In Kansas and Missouri, Envying and Excluding the Poor

Recently legislators in Missouri have pushed to ban the use of food stamps on steak, seafood, cookies, and some other things. At the same time, legislators in Kansas have moved to greatly restrict how recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needly Families can spend their money, including a $25/day withdrawal limit, which effectively cuts the benefits of TANF recipients by paying more of their benefits to banks via ATM transaction costs.

By now, most everything that can be written about these moves has been written. To that corpus of writing, I'll add the following two points.

Envying​ the Poor

In March of last year, AEI's Arthur Brooks had a piece titled the "The Downside of Inciting Envy" in the New York Times. The piece starts like this:

The Irish singer Bono once described a difference between America and his native land. “In the United States,” he explained, “you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”

It goes on to explain how bad it is to get mad because of what other people have just because you don't have it. For Brooks, the goal is mainly to defend the rich and plead with Americans not to reform our economic system so as to reduce what they get.

I was reminded of Brooks' piece when I saw the Missouri legislator behind the proposed changes explain what motivated his desire to make such reforms:

"I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards," [Rick Brattin] said. "When I can't afford it on my pay, I don't want people on the taxpayer's dime to afford those kinds of foods either."

Brattin's sentiment is totally indistinguishable from Bono's quote, which Brooks believes to be an example of deleterious envy. Yet the anti-envy crowd is nowhere to be found on this one.
 
It's no mystery why the anti-envy crowd is silent here. They are not interested in combatting envy per se; rather, they are interested in trotting it out where convenient to defend the enormous shares of national income that our current system funnels to the rich, income shares that they believe are totally legitimate.
 
If you were to ask someone like Brooks what the difference is between these two kinds of envy, he would likely you tell you that it's OK to be mad at what the poor get from transfer income because that's not really deep down theirs. On the other hand, being mad at what the rich get is bad because their income shares really are deep down theirs (in fact, they aren't getting nearly as much income as they should be!).
 
The upshot of this analysis is that it's OK to be mad at what people get if they aren't really entitled to it. The poor aren't really entitled to their transfer incomes, while the rich really are entitled to their market income. But, as you can probably see, this means the anti-envy argument just begs the question on entitlement. People who think the rich are getting too much think that they aren't entitled to it, that they are getting income above and beyond what really deep down belongs to them. Thus, the whole anti-envy debate ends up not being about envy at all, but instead about divergent views of entitlement that are circularly packed into the anti-envy arguments. This is not surprising because nearly all distributive arguments that aren't explicitly about just entitlement have actually buried into their unstated premises some question-beg on just entitlement.
 
Social Exclusion
 
One of the understated problems with enormous inequality and poverty in particular is that it leads to social exclusion. The 1969 presidential commission report "Poverty Amid Plenty" skillfully explains:
 

To go to school costs money — books, notebooks, pencils, gym shoes, and ice cream with the other kids. Without these the child begins to be an outcast.

To go to church costs money — some Sunday clothes, carfare to get there, a little offering. Without these one cannot go.

To belong to the Boy Scouts costs money — uniforms, occasional dues, shared costs of a picnic. Without these, no Scouts.

To have friends into the house costs money — for a bit of food, a drink.

To visit relatives costs money — for travel, a gift for the kids. These people cannot afford to visit their relatives.

For a teenager to join his friends on the corner he must have some money — for a coke, a show.

How does a fellow take a girl out on a date without some money? And how does a girl pretty herself for a fellow without some money?

How do you join a club? Buy a book, a magazine, a newspaper?

Poverty settles like an impenetrable cell over the lives of the very poor, shutting them off from every social contact, killing the spirit, casting them out from the community of human life.

The proscriptions coming out of Missouri and Kansas on what the poor can do with their transfer incomes are clearly calibrated to amp up this kind of social exclusion.

Want to take a date to the movies, a social ritual nearly everyone engages in, but have low market income? No movie for you. Want to make a nice dinner for family, guests, or a date? Sorry, can't do that. Want to hang out at the public swimming pool, have your kids go play in the water with the other kids? To bad for you. Need to buy cookies for your kids' class party or for a birthday party? Nope, not allowed.

These sorts of restrictions (and inequality more generally) end up creating two different societies operating in parallel with one another. In one, people with high market incomes are able to live out a full existence, with no restrictions on their ability to participate in social life, enjoy leisure, and fund the sort of discretionary purchases that are fundamental to relationships. In the other, people with low market incomes are made to live like badly-fed animals, unable to fully participate in social life.

Personally, I don't think people with low market incomes should be shut off from "every social contact," or cut "out from the community of human life." And I think anyone who so fetishizes market income to that extent has something seriously wrong with them. Yet, this is exactly what Missouri and Kansas legislators are doing.

 

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