Sunday, October 02, 2011

Choosing Headlines

A friend recently shared this story about the spending and occasional misspending of welfare benefits, and it got me thinking quite a bit. The report, of course, generated a lot of ire, but some of that is misplaced.

The article -- with the headline Massachusetts Welfare Money Spent on Resorts, Nail Salons -- is a bit of investigative journalism that shows gaps in the accountability for money intended to help people in need. Since benefits are expended electronically, it is possible to track where the money goes, by business name and address. The journalists rightly point out that the agency that should be using this information to hold recipients accountable is not doing so. They report that more than two million dollars in benefits were expended out of state, and they find that some of the money intended for basic needs was spent on luxury items.

The story illustrates something that has gotten too little notice in the post-2001 period, in which surveillance of citizens increases out of all proportion to necessity, and in fact out of proportion to anybody's ability to use the data effectively. The agencies that are in a position to monitor this spending have not done so, raising the question of whether agency has enough staff and training to keep up with the data it collects. Given recent trends in public institutions, and the fact that many Federal "intelligence" agencies cannot keep up with their data collection either, I rather doubt it.

I headlined this piece "Choosing Headlines" because it is clear that the headlines in the original article were chosen more to agitate than to educate. In addition to the main headline that emphasizes a kind of spending that is not shown to be pervasive, a sub-headline mentions a geographic fact: Mass. Welfare Recipients Spent $2.3 Million Out of State. No mention is made of whether this violates any specific conditions of the assistance, but the implication is clear that anybody who can afford to be away from home should not receive assistance.

Deeper in the story, it is revealed that half of the out-of-state spending occurs in  neighboring Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The reporters do not explain their reluctance to account for spending in other neighboring states. It is also admitted that some people might have family connections or obligations that explain the travel to other states, though they could not resist the suggestion that "sunny" states were necessarily luxury travel. (Clearly, the authors have not seen the parts of Florida that I have!)

The reporters also use the phrase "specialty grocery stores" to describe both Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. The implication is that poor people should eat food from "regular" grocery stores or "convenience" grocery stores, even if lower sticker prices belie poor value in terms of nutritional return per dollar spent. The implication is especially misplaced in the case of Trader Joe's, which does offer nice food, but does so at sometimes surprisingly low prices. The reason is that the chain has made a study of the economic geography of grocery stores (which I describe briefly on one of my geography-education blogs). As a result, for example, I buy organic apple sauce at Trader Joe's for less than I would spend on the chemically-enhanced stuff in my local grocery. Why should poor people be berated for doing the same?

Now back to the outrage: of course those who receive public assistance should show their gratitude by earning what they can and spending carefully. Those who received support for food and shelter but spent it on luxury items should be held accountable. Deep in the story, we learn that all of the "suspect" spending amounts to less than one percent of total aid. But the headline "More than 99 Percent of Welfare Spending Not Suspicious" would not adequately tap into current biases against the poor and the government.

1 comment:

  1. well said, james ... i know that i qualify for benefits and could really use them, but i have not applied partly out of pride and partly from shame that i be considered one of the mass that mooches and wastes

    i couldn't agree more about the healthy choices. in addition to desiring good foods, i CAN'T eat boxed and canned goods or processed meats (deli) and many other foods

    and i need to eat as much iron rich foods as possible so consume steaks, etc. and quirky foods like blackstrap molasses instead of sugar

    it would cost the state a lot less to feed me well than pay for doctor's visits every time i faint


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