dissolving in flames were revolting enough that the public noticed. For at least a few weeks, people were outraged at those who cut corners knowing they were endangering a lot of lives. Then we moved on, resigned to the injustice.
What happened in London doesn’t seem to have parallel in the United States, but it does. This is not about fire, but about providing for people’s basic human needs. One of our needs is housing, but it is not the only one. Humans have a basic need for decent (i.e. flame retardant) housing; clean water and air; and nutritious food. In modern society all of these basic needs are gotten by having sufficient income. Without income, people have to accept substandard food and firetrap housing, as well as other stuff that endangers their lives, because they don’t have the cash to get something better.
The United States has its own methods making a killing on its poor, but it’s far less dramatic and therefore preferable to infernos, which attract a lot of media attention and public outcry. In the United States we have allowed states to oversee their own cash assistance programs, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), commonly referred to as our “welfare” policy. As a result of the “Welfare Reform” law of 1996, states are now permitted to take the same million dollar federal block grant each year, even if each year they allow fewer and fewer poor American families to get cash from their state welfare program. A clause in the law, known as “Section 417” says that the federal government has no authority to dictate the use of the block grant by its state administrators. This clause makes it possible for a state to peg its monthly aid to a family of three as low as it wants to—and many states peg it to as low as 14 percent of a poverty line income. Like Louisiana, whose monthly cash benefit for three is pegged at about $240. Consider that if an employer pegged wages at 14 percent of a poverty line income, he would be thrown in jail.
In theory, the U.S. government trusts that state governments “know best” how to help their poorest residents. In practice, the states quickly figured out, back around the year 2000, that the fewer adults and children they enroll, the more millions they can keep at the end of each year, and the states don’t have to return the money.
Just as special interests in the U.K take money from what is needed to keep the poor safely housed by covering low income buildings in cheaper materials, the 50 states take money from our largest public assistance program, diverting it from cash assistance, funding only behavior programs such as “two parent family formation and maintenance” and “job readiness” instead of the cash families need so that they can survive, be it the purchase of food, or housing, or other basics. In the U.S. allowing each state to avoid paying actual monthly cash assistance to families puts the survival of American families in jeopardy just as surely as if we forced them all to live in a firetrap like Grenfell. In New York in 2017—the last year for which complete data is available—New York TANF program administrators kept $519 million, of our federal TANF block grant, calling these funds “unspent,” as if at the end of the year there were no one to help. I guess they haven’t been to midtown Manhattan lately, where you see destitute men and women as often as you see European tourists. Some are without shoes, some are without food, some have evident injuries. Some have children with them. We passersby quash our normal human distress, because welfare administrators assure us that the U.S. still has a welfare program that helps them. The destitute fade into the background. Perhaps if we saw them leaping from a burning high rise, we’d pay more attention to them.
In the state of Maine, its main welfare administrator, Mary Mayhew (who I have renamed Mary Mayhem, in recognition of her work) cut 3,000 adults and children off the welfare rolls between fall 2014 and fall 2016, Child poverty in her state has grown. In 2016, while she was cutting children from her TANF program, she kept $92 million of her state’s welfare block grant unspent.
In Puerto Rico, where bankruptcy has forced schools to close and children to go hungry, the number of poor people enrolled in their welfare program plunged from 31,987 in 2014 to 21,867 in 2016. If any place is proof that state welfare program’s are removing families from assistance regardless of economic need, it is Puerto Rico. In Wyoming, there are over 64,000 people living below the poverty line. Only 1,112 of them are enrolled in its welfare program. This is not a typo. Despite helping such a tiny percentage of its poor people, Wyoming kept $24 million of its block grant, contending that it “had no one to spend it on.”
No matter which state you choose, there is a pattern of removing people from assistance and keeping funds earmarked for poverty reduction unspent, even though the administrators are fully aware that adults and children are bereft of aid. Welfare bureaucrats want to have large windfalls of cash “left over” to make deals with special interests and plug state budget gaps. I know that for caring people this is tough to believe. Read Robert Rector, who in 2009 documented his vision for kicking almost all poor people off assistance and keeping the “fungible enough” block grants in an essay, Stronger Welfare Work Requirements Can Help Ailing State Budgets, co-authored with Katherine Bradley.
Just as the callous cost saving measures for low-income housing in Britain led to the death of poor people living at Grenfell, so does the willful diversion of federal welfare block grants in the United States. Americans, especially U.S. liberals who read about Grenwell and heap criticism on the U.K for its policies should consider the dangers heaped on America’s poor through the state controlled welfare system we call Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, that has been killing poor people without much criticism since its creation by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Welfare administrators and other state special interests who make off with the block grants meant for poor people must think that people in need hover indefinitely in a holding pattern while going without, perhaps not getting ahead but not harmed either. This belief is absurd. People, including children, die when their basic human needs go unmet. People still have to eat three meals a day, although certain “child welfare” administrators I met while training in rural New York actually suggested one day that “there is no scientific proof that children need to eat three meals a day.” It caused considerable laughter among trainees when it came time to break for lunch and I asked why we were bothering, since we didn’t need three meals a day. The social services world does a lot of contortions to justify the inadequate social policies we see all around us.
Desperate Americans in search of income go to disturbing lengths. In Ohio, they donate blood several times a week for cash. In New York, they pick food out of the litter bins. In Los Angeles, they live in open tent camps on the streets. This is what having no real social safety net does.
This situation is how and why I came to be an active supporter of a Universal Basic Income for the United States over ten years ago. A small income that you get regardless of the labor market is an essential tool that would make the exploitation of poor Americans far more difficult. As it stands now, poor people in America have an increased daily risk of exploitation, accident, and illness because they have no guarantee of income. We don’t have to be resigned to this situation. It can end with reforms, including a Universal Basic Income as a core policy change.
PDF with some of the data used in this article from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in D.C.
Pagen is a is a social worker in New York City and a co-founder of Basic Income Action, working to establish a U.S. universal basic income.