When we survey low-income households in the United States, we find that many of them fall into for relatively brief periods of time. Jamelle Bouie of Slate observes that almost one-third of U.S. households were poor for two or more months from 2009 to 2011, and 44 percent of these episodes of poverty lasted for four months or less. Only 15.2 percent lasted for more than two years. All told, only 3.5 percent of U.S. households were poor for this entire three-year period.
In Bouie’s view, it is this 3.5 percent of households that require casework, which he describes as “mandatory life coaching.” First, let me say that I’m glad to hear that Bouie agrees that at least some number of low-income households could benefit from casework. There are many others who believe that an unconditional basic income on its own is solution enough, so I welcome this common ground.
And Bouie does raise an important point. Given the episodic nature of poverty for many Americans, is it reasonable to expect that families seeking public assistance ought to, as a general rule, work with a social services professional to devise life plans designed to lead to economic independence, which is to say to reduce their underlying demand for public assistance over the long haul? For Bouie, the fluid nature of poverty in America is a case against this approach. The fact that almost 44 percent of episodes of poverty are relatively brief suggests to him that most low-income households are quite capable of escaping poverty on their own, and that more generous unconditional assistance is what these families need, not life coaching.
My view is different. Though poverty for many Americans is episodic, it is not uncommon for households to experience more than one episode of poverty in a lifetime. Moreover, the households that do experience episodic poverty tend not to earn incomes substantially higher than the poverty level even when times are flush. These households are often one minor disaster or two — one car accident, a few missed rental payments, etc. — from falling back into poverty. While I’m sure it is true that there are many households for whom episodes of poverty really don’t speak to larger problems, and that wouldn’t at all benefit from an effort on the part of a caseworker to understand the root of these larger problems, the solution strikes me as fairly simple: the process of meeting with a caseworker would be pro forma, and the life plan would be quite simple. As I suggested in a recent column, it could entail a really simple intervention. One example that comes to mind is the Homebase program initiated by the Bloomberg administration in New York city.
According to Gelinas, Homebase aided 10,800 families families in the last year of the Bloomberg administration. She suggests that as many as 650 families might have wound in homeless shelters had it not been for Homebase. One assumes that many of the other families would have found themselves more economically vulnerable in the program’s absence. Homebase is a paradigmatic example of a program that requires some measure of casework, to determine eligibility at the most basic level but also to help families develop a plan — perhaps a very modest plan — to help guarantee that the problems that led them to fall behind on the rent in the first place don’t quickly re-emerge. In effect, Homebase could serve as a substitute for Section 8 housing vouchers for the subset of families that generally earn enough income to afford their rent, yet which experienced a temporary setback. Caseworkers might determine eligibility not just by taking into account family income, but also whether the family in question is likely to keep earning enough to stay in the home. If not, a dedicated caseworker might help the family find a more affordable home or, more ambitiously, craft a plan to boost its earned income over time.
Again, there is no need to assume that a family that finds itself in need of something like the Homebase program is crippled or incapable of making its own decisions. If anything, these are families that have demonstrated a great deal of resourcefulness, as living on a modest income requires a great deal of effort and discipline. Yet these exertions tend to make it difficult to engage in long-term planning. Caseworkers can help such families identify other resources, public and private, that can help families earn their way out of poverty in a more lasting way.
Some will object that forcing the large number of families that experience situational as opposed to generational poverty represents an indignity. This is a powerful charge, well-captured by the phrase “pity-charity liberalism.” When we rely on conditional assistance, so the argument goes, we are in effect demanding that those who seek help come to social services bureaucrats as supplicants, as though they are not entitled to assistance.
Concerns about pity-charity liberalism rest on a commitment to individual freedom, albeit a different kind of individual freedom than the one associated with thinkers on the libertarian right. The basic idea, as I understand it, is that the redistributive state ought to serve as the ally of the individual against other social forces: the depredations of private employers, the expectations of extended family members or religious organizations that might seek to impose rigorous conditions on those who expect help. Employers and extended family and community members might seek to enforce adherence to certain norms, including norms of reciprocity, that at least some individuals find oppressive, and critics of pity-charity liberalism believe that it would be a miserable fate indeed to be subject to such petty tyrannies. This is a view that deserves to be taken seriously, and it reflects a not always unjustified suspicion of how those closest to us can abuse their leverage over us, particularly when we are most vulnerable. The life coach, to use Bouie’s term, is seen as just another petty tyrant, who will impose her views on your life, serving as a stand-in for some other oppressor.
There is, however, another way of looking at the caseworker, and the role she or he might play in the lives of those seeking public assistance. To seek public assistance, in this view, is to have exhausted all other options. The very fact that one is seeking public assistance gives us useful information. What kind of information? One shouldn’t generalize — indeed, the fact that one shouldn’t generalize is precisely why I believe that casework is important. But we can think of a few examples: the decision to seek public assistance most likely means that you don’t have other people from whom you can seek assistance. This could mean that while you have family members with whom you are close, or close and reliable friends, these people are themselves hovering on the edge of poverty, and so they don’t have resources to spare. Or it’s possible that you are socially isolated, and so you don’t have people you can ask for help. Or you could have family members and friends with means, yet your relationship with them is toxic. Or perhaps you find the idea of seeking help from those you love more uncomfortable than that of seeking help from the state. (In Singapore, interestingly, means-tested public assistance programs determine eligibility not just by considering your income, but by considering that of, e.g., your parents as well. This has proven a powerful deterrent to seeking public assistance. The fact that such an approach is all but unimaginable in the United States is telling.) All of this information is useful because it speaks to one’s resilience in the face of crisis.
For example, if you’re socially isolated, you’re by definition disconnected from social networks that can serve as sources of employment opportunities, or as vehicles for the implicit learning that allows people to increase their store of human, social, and cultural capital over time. Connecting or reconnecting such individuals to supportive communities could be crucial to helping them flourish. If you’re instead part of a rich and vibrant community that is nevertheless poor in economic resources, your decision to seek public assistance could actually benefit your wider community — valuable knowledge will be transmitted through the network.
Most families, nonpoor or poor, are embedded in communities. The difference, in my limited experience, is that members of nonpoor communities tend to use their fellow community members as resources in their efforts to achieve upward mobility while members of poor communities are often reluctant to use their fellow community members in the same instrumental way. Culturally isolated and otherwise marginalized communities that don’t have access to public assistance often have little choice but to rely on various forms of mutual self-help, like those that existed among African Americans in the Jim Crow South and in segregated urban centers and that those that have formed among various immigrant communities. Mutual self-help still exists, yet its institutional manifestations seem to have decayed as U.S. culture has grown more individualistic and as the state has grown more inclusive. Civil society cannot, in my view, replace a robust safety net. There are some things, however, that mutual self-help networks can do better than the state, e.g., impart implicit learning or facilitate the transmission of beneficial social practices that must first be validated by in-group members, etc. And so the fact that mutual self-help networks, including invisible mutual self-help networks, are stronger among the nonpoor than the poor is a serious problem, albeit one that is hard to capture through anything other than ethnography.
What does any of this have to do with casework? Essentially, I see casework as a substitute, albeit a decidedly inadequate one, for mutual self-help networks. In an ideal world, casework might even contribute to their revival. For now, at least, casework strikes me as the best tool we have to see to it that the right help goes to the right people at the right time.