Paul Ryan's Fight Over Food Stamps Has Expired

How the relationship between work, civil rights and government action is changing.

The US House plans to take up the farm bill in a couple of weeks, and already a provision forcing food-stamp recipients to work more, in order to be eligible for government assistance, has sparked a lot of controversy. While I expect the coming fight to be partisan and drawn between ideological camps, we should bear in mind the changing relationship between work, civil rights and government action.

The battle over food stamps, or any kind of welfare, is by now familiar. Liberals typically want generous aid for the poor, the working poor or anyone who wants to work but can’t. Conservative typically want less generous aid, putting the burden of proof on those seeking assistance, not on the government’s obligation to help.

The provision up for debate in early May is the brain-child of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has long sought to shrink the “nanny state,” as conservatives call it. He won’t be around long enough to see Social Security and Medicare privatized (he’s retiring), but he might get this last wish: forcing hungry people to work more.

This is beyond cruel, but that’s not my focus for the moment. I want to point out something I think is novel. Work requirements for those in need sounded altogether relevant, reasonable and bipartisan over 25 years ago when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton ran on a platform that would “end welfare as we know it.” But, as automation continues apace, you have to admit work requirements sound rather quaint.

It’s not just technological change making work-for-aid feel dated. So are the philosophical arguments around the meaning of work. It’s one thing for a society to marginalize its minorities groups with cruel welfare laws. It’s another when vast majorities of people, whole classes who have historically been the greatest recipients of government action, are treated the same way as marginalized groups.

In other words, the GOP’s anti-statist agenda was tolerable as long as non-white voters were hurt more than white voters. But if that agenda stands still in the current of technological change, the GOP is creating conditions in which it must eat its own.

As the House Republicans seek old measures, new measures emerge. For instance, the debate over chronic homelessness. There was a time when free housing would have been sacrilege. But thanks to conservatives in states like Utah, free housing is becoming mainstream. The down and out, conservatives conceded, put too much strain on public coffers. Housing the homeless is cheaper than the status quo.

What this suggests is that conservatives, as well as their liberal bargaining partners, have decoupled the old hoary binaries. In the past, you had to prove you deserved help. The free housing movement demonstrates that deserve’s got nothing to do with it. Indeed, when you think about it, people have a right to government action. And when they get it, miracle of miracles, governments can end homelessness as we know it.

Apply this shift—from deserving to having a right to help—to the larger societal picture, in which scholars envision robots and artificial intelligence displacing “significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers.” According to a 2014 poll, half worried that “this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”

Given the magnitude of risk to the social order, it’s not surprising that people from across the political spectrum are giving serious thought to things like universal basic income, job guarantees, single-payer health care and other government programs that Republicans have historically opposed on the grounds that they cause dependency, weakened character, and otherwise enfeeble the American work ethic.

So far, the old understanding continues to prevail among Republican leaders. But the fact that increased work requirements sound not only cruel but past their expiration date suggests the seeds of change, if not sprouted, have definitely been sown.


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