programs for poor people are poor programs

Georgetown Law professor David A. Super argues that the technical problems with the Obamacare website are unusual mainly in their mildness and the degree to which they have been rapidly addressed. Obamacare was heavily scrutinized because of the political stakes for the president–and because many middle-class American voters were trying to use the website. The White House jumped to address the initial failure. But when only poor people are involved, services can be far worse and nothing is done to address errors. Among the “epic” meltdowns that Super lists, Georgia recently neglected to send renewal notices to 66,000 food stamp recipients and then terminated their benefits for failure to respond to the unsent messages.

He cites failures in electronic services, but the adage that “programs for poor people are poor programs” also applies to face-to-face services like policing, health services, and (too often) k-12 education.

The ideological valence of this point is complicated. Progressives (like me) believe that poor state services for poor people should receive more attention; this is a core explanation of social inequities. But in making this point, we are indicting governmental agencies, the very tools we want to use to address inequality and suffering. At a minimum, the argument for more state action requires an extra step: some plausible strategy for improving the quality and responsiveness of state services.

One piece of that strategy may be adequate investment: decent services always cost money. But we know that some urban school systems have high per-student spending and still deliver unsatisfactory education. So cash per recipient hardly guarantees success.

Another piece of the strategy may be political empowerment. The White House jumped to fix Obamacare because voters were mobilized. But voter turnout among poor people is low. That is one reason that leaders don’t care about welfare services. But again, political empowerment is no panacea. Some cities have demographically representative electorates and leaders and still deliver poor results.

The people who most emphasize poor quality in governmental services are reformers who want to disrupt unionized bureaucracies by introducing competition or radical decentralization. I am not talking only about glib politicians, but also about hard-working founders of charter schools and social enterprises. They are usually labeled “conservatives,” but the label can be confusing. Witness the way that charter schools appeal to both left and right, or the scrambled ideological debate about education reform. Some people hold inconsistent views about unionized public services, defending prison and police forces while demonizing teachers and social workers–or vice-versa.

In my book We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, and in other work, I argue for culture-change within institutions and communities: the Gramscian “long march,” if you like that kind of terminology. The very concept of “service” needs to change, because citizens who interact with government are more than service-recipients. Market mechanisms may have a place, but markets have special limitations for the delivery of welfare and education. (See also this post on housing vouchers.) Top-down reforms may sometimes do some good, but technocrats always set objectives incompatible with the legitimate values of diverse poor people, and top-down reforms always run out of steam. Serious improvement does require political empowerment, but that does not mean more voting alone. Better skills, better processes, more collaboration, more discussion, and better relationships are essential. Of course, the question is how we can get that–and I do have some suggestions in my book.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.