Friday, May 2, 2014

Uncle Sam's Welfare-Slave Plantation

It is a precept of conservative thought that if you give a man a fish he won't learn to fish for himself and will become what is known as an Obama-fish voter: a person who votes based on his need for fish. This is sensible: who amongst us would wake up at 5 AM to walk uphill to a McDonalds to ask if the guy in the SUV wants fries 'with that?'

In the face of shitty, low-paying jobs, which of us would rather work than just get mailed a pay check? Furthermore, if you were going to buy votes, what better way than to actually identify populations with their hands out and place government dollars directly into those hands--ensuring, as above, a fish-vote. If that was your platform you could hand out things like:
  • Free contraception (to women)
  • Cheap college loans (to kids)
  • EBT cards for lobster and caviar at the Walmart (to black people)
Indeed, if you look, demographically, these groups vote Democrat.  Coincidence!? I think not.

Slavery On The Welfare Plantation

Firstly, let's set out our terms and scope here. What The Omnivore is talking about is this (Cliven Bundy):
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro, ... “[B]ecause they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.
In the CONTEXT of this (Paul Ryan):
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
With a word from Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation who sums it up like this:
The growth of the welfare state, ... is turning us into a land where many expect, and see no stigma attached to, drawing regular financial support from the federal government.
Under a culture of dependency, poverty becomes a trap, and recipients get stuck. Long-term welfare recipients lose work habits and job skills and miss out on the marketplace contacts that lead to job opportunities. That's a key reason the government should require welfare recipients to work as much as they can. What could be called "workfare" thus tends to increase long-term earnings among potential recipients.

Let's Define Our Terms and Scope Here

The progression here is:
  1. Welfare Dependency (a household becomes reliant on government help to make ends meet) leads to creating ...
  2. Welfare Culture (the behavioral consequences of being on welfare) which, in turn is expressed colloquially (or, in reference to inner-city inhabitants) ... A
  3. Culture of Poverty (defined in the 1961 book The Children of Sanchez as frequent violence, a lack of sense of history, a neglect in planning for the future, and, maybe, holding guns sideways when you shoot them)
By the time we reach 'The Welfare Plantation' we are either:
  1. Using slavery as a metaphor for a kind of 'bondage' where the subject (inner city men) have a hard time escaping into a more productive and better life (for example, they lose their benefits if they start working so it makes more sense to just stay on benefits) --or--
  2. We have reached a literal plantation where an observer asks "Would being on a literal antebellum slavery plantation be better off than being free--but on welfare."
We are going to focus here on #2 and there are some specific reasons for this. What are they?
  • It's absurd. Throwing around 'Welfare == Slavery' as a literal question--a question the speaker does not know the answer to--is something that might be okay for an 8th grader but is simply not okay for a grown-up. If you place any value on actual freedom then being literal property vs. having a decision about taking a minimum wage job that pays less than welfare isn't in the same ballpark. Hell, it ain't even the same game (and we really ought to have shotguns for this). Writer Jennifer O'Connell tries to make a defense of Bundy (saying he spoke badly) but still finds this in her essay: 
If Bundy’s sole perspective on Blacks is based upon what he saw in the Watts area of Los Angeles, and what he sees in North Las Vegas, Nevada, then his knowledge is grossly limited. However, it still does not discount the question: are Blacks any better off under government subsidy than they were under slavery?
Yes, Jennifer (who ought to know better), yes it does. For Cliven to suggest this is to posit a literal set of buttons that could return you to slavery or place you on the government dole and you are forced to choose one. In this hypothetical you find being property--facing legally sanctioned rape--to be ... maybe ... maybe the same thing as getting a TANF check? It's close, right? The slave trade with literal trails of bodies bobbing behind slave ships--that's like that family out on the porch, yes? Maybe they were swinging on a porch swing. That's kinda like bobbing. I mean, you'd flip a coin. Go either way? Maybe choose at random for your children (if you've any)? Uh-huh. You got that right. 
  • Metaphor is Cheap. Paul Ryan got beat up for his comments and now says he chooses his words carefully. Apparently he had no idea that the guy he was citing (Charles Murray) had put out a Whites-Are-Biologically-Smarter-Than-Blacks book a decade ago (The Bell Curve). Allegedly he had no idea that 'inner-city men' is code for black people (does he not know about 'urban youths!?'). This beggars belief. While it is okay to use slavery as a kind of metaphor it is not okay to use "I was being metaphorical" as a defense--a hastily adapted fallback position. When Cliven Bundy goes to picking cotton (or never learning how to do it) he has crossed the boarder of metaphor into the literal territory of slavery with masters, whips, and manacles. Trying to ease him back out and over to Lit 101 (hey, Bundy, use the world 'like'--it'll be a simile!!) is being an apologist.
  • The Level of Proof Necessary is High. If we are going to argue that welfare has some impact on working behavior you'll get no argument here. If you want to make a case that welfare families pass some of that down from one generation to another? Well, there are some stats that suggest it's so. But when you try to argue that (a) the alternatives are all better than welfare (i.e. slavery--or maybe starvation?) or that (b) the societal impact of welfare is that Culture of Poverty cycle with pants down around your ankles, guns held sideways, and an army of welfare octo-moms you have to actually show your math. Like Common Core. You can't just say "Welfare destroyed the black family" (or even the inner-city family) and get away with it.
NOTE: There's no shortage of people saying exactly that. Paul Ryan is more or less saying exactly that.
So the arguments are NOT:
  • We can't afford Welfare. Maybe we cannot--but that is not relevant to the Uncle Sam plantation.
  • Welfare pays too much! That is a necessary part of the argument but it does not, in itself, get us to the culture of poverty that is "worse than slavery" (you know maaaaaaybe worse than slavery?)
  •  Welfare has other bad effects (it crowds out charity--which is a virtue. Probably true--but not the same).

