Law in Contemporary Society

Thoughts on the Ezra Klein Podcast with Matthew Desmond

-- NicoleMorote - 24 Apr 2023

I was listening to podcasts while running errands the other day, and this one came across my feed. It's a New York Times series run by Ezra Klein (former Vox series) that are longform conversations with guests across varying areas of expertise. This one was about poverty, both as discussed in Poverty, by America and in connection with recent events.

I really enjoyed the podcast, and one thing that particularly struck me more here than it did before was Desmond's theory that the "time tax" - the notion that someone who is poor will have to spend additional time securing the resources that they need to live - is a feature, not a bug, of the American welfare system.

The notion of a time tax transcends welfare; many of us, I imagine, experience it on a smaller scale when we decide to live in more affordable housing in exchange for (among other things) having to haul laundry down the street to the Laundromat once everyone or two weeks, or when we choose to take the subway over an Uber, even when the destination isn't conveniently accessible with public transportation. An element of this may be unavoidable in a system like ours: where time is valuable and convenience can be purchased, we are almost required to have a concept of the monetary value of our time, and those with more resources simply have more money to spend in order to get an hour of their time back - ergo, their time, to them, is worth more.

But something about understanding it as baked into the system - kept (to use criminal law parlance) knowingly, if not purposefully - struck me as particularly sinister. Desmond discusses research showing that most elderly people who would be approved for food stamps simply never apply, that some of the poorest Americans don't know to secure a tax credit that would offer them relief. At least some of this would be easy to fix - our tax collection and navigation system can be extraordinarily frustrating for a layperson, and we could move towards a system like that of Japan or the Netherlands, where the government simply tells you how much it thinks you owe and are owed. Stigmas and knowledge gaps about resources like food stamps are more difficult to resolve - but one partial solution I see would be to treat food stamps registration like we treat voter registration, where you're asked at the DMV and by dozens of organizations tabling in the street about registering you on the spot. Surely, more could be done than what is - especially if the current American welfare system, as a matter of policy, deliberately chooses to do litle.

The most reasonable counterargument I see is that welfare resources are limited, that governments worry about overinclusion, and that if everyone who was qualified applied, the system's funds would run out. But that, too, feels farcical. I won't get into what we could be allocating funds from, but suffice it to say that there are enough resources for the world's wealthiest nation to ensure that its people can live. Even if we assume it to be impossible to allocate more funds towards welfare spending, even to award 70% to everyone's demonstrated need seems like an improvement to me over letting a poor family's lack of knowledge of an arcane tax provision, or their willingness to sign up for food stamps when they may not even know they qualify, be the dispositive factor in whether a family can survive.

Hi Nicole! This was very interesting, and I agree on many levels. I find it deeply saddening that the lack of knowledge about a program often keeps eligible recipients from receiving the benefits. To me, offering aid but not actually making it known, as doing so would end up commanding more resources from other areas of spending, feels like acting in bad faith. I believe that if the true purpose of such a system is to help everyone who qualifies, then everyone who qualifies should be provided with notice of its existence. Also, I feel more should be done to destigmatize using these systems, as there is, unfortunately, a negative association with many of them. For example, when the food stamps/SNAP program switched from a physical booklet to an EBT card indistinguishable from a credit/debit card at a glance, more people used the program. I feel that this same principle of destigmatization should be applied to other welfare programs as well. Thanks for sharing!

- Michael


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r2 - 19 May 2023 - 16:27:33 - MichaelPari
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