Diaper Stamps & the Infantilization of Poor People

Diapers for Poor PeopleMatt Bruenig brought my attention to something, Diaper Stamps. It’s the kind of idea that I very much associate with the modern Democratic Party. The thought is great: give poor people access to diapers. But the implementation is just awful. To begin with, a whole new program for diapers?! Why not a special program for car seats? And blankets? And those mobiles people hang over cribs?! Really: why don’t we create a program for every single aspect of the lives of poor people? Because that’s what this is all about. Underneath this proposal is the idea that the poor can’t manage their own lives.

We have conservatives like David Brooks and Charles Murray who tell us that the poor suffer from some sort of cultural problem. That is why they are poor. If only they acted like the middle class then they would magically be in the middle class. It’s offensive. Most of the time, it is racist — implicitly or explicitly. But at least these guys know what they are doing. They want their taxes low and so it is just good rhetoric to come up with “reasons” to do nothing about poverty. The situation is rather worse for liberals.

In my experience, upper income liberals buy into the exact same garbage that Brooks and Murray push, but they aren’t aware of it. This is why they are always coming up with programs where poor people are told what to buy. You see, the poor can’t be trusted. So the two sides of the political fence on the issue of the poor is either do nothing (conservative) or treat them as if they were children (liberal). It’s shameful.

I think the reason we have this is because Americans have convinced themselves that we do not live in a class system. In the UK, people are much more likely to see that people are born, live, and die poor because that’s just the way it is. But here, in the land of “opportunity,” anyone can supposedly grow up to be president. And in that paradigm, if people are poor, it is their own damned fault.

In my life, people tell me food stamp “horror stories” all the time. Let’s look at two classics:

  • “I saw this guy at the grocery store buying a candy bar and a coke. And then he whips out his EBT card to pay for it! Can you believe it?!”
  • “I saw this gal at the grocery store buying New York steak. And then she whips out her EBT card to pay for it! I wish I could afford to eat New York steak!

Note first the attribution bias here. All of the people complaining about the first case have, from time to time, eaten junk. But this one guy buying junk food with an EBT card is assumed to be the norm. That guy just doesn’t know how to feed himself! But the complainer would realize that they normally have a reason when they make each food choice. Similarly, in the second case, every complainer has eaten New York steak. It is probably even more unusual for the gal on food stamps.

But what’s even more telling in this is that people on food stamps can’t win. Unless they buy only dried rice and beans, someone is going to complain that they aren’t eating well enough or that they are eating too well. The truth, of course, is that, People on Food Stamps Make Healthier Grocery Decisions Than Most of Us. This is very much in alignment with the twice as good myth, a strain of African American thought that if they were just twice as good, the white community would accept them.

And the truth is that when the vast majority of people who get food stamps use them to make wise decisions, it is either not noticed or taken as the exception that proves the rule.

So diaper stamps. Instead of just giving poor people more money, kindhearted liberals want to give them diaper stamps. Matt Yglesias used to be fond of saying, “If you want to help the poor, give them money.” It’s a shockingly simple approach. Certainly too simple for the modern Democratic Party! But on most metrics, poor people are more reliable than affluent people. For example, they use drugs less. And there’s an obvious reason for that: drugs are expensive. But we keep pushing this idea that poor people can’t be trusted with money. And that’s just not true.

Afterword: The “Bad” Poor People

It is true that there are poor people who take loads of drugs. There are poor people who do lots of terrible things. But just because one poor person turns out to be a serial killer doesn’t mean we should put all poor people in jail. I’m making a case based upon the class of poor people. And they can be trusted. People who want to base policy on that one person they saw misusing food stamps are just idiots. Maybe we should start making food choices for them.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

17 thoughts on “Diaper Stamps & the Infantilization of Poor People

  1. Some people abuse prescription meds, so doctors have to be very careful in prescribing pain meds. Thus, many people who NEED pain meds can’t get them, or get too small a dose or too weak a drug to help.

    Apparently, it’s okay that hundreds suffer excruciating pain as long we prevent one person from abusing drugs.

    Just like it’s okay to prevent thousands of people from voting, as long as we eliminate the one-tenth of one percent chance that someone might commit voter fraud. Especially if doing so happens to benefit the GOP.

