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Cannibal Congress Prepares to Devour the Poor

Paul Shepard

29 апр. 2023 г.

The Republican majority in the US House of Representatives passed a debt-limit plan 217-215 on Wednesday, dubbed the "Limit, Save, Grow Act." The bill is nothing short of an organized assault of the privileged against the poor.


One of its provisions is to block President Biden's plans to establish forgiveness and income-driven repayment of federal student loans. This move will affect tens of millions of struggling Americans who will remain shackled to more than $1.6 trillion in federal student debt, with no hope of relief.


Even more galling is the bill's promise to impose new work requirements for Medicaid (which has never before involved such a requirement) and to expand work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The purported aim is to shave the federal budget by making benefits harder to obtain. This infamy can be excused, in the halls of Congress, as withholding government dollars from useless dependents who don't deserve a "handout."


I would counter that those in government wishing to save our money should start by addressing corporate welfare, handouts to Israel, Ukraine and elsewhere, tax breaks for the affluent and the spiraling US military budget instead of squeezing those already crippled by poverty and therefore vulnerable.


Long Lines & Paperwork


Countless low-income Americans are already kept from the relief to which they are entitled by a labyrinth of deliberately difficult, complicated, time-consuming and humiliating red tape, as any trip to an Unemployment or Health and Human Services (HHS) office will illustrate. The maddening struggle to obtain the benefits so begrudged by politicians itself feels very often like a full-time job.


One in five Americans eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) fail to avail themselves of it. The majority of US seniors eligible for SNAP decline to participate. Only one in four families that qualify for subsidized housing are able to obtain it. Author Matthew Desmond contends that "every year over $140 billion is left on the table by families not getting connected to programs that they need and deserve."


It's small wonder why those crushed by poverty have such a hard time helping themselves to the benefits they're owed: As they face the bureaucratic hurdles before them - the means testing and fraud testing, the bewildering and innumerable forms, the hours-long wait times on the phone and weeks-long wait times for every decision, the veritable minefield of potential clerical errors and runaround - they do so without a full command of their own intelligence. Science tells us that poverty imparts a significant cognitive handicap on people in its clutches.


A pair of 2013 studies led by Warwick Professor Anandi Mani, involving rich and poor New Jersey shoppers and Indian sugar cane farmers before and after their harvest, concluded that "the very context of poverty… impedes cognitive capacity" and that the cognitive burden of poverty amounts to a drop of 13 IQ points, roughly equal to the loss of a full night's sleep.


“Policy-makers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor just as they avoid monetary taxes on the poor. Filling out long forms, preparing for a lengthy interview, deciphering new rules, or responding to complex incentives all consume cognitive resources,” the studies' authors prescribe.


Literal Brain Damage


Chronic stressors such as financial hardship have been linked to genetic and hormonal changes that include higher cortisol and adrenaline levels and impaired DNA repair mechanisms, increasing the risk of chronic disease. Americans in the bottom one percent of income distribution die 10-15 years earlier than their peers in the top one percent, the same difference that exists between smokers and non-smokers.


Healthcare spending, both per capita and total share of GDP, continues to be much higher in the US than any other high-income country, but it has the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of avoidable deaths and the highest rate of people with multiple chronic conditions. Rather than stripping away the healthcare of impoverished people through Medicaid reform, Congress needs to stand up to for-profit insurance companies and the pharmaceutical lobby, lowering costs and raising standards for everyone.


Between US states with relatively generous benefits and more parsimonious US states, there exists a nearly 40 percent difference in brain size among children from low-income families, according to a 2022 Harvard study. The difference lies in the hippocampus, site of memory, learning and emotional processing. Those who would gut anti-poverty programs are promoting literal brain damage.


The current poverty line is considered to be $13,590 a year for an individual and $27,750 for a family of four. Between 10 and 15 percent of Americans fall below this line, as has been the case for decades.


Yale Professor Samuel Moyn notes that the sole exception was "the brief period of pandemic relief, which drove poverty down… for children, by more than 50 percent," but that emergency relief soon ended, and new entitlements for the poorest Americans were conspicuously absent from an "Inflation Reduction Act that privileged green capitalism."


Returning to the "old normal" of grinding poverty amid plenty was a shameful mistake. Programs aimed at ameliorating poverty have proven benefits, not just for low-income Americans, but for the country as a whole.


That reducing poverty would reduce crime barely needs to be said. And as if the crumbling towns and grieving families across America weren't evidence enough, numerous studies have linked socioeconomic disadvantage to higher rates of opioid addiction and overdose deaths.


It's no surprise that the poor (who are five times as likely as the rich to report being sad most or all of the time) fall prey to chemical escapism and deaths of despair at a disproportionate rate. Lifting them from poverty would strike at the heart of the country's drug problem.


There are also less obvious ripple effects: For instance, a 2008 report found that every dollar spent on SNAP resulted in $1.73 in economic activity.


It is not only a matter of adequately funding programs like Medicaid, SNAP and TANF. They need to be made to uplift more Americans and not fewer, and to lift them higher than policy makers have hitherto dared to imagine. Barriers to access must be removed instead of erected. How will ideas like Medicare for All or a universal basic income, or even bolder ones, ever hope for momentum when Congress insists on veering off in the completely wrong direction?

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