Matt 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.