What Do We Mean By Welfare And What Must It Do To Be Enslaving?

There are a lot of government programs and not all of them work equally well for this formulation. While few people are specific (or, indeed, in many cases even knowledgeable) we are going to posit that there are two basic programs that constitute most of the Slavery Welfare: TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP (Food Stamps / EBT cards).

There's other stuff that might count (Medicaid, housing assistance, WIC--which provides help and nutritional assistance to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers)--and maybe a few more--but TANF and SNAP are the primary candidates (Note: SSI/SSID or the Great Society programs like Social Security and Medicare could maybe be counted--but those have other problems*)

What must these programs do to be enslaving? Well, according to Heritage Guy (above) they must:
  1. Reduce the stigma attached to welfare so that people will want to stay on it --and--
  2. Getting off is hard or nearly impossible. The "Plantation" has its own chains and masters--they are just in the minds of the new slaves. People remain on welfare for lengthy periods of time resulting in ...
  3. Cultural degeneracy (sagging): The culture of poverty that is violence and despair.

Let's Do The Research!!

It turns out that plenty of people have had something to say about this! Why, we can just read the studies and then we'll know!! Easy-Peasy.
The Omnivore's 1st Law of Truth: For every study there is an equal and opposite counter-study.
Ok--that didn't work so well--but maybe we can find some less partisan, more scientific stuff? Right--I've got The Internet so I can learn anything.
The Omnivore's 2nd Law of  Truth: Every researched article of interest is behind a pay-wall.
Ahh--huh. So okay: I've done a bunch of reading. I've read the Heritage foundation saying that the amount of dependency is climbing at an alarming rate! The numbers get BIGGER. I've read that the Heritage number shows no correlation to individual behavior--it's just a number. I've read that billions of government dollars pumped into eastern Kentucky didn't solve any poverty problems--but private industry helped. I've read that (according to the synopsis) there just isn't evidence of a culture of welfare dependency.

At this point ... The Omnivore is boggled.
It's Just Like That

How Do We Know If The Slavery of the Welfare Plantation Is Real?

Fortunately we don't exactly need studies in general, we just need to look at our chain of argumentation (and if you want to refute The Omnivore you either have to show the chain is somehow broken or that the evidence available supports it!).

Firstly: A Look at 'Welfare'

The Heritage numbers show that "dependency" is going up-up-up (like the stock market!). Here's their chart:
It IS Going Up Like The Stock Market
But this includes things like disaster relief, Social Security, and disease control. We can assume those don't reduce the stigma of not working nor do they cause the unemployed or poor's skills to decrease. What about the, you know, welfare portion?

That would (likely*) be TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and here's the graph of dollars spent to 2006:
This Is Like The Omnivore's Portfolio ... :-(
So ... TANF isn't quite going up like Dependency Spending (maybe all that hurricane relief padded the numbers). NOTE: Although the dollar value has gone down, there are state-level programs that are not factored into that. On the other hand, cost-of-living has gone up quite a lot.

Another point of order: if you add up the various forms of welfare in Cato's study you find that the raw numbers (including health care, housing, and so on) come out to more than minimum wage in some states! This, however, elides the fact that welfare is supposed to be enough money for you and your kids (usually 'you' is a single mother) to live on. The minimum wage isn't. Exactly where you see the failure here probably depends on how you vote. There is also the fact that most recipients don't / can't get the full Cato-calculated benefit (especially housing which is a major chunk).

Part 1: The Destgimnatization of Welfare

Heritage guy states that the Welfare losing its stigma is the foundation of creating a culture of dependency. Certainly if America, culturally speaking, no longer values hard work we have, indeed, lost something.

