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When welfare goes wrong

Criminalization of the poor has infected social service agencies

October 13, 2015 2:00AM ET

In the public debates over American welfare programs, implementation tends to take a backseat to budget lines and good acronyms. When politicians want to do something — or be seen as doing something — to help children, the elderly or the poor, they propose a large chunk of money and a catchy name like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

If after rhetoric and compromise, Congress concedes to one of these bills, we stop paying attention, imagining that the money is headed where it was meant. But even the most helpful-sounding government plans can have disastrous effects if they’re not monitored.

In the latest issue of The Nation, Michelle Goldberg takes a look at child protective services (CPS) and how the children’s welfare apparatus is serving communities 40 years after the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). Though The Nation is a reliable left-liberal voice for expanding the welfare state, the picture she paints of the system is not flattering. The stories in her article highlight pervasive governmental overreach — kids removed from their families because of a father’s small bag of marijuana, a 3-year-old taken to foster care because his mother called the police on her abusive boyfriend. In many of these cases, the various state agencies could well be putting children at greater risk of harm, regardless of the intent behind CAPTA.

Goldberg readily admits that CPS are getting a close look now because their enforcement has become so tight that it has begun to affect upper-class white families. She cites the well-publicized case of the Meitivs, 10- and 6-year-old siblings who were allowed to walk to a neighborhood park by themselves until Maryland CPS heard about it and found their scientist parents responsible for unsubstantiated neglect. The case prompted international outcry, but poor and nonwhite families have been dealing with negative attention from child welfare agencies for decades.

“Prior to this, I don’t think most white people knew very much about the child-welfare system,” Goldberg quotes University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts. “Whereas in black neighborhoods, especially poor black neighborhoods, child-welfare-agency involvement is concentrated, so everybody is familiar with it.”

I can’t imagine that people get jobs in child welfare because they want to play musical chairs with poor kids. So how is it that their apparently good intentions don’t add up to compassion and care? In a paper for The Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law earlier this year, Alexandra Natapoff, an associate dean at Loyola Law School, points out a similar pattern across American welfare provision. “In schools, welfare offices and public hospitals, civil servants are also operating outside their traditional job descriptions,” she writes. “Teachers are calling the police and sending students to probation offices. Welfare case managers monitor their clients for fraud and refer them to prosecutors. Emergency rooms are providing opportunities to catch and arrest people with open warrants. In other words, these institutions of the welfare state are engaged in a wide array of criminal functions that make them look less like service providers and more like law enforcement officers.”

Another acronymed program won’t fix child welfare.

This trend should disturb anyone who believes that the welfare state should be a force for good in people’s lives. When Americans think about the criminalization of poverty, we usually think about the police, which is correct but incomplete. If poverty is made criminal, then government agencies that are meant to interact with poor people always present a risk. When these agents are bound to phone in even the slightest suspicion of criminal behavior by mandatory reporting statutes, policing threatens to overwhelm their ostensible functions. 

And unlike the mere suggestion of helping poor people, policing them has support from both Republicans and Democrats. It’s hard to find a piece of social legislation that doesn’t include a provision for fighting the drug war, whether NCLB or TANF. Requiring people to submit to a drug test in order to get welfare benefits criminalizes them just for trying to get money for food. It’s shameful to ask Americans who already have little to risk so much just to get help.

Goldberg’s reporting and Natapoff’s research raise a frightening question, Can we trust the U.S. government to focus its attention on the poor? I ask not in the fashion of right-wingers who worry about building dependence; it’s the government and employers who depend on the working class, not the other way around. Instead, I worry that when the state dedicates itself to the poor, it doesn’t seem to feel accountable to the people it is serving. Going to jail or prison does not improve a person’s welfare, and as criminalization displaces necessary services, it becomes clear that social service agencies don’t see themselves as working for the poor. Rather, they work with the poor on behalf of the rich.

Another acronymed program won’t fix the problem. So what’s the alternative? Some advocates for a basic income guarantee — the idea that the government should cut everyone a check each year to ensure money for necessities — have suggested welfare programs would be better for the poor if they included everyone, removing the stigma and discouraging the usual criminalization. It’s a smart idea, but as Goldberg depicts the expanded attentions of CPS, there’s a risk that the state’s tough-on-crime habits are too ingrained.

We need to combine universalized benefits with a reimagined model of welfare provision. A do-no-harm principle would free up individual agents to weigh a wider set of variables when interacting with the people they serve. A CPS truly devoted to children’s welfare would center on strengthening communities; every kid should have an adult they trust whose door they can knock on if they aren’t safe at home. Supporting that kind of infrastructure is hard, but it can’t be harder than incarcerating close to 1 percent of the population. To begin, we need to examine the ways in which the welfare system is betraying its current mission.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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