    • Or prioritizing the “fair” punishment of guilty criminals over the “accidental” incarceration/execution of innocent ones. I’d think a sane society would prefer to let a possibly guilty person go free rather than risk punishing an innocent person. We are, alas, not remotely sane . . .

    • This is an issue that I talk to people about a lot. Sure, there is disability fraud. But the harder you make it to get disability, the more people who really deserve it will be denied. And the thing is, in the private sector, this is totally understood. There will be leakage, regardless of what you do. So some precautions should be taken, but only to a point. But when it comes to government programs, people think they should be perfect. I hear conservatives talk about how they want the government run like a business. But of course they don’t. First, they don’t understand how businesses are run. Second, they don’t understand how government is run. They just want to screw the weak.

  2. This is stupid-how come they are not changing something like WIC, already in place, to include this assistance? Diapers are a major cost concern so it makes sense to expand WIC to include diapers….

    *reads DeLauro’s bill* Wait a minute, what the fuck is his problem with the bill? It is an amendment to include assistance in those already receiving child care assistance. So YES it is giving someone more money who needs it and it frees up the money they normally would spend on diapers to spend on something else. Like some pain meds for the mother to deal with her surgical scare since almost all babies seem to be born via c-section these days.

    This isn’t a brand new program, this is a supplement to an existing program.

    I mean if you straight up want to give more money to the poor through increase pay, DeLauro is a co-sponsor of H.R. 2150/S.1150 that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Is this his and your way of starting the chatter for a basic living stipend? Because otherwise I cannot see the problem with helping new parents out.

    • Bruenig does not seem to be keen on the basic income. But it is true that his article is calling for a universal program. My point is that we try to control the lives of the poor as though the reason that they are poor is because they don’t make good decisions like the wonderful upper-middle and upper classes that are always responsible for such bills. I’m not against any legislation that gives anything to the poor. Although my understanding is that this would be a block grant, and we know how wonderfully those have worked in the past.

      You can’t really have missed my point, given I only discussed diapers at the very beginning and ending of the article.

      • If the point is that the poor are not too stupid to know they have to buy diapers for kids, I am not sure why you think such a program is saying “poor people are too stupid to buy diapers for kids.”

        DeLauro is trying to get assistance to the poor in a system that prohibits giving cash directly since TANF is limited in scope. But child care subsidies are not as limited so naturally she used a program that is not as limited and straight up gives parents a specific something they need. She isn’t saying anything remotely close to the idea that we can’t trust the poor, she is saying “people need this thing. Here is a bill that gives them this thing using what is already in place since we won’t be able to use TANF.”

        It is the practical in both her and myself that is doing this. Sure it would be nice to give cash. We can’t. So how about we give what we can?

        • Elizabeth! I am not a politician. I get to make systemic critiques, which is what this is. It is the same critique I have of food stamps. Does that mean that I think food stamps are a bad program? No. But we have a real problem in this country when the party of the left looks down on the poor without even realizing it.

          • *grumble grumble* Fine! Be all correct on that part!

            Although I don’t think the people actually in office think the way that it comes off-they are more thinking my way. Problem-solution-how to weasel it through Congress.

            • Right. And that’s great! This is why there needs to be an ecosystem of thinkers. You need people like Noam Chomsky and David Harvey around to remind people that the way things are is not the way things must be. And I’m just a ranter.

              The article may have come off as an attack on the Democratic Party, but that wasn’t really my point. I use the Democratic Party as an example of the the best we can currently expect. The article more comes from hearing ordinary non-political people make these vile observations about SNAP beneficiaries. It really concerns me that so many decent Americans have been so propagandized about this stuff. They don’t realize, of course. And it is hard to talk to them about it in a way that doesn’t offend them. I do though. But that’s more or less blowing into a steady wind.

              • I linked you an article on Twitter that talks about how we internalize these messages of how the poor are supposed to suffer and be filled with shame for not being rich. That being poor means not just being poor but being miserable at all times.

                It is why conservatives hate the idea of the poor having sex-because it is fun and only the rich should have fun.

                Well OTHER people think it is fun.

                • This is also, I think, why absolute inequality is not as harmful as relative inequality. Digby referenced the fact that extreme global poverty has gone down a lot recently. That’s good. But if it goes along with huge increases in inequality (which it generally is), it is a problem.

