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Attacking the Most Vulnerable: General Assistance Benefit Cuts in the U.S.

In 2009, Britain started facing a series of severe benefits cuts targeting older Britons as well as members of the disabled community. Outraged, people took to the streets, including those who had never protested before, in events with thousands of people that caught major media attention. The US watched apathetically, except for small corners of the disability community observing out of solidarity and worry, knowing that what was happening in Britain could hit them next.

For the attentive, it was already happening. California started severely slashing its social services budget in 2010 and several other states eyed California’s budget cuts contemplatively. After all, if California did it, so could they. A quiet dismantling of the safety net began to spread, carried out in plain sight and in full knowledge of the fact that few people—except those pesky disability rights activists—would protest.

Now, General Assistance benefits in at least two states, Maine and Pennsylvania, are on the chopping block. Dental care was one of the first things cut in a number of states, following California’s model, despite the mess created when people can’t access routine dental services, as seen in states like Massachusetts, where devastating cuts have had profound health impacts.

The media are finally starting to pay attention to the growing assault on benefits in the United States, but it may be too little, too late. Meanwhile, ongoing protests against benefits cuts rarely make the news, unless they involve a telegenic media presence, as seen when a Medicaid protest in Washington attracted national attention because Noah Wyle was among those arrested.

General Assistance provides temporary and fairly modest funds to people who may not qualify for other types of government benefits, or who need some extra help. Members of the homeless population are often in particular need of a hand up, but they aren’t the only ones who need GA. Like many forms of government assistance, it’s barely adequate under current frameworks, and provides a fraction of the assistance needed as it is.

In Maine, a collective of mayors is fighting the proposed cuts, which include a 90 day cap on benefits. One mayor called it ‘a war on poor people’ and she’s absolutely right; such cuts deliberately target the most impoverished members of the community, and verge on eliminationist in nature. These mayors are concerned about the health and safety of their residents, but also the burden of costs they’re going to have to shoulder when the state withdraws General Assistance; because they can’t sit by while people die in the streets. With ravaged state budgets come particularly tight times for individual cities and towns suddenly saddled with costs the state used to bear and forced to balance falling revenues against rising needs.

And there’s an expectation that charities will pick up the slack, despite the fact that charities can’t deliver services as effectively and efficiently, and the fact that many charities are facing a slump in donations due to poor economic conditions. This attitude that charities should provide social support is a legacy of the Bush Administration, which was big on outsourcing government services, particularly to faith-based charities.

It’s also a relic of the Victorian era, which was the first time that people really understood that relying on charities actually wasn’t the way to care for the most vulnerable in society.

The Victorians realised that they needed to fundamentally rethink the way they administered care for members of the lower classes, even as factory and domestic workers along with many others were starting to revolt, demanding better treatment, fair pay, and safe living conditions. This era brought about the rise of administered government services, and created a framework that grew even stronger in the wake of the First and Second World Wars, when suddenly a generation of young men was returning with serious injuries and social expectations. After all, they’d given up a lot in service of their nations, the least they could get was some health care.

Barely 60 years later, politicians were dismantling the carefully-built social safety net that had been constructed after learning hard lessons about what happens when you allow the most vulnerable in society to flail for survival. Britain’s new austerity was a reflection of growing attitudes across the West, and it’s not a surprise to see it coming into full flower in the United States given that politicians and many conservatives have been actively agitating against social programmes for over a decade. They just needed an excuse, and the economic downturn provided one.

These cuts go far beyond just members of the low-income population who will be struggling to make it even more in the wake of the cuts. For example, society can expect to pay more to provide care for people who aren’t being caught in the GA safety net anymore. That includes homeless people forced into the streets, people with substance abuse problems who aren’t getting treatment, and people with mental illness who can’t access care on a reliable basis. Despite the fact that it would cost the state less to retain their GA benefits, the state is trying to claim it will ‘save money’ by ending this very basic assistance programme.

Confronted with higher expenses to care for people who were receiving General Assistance benefits, cash-strapped states are going to have to take money from somewhere else, and there are few places left to take that money from. As states slash funding to the bone, meanwhile, uncollected tax revenues from major corporations languish, and many of them same companies receive hefty government benefits of their own including tax subsidies. Something is clearly out of balance in a climate where companies receive massive benefits for siting plants in given regions when the residents of those same regions can’t put food on the table, and in some cases have no table at all.

Some of the best lessons for people interested in protesting the GA cuts should come from the disability community, which is used to organising around benefits issues and has in fact been doing so for decades. Groups like ADAPT have been taking to the streets for years to advocate for some of the most vulnerable in society and they need the support of advocates from across the spectrum before it’s too late.

I talked with Lisa Egan, involved in benefits protests in Britain to raise awareness about the fact that ‘…quite simply they’re cutting off the funding that allows disabled people to stay alive.’ She has some tips for US activists worried about the gaping holes in the safety net.

In December 2010 I went on my first real life benefits protest. Prior to that the only protest I’d been on was the one against the Iraq war in 2003 when I was one of a million people that marched through London.

For protests to be effective, she recommends increasing visibility in a variety of ways, some of which involve the Internet as well as showy in-person demonstrations. She also stresses the use of celebrity involvement to associate a known face with such campaigns and capture media attention:

In 1997 disability rights activists chained themselves to the gates of Downing Street and covered themselves in fake blood. It convinced Tony Blair to abandon his plans to cut benefits… Never underestimate the power of celebrity: Even over here we heard about the ADAPT protest in DC about 6 weeks ago at which Noah Wyle got arrested… Around the web you’ll find lots of dismissals of “clicktivism” – online activism – but it can be incredibly effective. The “Spartacus Report” was probably the single most noted piece of activism against the Welfare Reform Bill. It drew that aforementioned essential celebrity support that just won’t happen on the streets.

For getting media coverage and increasing awareness of benefits issues, she suggests teaming up and getting support from nondisabled allies:

…when Disabled People Against Cuts and UK Uncut teamed up to organise a joint protest on the UK’s biggest shopping street in January there were journalists from every outlet… As for drawing and holding media attention you need the support of non-disabled people. We’re still living under the shadow of the Big Charity mindset that the only authoritative sources on the subject of disability are non-disabled people. If you’ve only got disabled people at a protest the press won’t bother turning up. Last May 8000 cripples marched through the centre of London; you wouldn’t have known that if you watched the local TV news that evening.

As for protest organisers:

…the most important advice is that disability community mantra “nothing about us without us.” When UK Uncut organised a protest against cuts to disability benefits they chose a meeting up point that wasn’t accessible to wheelchair users because they didn’t think to engage any disabled people in the planning.

This applies not just to the disability community, but also to any situation where people are agitating in solidarity with vulnerable communities. Organising around general assistance cuts must include the people who will be most adversely affected by such cuts, including homeless people, people with mental illness, and other people of low income who need General Assistance to stay alive.

The United States must start not only repairing but rebuilding its social safety net, or it will pay a high price in human lives. The price is already being exacted: as in Britain, suicides are following in the wake of benefits cuts.