suggestions needed about economic data

I need some suggestions for resources that give hard data on government programs designed to help people in need. I’m teaching composition this semester with a focus on community service. Students have two options:

  1. Choose a local community service organization with whom to volunteer your time, following up your service with a reflective, autobiographical essay that incorporates relevant research and makes a proposal to fellow students about such service.
  2. Conduct extensive research about a local community service organization and write a paper that proposes how future sections of English 101 and/or English 102 should involve themselves with that organization.

The course is going pretty well, though not as well as I’d like. This is the first time I’ve taught this way, and I’m a little rough in places. We’re at the halfway mark, and (most) students have started looking into a local organization and conducting preliminary research.

The course text is Thomas Deans’ Writing and Community Action: A Service-Learning Rhetoric with Readings, and although I share Jeff’s reservations about textbooks in writing courses, this one serves my needs fairly well.

One thing I like about the book is that it includes essays designed to complicate our notions of community service, and I’m trying to encourage students to think through the objections that typically arise when one suggests helping people in need. In essence, I want students to be able to place their actions and their research in a larger conversation about things like poverty, race, self-reliance, American identity, and community. I will consider the course a failure if I get essays that are some variation of

I went and tutored local children. I felt good about myself. They felt good about themselves. I thought about how lucky I am to have grown up with a mom and a dad, with a nice house.

There are touchy political issues involved here, obviously. The impoverished ideological positions that characterize American public discourse encourage a binary debate about whether or not people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That’s not a very sophisticated way to address these issues, but it’s often how students will start talking about these things.

Here’s an example. One student recently said, “The problem is that in liberal America, we have so many welfare programs that they take away people’s incentive to work.” [That’s a pretty close to exact quote, but bear in mind that it may have been slightly different. I definitely remember “in liberal America,” which stuck in my head.] My response was to ask him some questions (voiced, I’ll admit, in a tone of skepticism) to try to get him and the rest of the class thinking about how to think about this kind of statement. The following dialogue is a very rough approximation:

Me: Really? Like what?

Student: Well, they get a place to live for free. And they get all their meals for free.

Me: They get meals for free? From who?

Student: Taxpayers.

Me: Are you sure about that?

Student: Yeah. Not so much here, but up north.

The student seemed to think that welfare provides a pretty sweet deal. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that program? “Have you ever been to a public housing project?” I asked. He shook his head no. “They’re not exactly nice places to live,” I said.

Not such a great exchange, if my goal is to push students to think. I worry that this just came off as “liberal professor won’t let conservative student voice his opinion.” I fear that after this little dialogue, my student is now less, not more, inclined to think about whether or not what he’s saying is true, or how he came to believe it. But there are a couple of ways in which I’d want students to parse the statement: “Poor people get so much for free from the government that it takes away their incentive to work.”

First, there’s an issue of fact: what exactly are the programs provided by the government to poor people? Which government are we talking about? Federal, state, county, city? So I asked for a show of hands, “How many of you know how welfare works?” No one raised their hand. “How many of you know how much of the federal budget is devoted to welfare?” No one raised their hand. Frankly, I don’t know the answers to these questions myself, but I know that if you’re going to make an assertion of fact, you need to be able to provide evidence to support it. I’m pretty sure that in 1996, the laws were changed such that people are limited to a certain number of years of benefits in their entire life. But it’s not enough to say that in class, “Well, I seem to remember that…” I also asked students, “How does unemployment insurance work?” and “How does social security work?” and they provided answers that were about in line with my understanding, except most of them thought that social security was just something you got at 65, when you retired. Medicaid also came up.

In addition to fact, however, is the assertion of cause/effect. X causes Y to happen. If we help people too much, they won’t learn to help themselves. This argument would also be more persuasive if it were supported by evidence. How do we know this to be true? What examples are available to us? Do we really have a problem with people not wanting to work? [Questions of fact sneaking back in.] How do we measure something like work ethic? What do government programs in other industrialized nations look like?

One of my students contributed this to the discussion: “I remember reading in the paper about a woman who said she was homeless, but actually became rich by asking people for money on the street.” In response to which, a handful of students said, “Yeah! I’ve heard that, too!” When I asked, “What purpose do stories like that serve in our culture?” I was answered with “But it’s true! It was in the paper!”

Again, I feel like I’m trying to do one thing and students are trying to do another. I worry that they are framing what’s happening in terms of me trying to undermine their belief system from a bully pulpit, liberal point of view. That is not my intention.

Ideally, I want students to know that they have a responsibility to be grounded in some kind of agreed-upon reality, not in the morass of strong opinion (in which participants make vague references to hard facts) that is the only model made available to them in the American public sphere as represented by a million political blogs and thousand talk radio shows and a handful of television news networks.

[Digression: It’s clear that religious identity is important to most of my students: they usually, but not always, describe themselves as conservative Christians, though the things they say in class complicate that. In a nonconfrontational way I’d like to be able to highlight the gap between Christian beliefs–think about how often Christ encourages empathy towards and assistance for the poor–and the contemporary conservative ideology that encourages a bootstrap, d.i.y. attitude.]

So here’s what I need: up-to-date, student-friendly resources that provide statistics and basic information about government assistance programs for people in need. I’m less invested in the conclusions my students draw from this data than I am having some solid information:

  • Here’s how you qualify.
  • Here’s how the program works.
  • Here’s how many people are receiving benefits.

Do you, dear reader, have suggestions for such resources? And what kind of programs would you include?

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8 thoughts on “suggestions needed about economic data

  1. Perhaps you could contact either your advisors’ office or something like student affairs? I’d imagine that they would have a good sense of where to look.