  3. My first response to these retelling of the young bucks with t bones bullshit is ‘pics or it didn’t happen’. Because, odds are, it only happened in the telling of Sean Hannity, or somesuch oxygen thief. Then we move on to ‘here’s why you are a stupid asshole for making this point’. I grew up hearing this propaganda, and it comes from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Truly, the headwaters of the great river of right wing lies.

    • I worked at H & R Block for six months, and all the free benefits “others” get was a common complaint I heard. “Immigrants get free cars,” etc.

      I think there’s partially a normal emotion in play here. Clearly, people want a return on their tax dollar, and most don’t see any direct benefits until they’re retired (at which point they are no longer having taxes withheld from their paychecks, which is probably the average American’s primary beef with our fairly low income tax rate.)

      Of course complaining about transfer payments to poor people is ridiculous — that’s not where most of our tax dollars go — and that’s where our friends at the WSJ come in. They want the gravy wagon of military contracts and tax breaks for corporations to keep on rollin.’ So, you know, articles on big gummint “waste” are the rage, articles on corporate fraud aren’t.

      What I find interesting are the free-floating rationales for cutting taxes on the rich and reducing benefits to the poor. At first (and still!) it was about “job creation.” (Tax cuts will increase revenue, so all the short-term hardship will soon be alleviated by massive budget surpluses.) Once this was disproved so thoroughly only hard-line loons still believed it, it was about “incentivizing.” (Cutting welfare may seem cruel, and we all regret it, but we need to “incentivize” appropriate behavior, like “innovation.”) Once that turned out ridiculous, the argument shifted to a Randian New Morality.

      AKA, even if helping the poor and taxing stagnant wealth benefits us all, it is Wrong. The poor should serve their moral betters. I read a letter to the editor some years ago from a suburbanite which summed it up well. Why, the author insisted, should I pay for services I don’t need? My kids don’t need parks or schools, my backyard is huge and they go to private schools. I never go to the library because I have books shipped from Amazon. I have a retirement account, why must I pay Social Security? Taxes should only pay for my needs. (Needless to say, the less productive members of society should pay those taxes.)

      I think it’s fair to say this is the audience our WSJ pals are aiming at. Who believe scamming customers or investors is “caveat emptor,” exploiting workers is “meritocracy,” and taxation of the rich is “theft.” High moral dudgeon comes easy to them, so long as they never have to apply it to themselves.

      (Oh, and P.S., never go to a “tax preparation” service like H & R Block, they’re all crooks! But as a “Frankly Curious” regular, I assume you do your own taxes.)

      • We sort of do our own. My wife gets Turbo Tax every year. I realize that’s also a bit of a scam since they lobby to prevent the IRS from offering the same service online for free. But the I am willing to pay for the convenience it provides. The federal and state refunds go into my credit union. We’re always greenlit for no audit risk. I used to do our taxes when we were first married. And she was usually unhappy I didn’t file them earlier. So one year she did them. And on her way to work she tossed them at me and told me to sign them. I was still in bed. I looked them over for a moment and asked, “Is there a reason you didn’t claim either of us as a personal exemption?” Her eyes narrowed, as if to say “YOU!”. And I asked “Could you get me a pen and a blank form? Thanks” So, Turbo Tax is something I don’t mind buying.

        • “Her eyes narrowed” LOL!

          Good of you to point out the IRS should be offering the same service for free. In a very basic sense they do; you can send the IRS your tax info and have them figure your taxes for you (or you could ten years ago, I’m too lazy to look up if you can do that now.) I’ve had the IRS send me notices of refunds I was entitled to and didn’t claim, so they adjusted my return to give me a bigger check.

          This whole “e-file” thing is completely corrupt. It should be administered by state and federal governments. Subcontracting it to private companies is . . . well, thanks, Bush II.

    • I agree. But it isn’t just the right wing. This kind of thinking is so widespread that it is embarrassing. Reagan didn’t win the presidency despite his racist appeals; he won it because of them. And we’ve set up a system where welfare for the better off doesn’t look like welfare. How do people getting thousands of dollars a year from the mortgage interest deduction use that money? Are they buying drugs?! Hiring hit men?! We never ask these questions because we don’t even think of them as welfare programs.

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