Is the stigma gone? Is it even decreasing? There have been some strides made in destigmatizing SNAP--but these are intentional programs, not the result of a 'welfare culture.' While The Omnivore couldn't find good polling data on welfare in the US, the results from the UK are pretty straightforward:
The Stigma--It's ALSO Going Up Like APPL Stock!

While the social-stigma is hard to measure in the US (there's little research I could find) the data we do have is that being on welfare sucks psychologically. Being unemployed, long-term, is a huge factor in social stress and depression.  People on TANF and SNAP are substantially more likely to be depressed:

According to Gallup, being employed is a key element in avoiding depression. Long-term unemployed people suffer badly in other ways as well:

On the other hand, stigma is a factor in how long one stays on welfare (social stigma is a 'recognized cost' of getting social services).  How long do people stay on welfare? How hard is the 'plantation' to get off of?

Slavery==Welfare Conclusion: FALSE. Welfare is not without stigma and is notably unpleasant to be on--with negative psychological health impacts. If the Heritage foundation finds these not bad enough, perhaps we can have an initiative to increase the pain?

Part 2: How 'Secure' Is The Plantation?

In order for welfare to be a slave-plantation it can't easily allow people to just up-and-leave. It has to, well, literally, take away their freedom. Is welfare doing that as a matter of scale?


Back in the day of AFCD (Aid to Families of Dependent Children) about 20-25% of the total recipients got welfare for 5+ years. Today, the Clinton-era modernized version, TANF stops after 5 years (states can have some applicants go on longer--but that's not a Federal plan) and SNAP is limited to a 3-month period if no children are involved.

In short, people get onto the plantation--but it's harder than ever for them to stay there (you can count SSI or other disability--and that's worth another discussion--but note those are supposed to re-evaluate everyone too. If you believe the system is hopelessly corrupt, fine--but just be sure your reasons are clear: Tom Coburn may not be the most unbiased observer).
A Lot Fewer Families Are On TANF Anyway: It Ain't Much Of A Plantation
A better question than "how long can a person stay on welfare" might be "Is there more poverty because of welfare?" This is actually a complex question as well. Welfare exerts both positive (away from poverty) effects in the form of giving people cash and negative effects (in the form of reducing incentives to work). Exactly how well this works is a matter of debate but since as noted above, most of the poor are not long-term welfare recipients, the inflation-adjusted pay-out of welfare has decreased between the the mid 70's and the early 90's with an increase in poverty, and the states with the most generous welfare benefits don't have a higher poverty rate than those with low ones, we might conclude that there's simply no bright-line to welfare=poverty (at least at the state level--maybe at the global economic level?).

Are welfare recipients losing job skills? Well, yes--the longer you are out of work the harder it is to find work--a lot harder. That's bad. Bit is welfare to blame? When unemployment benefits were cut, the unemployment number decreased. Did those people get jobs? Not necessarily. A lot of them probably dropped out of the workforce altogether. We don't know. The NRO isn't optimistic though.

Additionally? The economy at the time you lose your job is by far the biggest predictor of how long you'll be unemployed--not whether you get welfare.

What this means is this: people are not exactly getting trapped on welfare. The 1990's Clinton reforms have made it much harder (perhaps not impossible) to get government help indefinitely. The chains of the 'plantation' are not as strong as they'd need to be--and they're not eternal.

A final point: Over 90% of entitlement benefits go to elderly, disabled, or working households. The Great Society reforms are mostly instilling their degenerate effects on the old, the infirm, ... or the working.

Slavery==Welfare Conclusion: FALSE. The idea that the state of "being on the dole" is easily long term, that the Federal government is structuring its attempts to keep recipients under payment, or that welfare programs themselves are calculated to increase poverty is simply unsustainable.

Part 3: Cultural Degeneracy

The cultural degeneracy associated with the 'welfare plantation' is usually:
  1. Young, unwed mothers having kids (either 'because they are irresponsible' or, sometimes, 'for the extra money')
  2. People--notably men--who simply aren't interested in working at all.
  3. A culture of violence, disinterest in education, and, probably rap music.
Single Moms on Welfare
Women on welfare have about the same number of kids as the national average (1.9). They are also not signing up for TANF at the rate they did for AFDC. The number of single moms on the welfare rolls has plummeted despite increasing poverty:
Despite rising joblessness and poverty, the percentage of single mother families receiving welfare benefits fell from 16% in 2001 to 11% in 2007, and to 10% in 2010
It seems unlikely / unsupported that girls are having babies either because of welfare or to get more welfare.

Men Who Don't Want To Work
Do welfare men not want to work? Well, uh--while I don't have gendered breakdowns it's clear from the stats that many households receiving SNAP or TANF do work. Secondly, there are three job seekers for every job opening. Even if one out of three welfare recipients is too lazy to work, there is still a matching number that can try all they want and still won't get a job. Thirdly, the minimum wage--a likely one for jobs welfare recipients often land--isn't a living wage. If getting a job means you'll lose benefits (like medical care) that could grossly damage you or your family then not taking the job isn't laziness--it's necessity.

