Friday, March 23, 2012

Class, Resentment, and Means Testing

Reading over Ryan's Budget and Inequality reports have led me to reflect on a rather large number of things. To break out one particular issue that is recurrent in these reports is Ryan's insistence on trying to limit our welfare state to only those that really need it.

This idea is laudable at first glace, but this falls into one of those policies that I contend are bad because they lead to the formation of economic class and class resentment.  I'll use myself as an example to explain.

When I decided that I wanted to get my Master's degree, I decided to change my whole life around to get it. I left Canada so I could move back in with my parents. I got a really boring job I hated and worked at it for a year to save. I went home for one summer to save more money.

I then decided to look into what programs were out there to help me pay for it. While I had saved and was working enough to get by it really involved me pinching pennies. I found that I qualified for enough subsidized loans that I could live decently while in school.

However, I also found out that there were some grants I didn't qualify for because I had been so responsible. If I hadn't saved for a year I would have had less income and qualified for some assistance as a result of that. If I hadn't moved home, but had instead got my own place (which would have been far preferable for any young 20 something), I would have received even more grants, but the very fact I lived at home qualified me as a dependent in the eyes of New York State and disqualified me for a great deal of assistance.

My initial reaction was a great deal of resentment. Here I was, doing everything right, but if I had done everything wrong I would have received all kinds of free money. How unfair everything seemed. Why is the state rewarding bozos who do everything wrong while responsible people like me have to work so hard and don't get anything?

Years later, what I've realized is that the state would have been wasting money on me. Rather obviously, I was going to get that degree no matter what. It would require more tax dollars to pay for a degree that I was going to get anyway.  However, for a poorer individual, who didn't have family to move in with and perhaps needed to go directly to school to get away from a crowd back home that was bad for them, that money mattered a great deal. The system is set up the way it is to try to help the marginal student that needed the help to get a degree, raise their human capital, and likely pay back far more then they received in benefits to society at large (not that it is set up very well to do this, but that is separate issue), while saving money by denying assistance to people who are already doing everything right without the help. So far, so good.

The problem, of course, is that resentment I felt. Not every student denied public assistance goes on and gets a political science degree and changes their political beliefs in response to having greater knowledge (when I went in to school I was a staunch conservative, I actually favored Giuliani for awhile, but as I read more and learned more about American politics (my history and foreign knowledge were better, but I was pretty pig ignorant and tribal when it came to American politics at that point in time) my political beliefs shifted a great deal, I always took pragmatism and empirical evidence seriously, and like the author of Do-Gooders, I associated that with Conservatives at the time). Many more are going to remember that resentment they felt when they looked for assistance and couldn't get it and let that influence their political beliefs and actions well beyond the brief point in time they needed it. They'll continue to feel like the government unfairly discriminates against them and in favor of losers unwilling to put in the work and make the sacrifices that they made to get where they are. They won't think through it to realize that what the programs are set up to do is to try and get people to get a degree who wouldn't normally do so, not to give a handout to someone that was going to do it anyway.

And this sort of emotional response is basically what people will have regarding virtually every means tested program. They'll encounter programs that don't work for people that tried to save, programs that won't help people that get injured or disabled and try to work anyway, and programs that don't work for people that work hard but can't seem to quite make ends meet. The programs will reward those that have thought ahead and tried to manipulate it (Medicaid look back and nursing home costs) rather than those that follow the rules in good faith and don't try to move money around to game the system. They'll be stuck with the roommate with a free ride whose a recovering drug addict, walking out of the disability office after being denied while seeing a smelly derelict get it, and praying not to get sick while they're without health insurance while seeing the destitute homeless man surrounded by paramedics because he passed out in a bus shelter.

This is an example of what I mean by how poorly designed programs create class. On a personal level, I've felt the resentment that right wing demagogues try to exploit. I'm not proud of it, but I see on a visceral level the kind of buttons they're trying to push, I have them too. I understand why our programs are the way they are, it saves money this way by not providing responsible people with incentives to do what they're going to do anyway and instead focusing on people who were dealt a bad hand or screwed up badly.

But this also means that anyone who has tried to do everything right will see an unresponsive system whenever they need it. They'll be forced to spend down their hard earned savings to get assistance, meaning that they'll often be trapped in poverty by the time they qualify. When assistance could have changed things they didn't get it, when they do get it they feel it is too late because they're already discouraged and without hope, they feel nothing but resentment at the government by this point.

This is why I have a big problem with Ryan's solutions. He likes to decry class-based thinking, but it seems to me the programs he prefers cause it, not fix it. The small government he wants appears to me custom designed to create dependency, while the larger government he blames for it seems able to create problems that won't have the kind of dependency producing problems that result from means testing. I understand the emotional appeal of what Ryan is suggesting, but reflecting on my own emotional responses and what I've learned about the actual impacts of government programs lead me to believe that Ryan's favored methods are the cause of, and not solution to, the problems he wants to deal with. Perversity is a favorite claims of reactionaries, but I believe the data points in the direction that their own favored policies are the ones with perverse effects, and I think emotional responses such as my own explain why this is.

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