Does poverty help the planet? The fewer people who can afford to drive cars, crank up the air-conditioning or fly commercial, the less is added to the inventory of greenhouse gases, right? All the do-right, go-green advertising in the world doesn’t mean a thing to people living on a hundred dollars per week. Or does it? Calling such an existence living would be a stretch in any culture, but, while we have been developing routes to driving farther and burning lights longer, our state has been busy devising policies to make being poor as vicious as possible. On the energy and transportation fronts, we should probably read the handwriting on the wall and get ready for more of the same.
Like corporate green advertising, our policies against the poor get lost in a shuffle of righteous sounding reforms, intended to move people from “welfare to work” in order to usher in a new era of “personal responsibility.” The two strategies have much in common as we whitewash our consciences with high morals and the appearance of genuine, public-spirited problem solving. But there’s a dark side to this shell game every bit as dastardly as Exxon-Mobile working to build your energy future: Where do the poor go once they leave a statistical column?
In the land of perverse incentives, Georgia happens to be the shining city on a hill. A nice, depending on your orientation, compendium of our state of affairs appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Mother Jones magazine. The experience of several young mothers on welfare is profiled for all and sundry and it’s not a pretty sight. What we do to ourselves in regard to getting people off of welfare rolls is nothing less than a full abrogation of human, economic and civil rights. We lie, mislead and otherwise confuse those among us who need help the most. The connections to other, similar atrocities to which we subject ourselves and our environment bear no further case to be made; if we can do this to the so-called least of our brethren here, there are no limits to what we might do to people, earth and sky we nominally care about and depend upon.
The short of the article, and I suggest you read the whole thing at the link, is the imposed stinginess of programs to help mothers and children, particularly the block-grant funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF rolls have declined 90 per cent in Georgia in recent years; evidently thousands of new jobs in the state have led all those needy families to flee government support. Our fair state receives nearly $370 million per year as its share of that federal block grant, meaning it can be used for that or “any program vaguely related to serving the needy.” Purging the welfare rolls was one of the big compromises championed by all sides in the 1996 welfare reforms.
Don’t presume this is just belt-tightening in the direction of some faceless “them.” Politicians regularly site apposite concerns when begging out of any but the most concrete commitments; and yet we still harbor grand illusions that the legislature might allocate significant funding for mass transit (the brain train – Lindbergh Station to Weaver D’s in 55 minutes!). If you don’t think these issues are related, look at the priorities with which our leaders seem perennially preoccupied: balanced budgets, unfettered markets, minimum regulations, aid to the wealthy. These precepts to continued economic growth are the same ones that keep a regional energy policy out of reach, that reward lavish energy consumption and which drop aid to the needy safely out of view.
But just because the poor drop off of welfare rolls doesn’t mean they disappear, and neither does the need for clean energy and efficient transportation. Just like greenhouse gases melt the polar icecaps, poor children grow up and become poor adults, scrounging for whatever they can. And the result is as easy to see as a seaside condominium patio under a foot of water. The state had the fifth-highest inmate population in the United States in 2007 and a Department of Corrections budget of $950 million – though we do retain the right to claim this as GDP.
The social safety net would be a good metaphor for our commitment to long-term environmental stewardship, if there only was one.
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