Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Working Class Parents and Government Assistance

Patrick Brown reports today in the NY Times on a series of focus groups held with working class parents. He takes the tone that the findings are surprising, but they are not: they are what any such exercise would have found over the past century. What working parents want is 1) for their jobs to pay them what they consider a living wage, and 2) not to feel like people who are not working are getting things they are not.

The government has a responsibility for boosting families with a worker present, most parents said, even while admitting the frustration that long, unpredictable hours can inflict on a family. Unprompted, parents in all three groups volunteered feeling damned if they do, damned if they don’t, with take-home pay seemingly insufficient to keep up with the bills yet too high to qualify for safety-net benefits.

One Georgia working mother remembered her frustration with finding out her income was slightly too high to qualify for Head Start. Unable to afford any other child care for her then-preschool-age son, she said, “I had to lie and say I wasn’t working.” That incident colors her view of policy proposals now. Sometimes, she said, “it seems like the people who are not working seem like they’re better off, because they get all the assistance.”

It is hard to design government programs that would achieve both of these goals. The EITC, or whatever it is called now, is a strong program in that direction, effectively paying a subsidy to working people whose incomes fall below some threshold. Obamacare subsidies are another approach. But to be affordable all these programs need thresholds toward the bottom of the middle class, which means that some large group of people will feel like working harder has only caused them to lose benefits that go to poorer people.  

Universal all-day preschool is a Biden administration initiative that would help some of these parents. But the cost of that in dollar terms is huge, and I suspect it might not be the best thing for many children.

What I hear over and over is, we don't want a handout, we don't want a bigger government, we just want a living wage, affordable housing, and affordable health care. As if those things could be magicked into being without bureaucracy and taxes.

Raising the minimum wage would help some people, but I suspect most of the people in those focus groups (HVAC installers, social workers) already earn well above any potential minimum wage, yet still feel financially frustrated. 

I am not at all sure that much can be done about this. Our housing is expensive because we keep crowding together into our biggest cities, where land is madly expensive. The only way to provide really affordable housing in New York or San Francisco would be to go Hong Kong-style and build innumerable tall towers full of tiny flats. Americans don't want that.

It may just be a version of the scissors of Malthus operating here: in any society, the expectation of what life should be rises toward what the median family can afford. Anyone who falls below that number, by definition half the people, feels pinched and frustrated. Our society is set up to demand a level of safety and comfort that is just plain expensive. Once things like air conditioning, air bags in cars, cable tv, and smart phones become the norm, just about everyone will want them, and the pressure to have that kind of life frustrates and stresses everyone who can't get there. Some of the countries that American leftists admire, because of their egalitarianism, work because people expect less in certain key ways. (Especially the size of their homes.) 

I still think a more egalitarian world would be better; more even distribution of wealth would certainly help the poorest, and make life seem more fair. But a world in which millions of people don't feel pinched and struggling may not be achievable through politics or economics; only a revolution of spiritual gratitude has any chance of getting to that magical place.


David said...

A revolution of spiritual gratitude sounds like a pretty magical solution too--even messianic.

John said...

Absolutely. Might be a good thing to work into a supernatural thriller, though. Something a suspicious prophet might be calling for.

G. Verloren said...

But to be affordable all these programs need thresholds toward the bottom of the middle class, which means that some large group of people will feel like working harder has only caused them to lose benefits that go to poorer people.

I feel like part of the problem is that the current system is very binary - in most cases, either you are below a certain income and therefor receive benefits, or you are above it and receive nothing.

Perhaps we need more of a sliding scale of benefits - once you pass that threshold, you don't immediately get nothing, you just start getting smaller percentages. For example, someone who earns, say, $1000 a year too much to qualify for something now might instead qualify for 90% of the benefits (picking a number that makes sense given their "extra" $1000 a year). Each additional $1000 (or whatever other amount) above the base threshold might knock another 10% (or whatever other amount) off the benefits they receive.

Heck, even that might not be granular enough to really be fair - for struggling families, every little bit counts. It might be better if instead of benefits dropping in 10% chunks at a time based on hitting $1000 thresholds (or whatever other numbers), the benefits dropped in 1% chunks based on hitting $100 thresholds.

Now, obviously, how exactly you set up such a system is important. Some might use the idea of a sliding scale to justify taking the current benefits and slashing them - setting the current qualifying threshold as the maximum cutoff point, rather than the minimum, undermining the entire point of the idea. But ideally what need to happen is expansion of benefits, giving partial coverage to people who arbitrarily don't qualify for anything simply because they are currently slightly over the binary threshold.