Friday, May 14, 2010

The "Safety Net"

Catherine Rampell has a piece in the NY Times about older workers whose skills are out of date and can't find any kind of job. She focuses on one woman with 20 years experience as an administrative assistant who has been looking for a new job for over a year:
Ms. Norton says she cannot find any government programs to help her strengthen the “thin bootstraps” she intends to pull herself up by. Because of the Wal-Mart job, she has been ineligible for unemployment benefits, and she says she made too much money to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid last year.

“If you’re not a minority, or not handicapped, or not a young parent, or not a veteran, or not in some other certain category, your hope of finding help out there is basically nil,” Ms. Norton says. “I know. I’ve looked.”
I know at least three people who have had similar experiences. In trouble for various reasons -- one had a brain tumor, one ran out on her abusive husband -- they tried to get government help. They found that because they had resources, like cars they owned or equity in their houses, or some income, they did not qualify for aid. A friend of one of these people said to me, "I always supported that stuff because I thought it would be there for me if I needed, it, and when I saw that [our friend] couldn't get help when she really needed it, that made me rethink."

It is, despite what we sometimes think, rather difficult to get "welfare" in America. You have to be really poor, or put a lot of effort into working the system -- my friend with the brain tumor was advised by a state employee to sell his truck and hide the money in his mattress -- or both.

I am not sure what to make of these stories. Perhaps the point of programs like food stamps is not to help people who are in trouble but are basically ok, but to help people who are fundamentally not ok. But I do think that most Americans really have no idea what sort of government benefits are available to poor people or who qualifies for them, and that strikes me as something of a problem in a democracy.

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