Does the Middle Class Want Government Benefits?

The middle class adores its government benefits as long as the programs reward work. ACA does.

Andy wonders whether the American middle class will accept government benefits.  I think that they will, and already do.

And this because, as Andy rightfully suggests, the issue has been framed deftly.  People think of Social Security and Medicare as insurance, not as a government benefit.  They think that they have paid for it.

Now, it’s trickier with ACA, because not everyone benefits from it.  Social Security and Medicare are universal, whereas ACA by itself is not.

So perhaps the programs that can best be compared to ACA are Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  the latter two only go to working people, and Food Stamps mostly goes to working people.  They have been stable and generally politiically robust.  in the case of Stamps, the agriculture industry has played an important role in its vitality, a role that with ACA in the future will probably be played by private insurers getting customers off the exchange.

There is one more big advantage for ACA: it is much harder to stigmatize it as a handout.  Liberals never understood that the public hated and still hates “welfare” because it is unconditional cash assistance.  It is far from unreasonable to think that unconditional cash assistance destroys the work ethic.

Health insurance is different.  Perhaps I am overly optimistic on this, but I would guess that the public understands that getting health coverage doesn’t destroy someone’s work ethic or desire to better onesself.  FDR famously called poor relief a “narcotic”; I can’t see anyone outside the Tea Partiers believing the same thing. 

The woman in the story that Andy references might think so, but let us remember: the Tea Partiers aren’t America.  They just claim to be.  And this woman is really an outlier: she says that Social Security doesn’t work well.  Let the GOP run on that.  Go ahead; make my day.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

12 thoughts on “Does the Middle Class Want Government Benefits?”

  1. Actually, plenty of people don't understand that "collecting unemployment" is collecting unemployment insurance that their employers have been paying into all along.

  2. "but let us remember: the Tea Partiers aren’t America. They just claim to be."

    Just so long as you remember the same is true of YOU.

  3. Isn't everyone eligible for some part of the law? In the direst instance: once they fall into the category of "on your own because you no longer have access to a group plan."

    That could sound like welfare, but in this case, it could just be that your employer opts out, maybe even "for your own good." I put "for your own good" in quotes because that's often just a ploy.

  4. Andy wonders whether the American middle class will accept government benefits.

    How many middle-class folks refuse to take the mortgage deduction?

  5. It may not be unreasonable to think welfare destroys the work ethic, but that doesn't mean it's correct.

    I know this will sound too liberal for many people but I think what looks like laziness is often depression instead. In fact, most people who've never been depressed probably don't think it actually exists. They believe it is just two different words for the same thing, until it happens to someone they know, perhaps. (Or they might just condemn the people they know too.)

    I am not saying that depression is an excuse for anything, just that I think the word "lazy" is a word conservatives throw at anyone who behaves in a way they don't understand, or don't want to understand, or would like to think is someone with whom they have nothing in common.

    What do you think really lies behind all those Tea Party whackjobs? (Not that all of them are like that, I'm just talking about the screamers here.) They are unhappy and depressed people, you can see it from their behavior. Normal people don't yell at people with Parkinson's. I think secret depression in fact explains a great deal of conservatives' anger — that's how they express their despair and frustration. We should speak to it more instead of demonizing them (though, at the same time, I also think we should not waste time looking for bipartisan solutions. Never gonna happen! But, we can still try to communicate with them.)

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    March 30, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    “but let us remember: the Tea Partiers aren’t America. They just claim to be.”

    Just so long as you remember the same is true of YOU.


    Only if Jonathan claims to speak for all of America.

    You have a citation for that claim, Brett?

  7. Anyone remember Al Capp back in the late 60s and early 70s? He went around attacking the student movement, with his sights on SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in particular. SDS was full of Maoists at the time so he may have had a point. Anyway, he invented an organization called SWINE (Students Wildly Ignorant about Nearly Everything). I had not thought about him in decades until recently, when the teabaggers became a big political force.

  8. Since when is welfare unconditional? Last I checked, it was conditional on being poor, being single, and having children.

  9. "It may not be unreasonable to think welfare destroys the work ethic, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct."

    Doesn't mean it's wrong, either. I suspect it's rather like the situation with opiate painkillers: They tend not to addict people who are genuinely in a lot of pain. If you keep taking them after the pain is gone, THEN you get addicted.

    Similarly, welfare as a solution for acute financial difficulties probably does not cause dependence. Provided you end the welfare as soon as possible, and being on it carries a stigma. Eliminate the stigma, and make it a long term thing, and dependence probably will result.

    I tend, though, to think that the real problem is in the next generation: Welfare might not destroy your work ethic if you've already got one, but growing up in a family on welfare might pretty effectively prevent the next generation from ever developing one, especially in areas where it's common enough to seem normal, and prospects for gainful employment are few. That's why I've suggested that financial assistance for people in areas of particularly high unemployment should, ideally, be conditioned on moving to someplace with a lower unemployment rate. What's the point in helping somebody stay where they'll never find a job?

  10. Once everyone has access to health care, I predict we will see a drop in welfare enrollees. The dependent families I've known were faced with loss of health care for their children, decrease in food money with loss of food stamps, and inability to afford rent, utilities, and transportation once they left the program. That is not a hard choice to make if you have the option of remaining in the program.

    In 1996 the federal gov't and states moved to the ideology of "Workfare". This seems to have promoted evolution in the program, and was supplemented by increases in state/fed health care assistance for indigent children, increased funding for food stamps, assistance in work training, and utility subsidies.

    In 2006 I would have posited that single mothers and their children still dominate the rolls. Since 2007 and record job losses, I wouldn't be surprised to find that two parent families on welfare have increased.

    What saddens me is that we so easily criticize the poorest among us while blithely ignoring the record-setting "welfare" given to those rat bastards on Wall St.

    "In 1996, Congress enacted a major welfare reform initiative, creating the current federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and establishing a federal lifetime limit of 60 months for receiving cash assistance. The purpose of federal welfare reform was to help families get off of welfare and into work.",

    A quick search seems to provide information from individual states where the average length of time still is less than 24 months.

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