As noted above, you can find that a problem with welfare or the person--but it may just as easily be a problem with the minimum wage or how medical coverage is provided in the US.

Finally, and notably, the focus on the dialog isn't on all men--it's on black men. That's explicit in what Bundy said and implied in what Ryan said. That, alone, should be cause to take a second look at what's being implied.

A Culture of Violence (and Other Poverty Signifiers)
People who grow up on the streets may well have a different relationship to violence and other signifiers commonly associated with poverty (sagging pants, eh? Tattoos?). This, however, isn't a foregone conclusion and it isn't necessarily related to welfare. Poor neighborhoods were dangerous well before welfare checks started and will continue to be. 

The question as to whether this is a result of poverty or welfare seems impossible to answer (you can argue that welfare creates poverty--but as we've seen above, that doesn't hold up especially well). 

Slavery==Welfare Conclusion: FALSE. The idea that poverty creates its own culture isn't absurd--but the idea that welfare is a key player in whatever is wrong doesn't hold up. People don't usually stay on welfare all that long. There are problems (like not-enough-jobs) that are impossible to separate from 'laziness' (unless your gut feeling is just that good, right?), and the image of the welfare mom having lots of kids definitely isn't true now--if it ever was to any real degree.


The Omnivore isn't overly impressed with the idea that the government is willfully creating a culture of dependency (that results in a degenerate culture of poverty) through the welfare system. There are legitimate questions around things like:
  1. Can we afford what we've got? (Not indefinitely, no)
  2. What exactly are the trade-offs of different kinds and amounts of welfare (some studies show that more raw cash actually helps and other things like food stamps don't help as much).
  3. What exactly are the cultural implications (and stigmas) around welfare and how do those impact society.
On the other hand, Paul Ryan's vision of the social security net being a hammock is laughable and drawing literal comparisons of a lifetime in miserable slavery to a few years on government assistance and sticking to it--really meaning it top to bottom goes beyond that. It's either incredibly naive about slavery or intrinsically racist (or just so intensely partisan that the speaker is blinded by his or her own need for rhetoric--also not laudable).

* If we go straight to Great Society Programs we are immediately "off the plantation"--these are for old people who are not looking to re-enter the work force.

When we count Disability (SSI/SSID) as increasing dependency these apply to the specifically disabled--so if we are going to count the guys on the porch not-doing-anything that Cliven Bundy saw we must posit they are either actually disabled or else we are having a conversation about the failure of the process and not the program itself. This is subtle shifting of the goal-posts.

The Omnivore also notes that in the CNN article linked above, Heritage guy specifically exempts the Great Society programs of Social Security and Medicare from his list of dependency hogs. Why? Well, partially because he doesn't want to alienate his base who love those programs--but also, perhaps, because they don't actually belong in his target zone. He's talking about Food stamps and TANF--stuff like that.


  1. I note that those who criticize "welfare recipients" nearly always avoid any mention of corporate welfare, which dwarfs the kinds conservatives detest, by any measure you care to name. To the extent that the "welfare creates a culture of dependency" claim can be taken at face value (I don't, and evidently neither does Omni), one could also entertain the equally politically potent counterclaim that corporate welfare creates a culture of depraved recklessness. It's been pointed out many times, but I'll restate it here: what do you think your gambling behavior would be like, if you got to keep your winnings but someone else had to cover your losses?

    -- Ω

    1. It seems it would create ... some kind of ... hazard. Yep: Definitely sounds hazardous. Not sure exactly what *kind* of hazard--but I wouldn't want to, you know, be caught in the path of, say, a large multi-national sort of fiscally careening along.

      Maybe an *ethical* hazard? Sounds *about* right ...

      -The Omnivore

    2. Heh. Oh, come on, no sense dancing around it. You know you want to say moral hazard, so I've just said it for you. So there. Nyaah.

      The classic definition is a situation in which a party insulated from risk behaves differently from one fully exposed to it. Economics textbooks sometimes cite the (contrived) example of leaving your car doors unlocked in bad neighborhoods because you've got theft insurance. Which reminds me...

      The great guitarist Leo Kottke tells a story in his live shows in which a friend of his, an accordion player as it happens, was hired to play a wedding in a bad part of town. Afterwards, he stopped off at a bar for a drink to steady his nerves. But he was concerned about hiding his instrument: the trunk of his car was too small to accommodate his accordion case, so he was forced to leave it on the back seat.

      And when he finished his drink and returned to the parking lot, his worst fears were realized: sure enough, someone had broken his car window, unlocked the doors, and put two more accordions inside.

      -- Ω