    As for the Jesus thing, you might consider bringing in John Edwards’s comments from the other day about how Jesus would be appalled at the way we treat the poor.

  2. “How to qualify/how the program works” :

    “Who is receiving benefits” :

    Survey of Income and Program Participation

    Food for thought: I was not very big on community service until recently, because I had never had the need for community service explained to me in any other context than

    “Community service is just the right/Christian thing to do.”


    “Because, if you were in need, you’d want somebody to help you.”

    “Statistically, the chance that I’m ever going to need any assistance program is almost nonexistent.”

    “Well, then, it’s right because God wants you to.”

    “God also wants me to not have premarital sex, and not cheat on my spouse, and not get divorced, and not dislike my neighbors because they are different than I am, and not try to lie on my taxes.”

    “. . . ”

    It was not until I understood that systems (and by systems I mean communities, government, programs, etc.) only work as well as the parts that make up that system. To improve my quality of life, I have to improve the quality of life of the people who exist within my system. And I have to genuinely care about the quality of their life, or any assistance that I try to give will fall short and be less than effective.

    The major flaw of the “DIY” mentality is that it assumes there is no larger system. Person A’s economic situation (and consequently, their economic actions) actions have absolutely no effect on Person’s B’s economic situation and resulting economic actions. That is a fallacy. Basic economic theory tells us otherwise.

    Market theory also shows us that sociopolitical factors can have enormous economic impact at the individual and group level, and vice versa. That’s one of the reasons that noneconomic community service is important. The better the societal condition of the members, the better the societal condition of the system. The better the societal condition of the system, the better the economic condition. The better the economic condition of the system, the better the societal condition of the system. It’s a big circle, and everything touches everything else.

  3. On the federal level, the Dept. of Health and Human Services provides state-by-state expenditure data for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is what welfare is called according to our Documents Librarian) via their statistics listing. There is caseload data (how many served) and financial data (how much spent on direct assistance and how much on work assistance programs).

    You may also want to take a look at your state’s social services site for data and other info (like how to qualify and apply); South Carolina refers to TANF as “Family Independence” (there’s a lot to say about how different states refer to assistance/welfare programs). I noticed that there was a food stamp benefits calculator linked from the front page and that might yield some interesting discussion; there is also info regarding faith-based initiatives.

    You may want to have a discussion with your local librarians about this as well.

  4. There are abundant scriptures to point to the fact that we are to help the poor. Not despise them, not ignore them, not exhibit prideful behavior in their presence, not admonish them. Help them–with discretion. Proverbs, for example. That doesn’t mean handing money to everyone on the street, but it does mean taking them in for a slice of pizza if they are hungry. On the other hand, there are abundant scriptures that indicate that a person who won’t work won’t eat. Proverbs, for example. Now, this is common sense to a point. There is a scriptural criticism of irresponsibility, clearly. However, I don’t think that many students have a sense of the real obstacles that exist in community. Isolation is a serious difficulty. Lack of family (or tribal) support is a serious issue for many. Mental illness is one difficulty that complicates the issue of employment and which many conservative Christians have not gotten up to speed with –either in understanding the medical treatment options now available or the reality that mental illnesses are at least partially neurological (in conservative estimation!). Yes, God heals. However, physicians are often anointed by God to help heal. At any rate, there are community challenges that exist that indicate community resources are often needed: multi-generational poverty, unequal opportunities for justice, interpersonal violence, job loss, and so on. These are realities. I think that one point is that Corporate Welfare is much larger a financial issue than individual welfare, for example. Another point is that to truly understand and apply Biblical principles, students might wish to do these three things (one won’t work): go to the courthouse and sit in on a criminal law case for two hours, write a paper; visit a recovery center for the mentally ill and interview or talk with clients and staff and families for two hours; visit a school in the inner-city and talk to the professionals about their budget needs and the psycho-spiritual needs of the children. I think, given these three exercises, there may be a starting point for talking about Biblical principles. I say this as someone very much in love with a Baptist. I applaud you for raising these questions and teaching as you do. Compassion is critical and students need to learn to think critically!

  5. As for attaining solid data, it is difficult for those even trying to obtain services to “learn the system”! Here is what I recommend: you include SSI and SSDI. The data for this is pretty much available from the government web site. In a nutshell: most all are turned down the first time they apply, many the second, and by the time it goes to hearing after the appeal… many need an attorney. Students need to consider how much -time- we are talking about here. It may be two years or more before an individual is approved for a serious illness. How are they to live if a) family has abandoned them, given up on them, or are dead or otherwise absent? b) they worked a blue-collar job that paid the bills but didn’t provide enough to save – so they are without the 6 months-2 years of saved living expenses recommended by many and c) they are physically or mentally ill (or both). In the meantime, they may apply for and receive food stamps (perhaps $150 a month), Medicaid (medical), and a teeny tiny amount of cash. Sweet deal? I think not. State programs vary, you may want to get information from State Social Services where you are located. Usually a client fills out forms and submits them at the welfare office (a major challenge if the person is mentally ill because he or she must be able to keep track of dates and details and be coherent). A client must have a physician document a disability (if applying for Medicaid or cash). What happens if the client has a breakdown in this process or cannot complete all the forms? He or she will be homeless. It happens all the time. I would also include a special note on the difficulties of men in finding shelter or benefits. Women with children will be able to find shelter and aid. Men without children will find it exceedingly difficult to find ways to obtain care during this time, even when ill. There just aren’t the programs that exist to help individuals who are caring for children. This is just one more reality. I’m sorry I travelled another rabbit trail but maybe this will add to your ideas!

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