Sunday, May 29, 2011

Brief Reflection on Safety Nets (part III)

In our previous posts we explored the nature of safety nets. While I recognize the necessity of government  run welfare programs, the manner in which they are administered are problematic. I do not believe that these problems can be legislated away, because they are products of the culture and values that underlie and guide the decisions made by individual administrators and larger organizations. For example, I showed an apartment to an gentleman with a section-8 voucher. As with all apartment seekers I asked him "where are you moving from?" To which he responded, "I am moving from my mother's's really nice and spacious...she loves having me there...but I want my own space." In another incident, a well off associate of mine asked me to help his mother find section-8 housing, even though he, as well as his siblings were able to accomodate her in their own homes.

While I sympathize with the desire of both individuals to live independently of their family, I do not believe that it should be subsidized by tax payers. Scarce housing subsidies should only go towards individuals and families who truly do not have any other options. If the section-8 administrator had taken a few minutes to investigate the circumstances of both individuals, they would have discovered that they did not fall under this category. So, the question is, why doesn't the Chicago Housing Authority, as a matter of policy, ask each voucher seekers: "Do you have any family members or friends that you can reside with?" If not, "have you sought assistance from any private charities?" And if the individual absolutely requires assistance, what is the most cost effective housing option they can find? If these administrators considered themselves guardians of limited public resources these questions would be a given. If they believed that dependency on government services is a temporary aberration,  these need for such questions would be a given.

Regarding the former, zero incentives exist to control expenditures, rather department heads seek to maximize their share of public resources and like minded politicians seek to maximize the amount of resources usurped from the private sector. In fact, if a department head were to achieve their mission with less resources, they would see their budget cut and staff cut. This is a prospect that would be painful for them, but one that they would pursue if they were truly "public servants" concerned with the fiscal health of local communities and the nation as a whole. Cuts are always forced from above and are almost always first felt by the recipients, rather than the administrators of government services.

Regarding the questions of why administrators rarely if ever demonstrate concern about large scale dependency on government services, the answers are two hold: institutional culture & incentives. In the texts and lectures of social work courses that I reviewed, not once did I encounter sentiments that held dependency on governments as a social pathology to be avoided. Early progressive efforts to encourage hard work, thrift, assimilation and independence among the poor were held to be "regressive" and an example of "blaming the victim." This vision compliments the incentive structure that administrators enjoy; if they were able to lessen or eliminate dependency, they would diminish the ranks of their clientele, which would lead to a reduction in the resources and influence that they command.

As fiscal realities start closing in, government welfare institutions will be faced with shrinking resources. Their choices will be to maintain their current modus operandus, which means that safety nets will be undermined. Or, they can undertake cultural and institutional reformation that will allow them to wisely allocate resources to the our neediest citizens, while not placing an undue fiscal burden on the productive economy. Under such a system, the gentleman may have to "suffer the indignity" of living with his mother for a few extra years: a small sacrifices to maintain a viable safety net.

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