Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Red Queen's race

Go, read Anglachel on the Red Queen on Ezra Klein.* Once you’ve recovered from outrage over the sheer arrogance of Klein, Coates, and Fallows claiming to “understand” why poor people eat so “badly”, come back here and explain to me why we as a nation have decided the family described by the Red Queen shouldn’t get food stamps. Unless you’re willing to argue that no one should get food stamps, I can’t imagine what explanation there could be.

Poor people - and especially poor children - shouldn’t go hungry. And it’s just plain stupid to not do everything in our power as a society to support the working poor who are doing their best to earn their own way and raise a family along with it. If they need a little help putting food on the table - and personally I don’t care if it’s kale and peppers or fried chicken in cream gravy as long as it shows up regularly - then we should give it to them. If we can give families like this even a little cushion against financial disaster we greatly increase their chances - and their children’s chances - of getting to a point where they really don’t need our help.


* For a combination head shake and chuckle read Anglachel’s follow-up on the inability of some of her readers to solve mathematical word problems.


Beard said...


I like this post a lot. In another context, I used family finances as a metaphor for national budgeting, and said, "We set aside a certain amount of our income to give to charity, because that's the sort of people we want to be."

What is the justification for charitable giving? You can make convoluted arguments about giving to help others because, in the long run, maybe when we're in need, they will help us. And there's some truth to that. But really, it just comes down to wanting to be the sort of people who, when they have some left over after covering their basic needs, give some to others who have less.

On a national level, we have long since decided that we don't want to be the sort of people who, when workers get old and can't work any longer, just let them fall into destitution.

What sort of people looks at people who are trying and failing to feed their families, and just walks away? Not a sort of person I want to be. And I think most Americans feel that way.

Grim said...

The family described will receive $4,130 from the Earned Income Tax Credit, which comes out to about $344 a month. That's not being calculated here, but this is precisely the kind of family that the EITC was supposed to help.

Now, $344 isn't a lot of money -- but if carefully managed, it should allow them to avoid the starvation rations being described in the post (e.g., instead of $60 for the first two weeks, you ought to have $230 for those two weeks -- the second period, then, would have not $260 of disposable income but $430).

That provides for their needs without food stamps, or other charity (of which nongovernmental charity America provides a very great deal).

If more is needed, a tax credit for pooer working families seems better to me than outright charity. The EITC is still "sort-of" welfare, because you're taking money from one family (who earned it) and giving it to another family (that hasn't). But it is earned, because you have to have a job as well as qualifying children. This hypothetical family is exactly the kind of family this Federal program targets.

Grim said...

By the way, I think they actually might be eligible for food stamps. A family of four should be able to be eligible if they have less than $2,389 in monthly gross income; $22,000 is rather less than that. That would mean they could be given as much as $668 a month for food (though it may be less -- the formula is on the page, but I'm not going to work through it), in addition to the $344 they would get from the EITC.

So, really, the hypothetical family ought to have money to feed their children. There is kind of a perverse incentive in the food stamps program, in that your food stamps get cut off if you have $2,000 in the bank. That can make it hard for a family in this position to build capital. Presumably if you've managed to scrimp out two grand at this level, the government figures you can make it on your own -- but that may just mean you get pushed back under the line when you have to spend up your savings.

Grim said...

However, it's worth noting that the Obamacare proposals will brutalize this family by phasing out the EITC... and the rest of us, by raising marginal tax rates to 70-80%.

Elise said...

I hope you're right about this family getting the EITC and possibly even food stamps - I simply took Anglachel and Red Queen's word for the numbers. (Always dangerous, I know.)

I think the larger point about somewhat perverse incentives and about Obama's policies brutalizing a family like this definitely hold. I took a quick look at the Capretta article and his numbers are scary. I like the idea of reducing the EITC credit by about 20 cents for each dollar but it should be each take-home dollar not each pre-tax dollar.

As for the requirements in the Baucus bill, I just don't know what to say about those. It seems to me that we have totally lost sight of what *I* thought health care reform should be about: making sure everyone has access to decent health care. If Capretta is right, the Baucus bill looks like more of a burden for the working poor than a benefit. Idiots!