Confronting The Dysfunction Behind The Need For SNAP And Other Forms Of Public Assistance, Not Work Requirements, Is Needed
Food stamp recipients under a new proposal from the Trump Administration would be less likely to avoid work requirements. If embraced by lawmakers, the policy shift could push more than 750,000 Americans from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Advocates see the projected reduction in beneficiaries as a clear benefit, but critics fear the result will mean more people eating less nutritious food and/or going hungry. While work requirements are already a part of SNAP, many states are able to obtain waivers that eliminate the burden for those living in areas with high unemployment rates. Since the national unemployment rate is currently low, advocates believe reducing the number of waivers and requiring more recipients to work, volunteer, or train 20 hours per week is more than achievable for able-bodied adults. This policy solution is, however, a no-solution, because it fails to address the dysfunctions driving the need for financial assistance like food subsidies.
Even when booming, the US economy is not uniformly prosperous. Geographic economic inequality is a major contributor to the need for programs like SNAP. Unfortunately, there are many communities across America that face deep structural economic issues, which make poverty and economic stagnation a fixture of life. Due to a lack of economic activity, communities with high concentrations of impoverished individuals are too toxic for job-providing, well-paying businesses to take root and thrive Recognizing the mobility challenges faced by the impoverished and their lack of access to quality job opportunities, it becomes almost impossible for members of these communities to escape their circumstances. It is this kind of environmental dysfunction that nullifies the incentives work requirements create. Within dysfunctional economic environments, proposed work requirements simply push more people into deeper poverty and, in this case, starvation.
With that in mind, the key to addressing poverty is understanding and addressing dysfunction. The personal dysfunctional behavior of individuals is another form of dysfunction that plays a major role in poverty. From bad habits to mental health issues, poverty both results from dysfunctional behavior and encourages dysfunctional behavior. Certainly, education can help people learn to be more functional, which is something schools and colleges need to do, but emotional and psychological issues must be addressed as well. This is not to say the poor should be criticized to death for all of their quirks and offensive behaviors as over-analyzing simply overwhelms an individual and makes them defensive. What the poor need is help to identify what critical issues are preventing them from achieving financial success and help to address those issues.
Because mental health issues can be associated with poverty, it makes sense to provide recipients of public assistance after a set period of time, i.e. a year or two, with mental health evaluations tailored to issues associated with unemployment. Schooling and career counselors like those at Pennsylvania’s Career Links are there to make people more functional in terms of workplace performance and job seeking, but they are not qualified to identify mental health issues that most harm those facing poverty. Frankly, public assistance caseworkers need to be better trained and empowered to help the economically dysfunctional find the help they need to address the core issues that are holding them back in terms of financial and personal growth. Instead of relying on work requirements, which will do nothing to incentivize away the personal dysfunctions of food stamp recipients, policymakers need to focus on providing increased social services to those whose financial hardships are a reflection of their mental health issues.
With that said, among the numerous dysfunctions that the impoverished share, their demotivated nature is probably the most detrimental. All people avoid discomfort. Most learn to embrace lesser discomforts to avoid greater discomforts. Because the poor have experienced greater failure when it comes to financial decisions and they are unable to comfortably participate in high-cost activities, the poor learn to experience opportunities, which could help them increase their incomes or network with people who could offer them financial opportunities, as uncomfortable situations to be avoided. Because the poor work to simply survive, their attempts to improve their lives are generally met with a lack of reward while they tend to face continually worsening situations, thus they become discouraged, instead of encouraged, when opportunities arise. Between a combination of broken aspirations and the avoidance of discomfort, i.e. failure is the most likely prospect, the poor learn to feel discouraged by opportunity. It is, therefore, helpful to build viable financial opportunities that offer strong social and emotional benefits.
All people suffer from dysfunctions that prevent them from seizing opportunities. Poor, middle class, and wealthy individuals find things like paperwork and job interviews uncomfortable, or even frightening, but the avoidance of these things is particularly problematic for the poor. Dysfunctional people can be given opportunities and everything needed to succeed, but their dysfunctions will always stop them from pursuing those opportunities. Where the Middle Class and wealthy have sufficient incomes to either forgo opportunities they want to pursue or avoid the consequences of their dysfunctions, the dysfunctional nature of the poor prevents them from achieving financial success and a sustainable lifestyle. In order to help address poverty, as well as help others pursue their goals in life, these dysfunctions must be identified and addressed. People will tend to make decisions that they perceive are in their best interests. When the poor make decisions, they are not simply selecting a rational course of action. They are making decisions within a limited number of choices due to the constraints of their incomes.
If the poor enjoy, at least, a consistent, sustainable income capable of paying for all of their basic necessities, choices mean forgoing necessities for other necessities and wants. When they face disruptions in their incomes or unrealized expenses, such as emergency medical bills, car repairs, or spikes in utility bills, their limited budgets force them to intentionally neglect needs. Confronted with a persistent shortage of income and other resources, the poor are forced to make decisions that favor low-cost, short-term options. This often means taking on higher long-term costs. In terms of debt, they take on high-interest, long-term debt, which means they pay a lot more than what their purchases are worth. Payday loans and credit cards are two examples where the poor borrow money to make up for their limited incomes, yet create long-term debt they cannot easily pay off. For this reason, they tend to find themselves trapped in cycles of debt.
If the poor do not embrace debt or do not have access to credit, they find themselves in cycles of neglect. Eating inexpensive, nutrient-deficit junk foods, which leave people feeling full, is another way in which the poor exchange short-term food costs for long-term health costs. Ignoring a broken sink or leaky roof is also a way to avoid spending money, yet the inconvenience and structural damage are far more costly in the long-term. Although all people tend to make short-term decisions, the limited resources and opportunities of the poor prevent them from addressing the long-term costs they are accruing. Because their incomes rarely grow, and actually tend to shrink in relative terms, even minor short-term costs can become crippling long-term costs. Where the poor are trying to balance their constrained budget by forgoing expenses, they are actually taking on higher long-term costs that they cannot afford to repay.
Another way in which the poor avoid expenses in the short-term and cost themselves in the long-term is by risk-taking. It is necessary to take measured risks in order to succeed. It is tempting to conclude the poor are risk averse and avoid risk-taking whenever they do not seize upon an opportunity to improve their situation, i.e. apply for a job, ask for a raise, or open a business. Considering the poorest of households “invest” nearly 10% of their incomes into the lottery, the poor consume high-cost, deadly tobacco as a cheap luxury, and the poor often go without healthcare, it is clear the poor are actually making high-risk, low-reward choices. They are not risk averse; the value of risk-taking for the poor is just distorted. Investing a hundred dollars into stock, for example, is far more risky to the poor than the middle class, so they invest one dollar into the lottery, which is less likely to deliver a profit.
Moreover, poverty can be more adequately addressed by tackling the environmental and personal issues that prevent people from achieving financial success. It is, however, important to remember poverty is the result of many factors; therefore, dealing with the issue of poverty requires solutions that address all factors, which come into play. As such, it is most important to recognize when a solution is applicable to an individual’s situation and when it is not. The wrong diagnosis will never lead to the right cure. Meanwhile, the right solutions must be applied correctly or they will fail as well. Finally, this means government needs to be smarter in how it addresses poverty and social support programs, so it can actually solve the problem of increasing poverty. Creating more hurdles, such as work requirements that functional people living in functional environments could easily overcome, yet dysfunctional people living in dysfunctional environments cannot, will do nothing to actually address the dysfunctions fueling the need for social welfare programs like SNAP.
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