Stand for Something: Maybe Work Requirements for Social Services Aren’t All Bad

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I’m no Ryan Bingham, but I’ve done my fair share of travel. I was recently in Germany for the a week and for the first time in a while, travel really has changed my perspective of home. Preemptive apologies for engaging in cliche.

I’ll first talk about the expected topic given my other columns, which is how the “average German” sees American politics. You should obviously take my reporting with a grain of salt here — a scientific conference is hardly the venue in which to do a man on the street survey. Nevertheless, the Germans I talked to were less alarmed than I thought they would be. The lens through which my impromptu focus groups saw things was usually, “I thought George W. Bush was bad.” I found this especially interesting because it usually takes liberals in the United States an hour and a few glasses of beer to say the same.

Perhaps the Germans see the connection from Bush 2.0 to Trump more clearly than we do. Invective infecting our politics, shaping facts to fit an agenda, disregard for the lives and rights of others. What I haven’t been able to let go of is the possibility that what this really means is that America’s allies aren’t concerned enough about the track we’re on. That they see this as a continuance of our Republican-Democrat pendulum, with the hope that things go back to normal afterwards. Of course they wouldn’t feel as acutely the violation of the traditions (‘norms’ in politico speak) that have made America what it is.

Something more mundane which affected me more profoundly was Germany’s recycling program for glass and plastic drink bottles, known as the pfand systemIt’s similar to deposit programs in other states, though with some very interesting differences. The most important of those is the deposit on all single use bottles of €0.25, which works out to $0.29. That’s much higher than the $0.05 – $0.10 typical here. Another important difference is the commonality of single use containers in Germany, which has a robust culture of consumption of alcohol and other beverages in public spaces like parks, markets etc. Typically when a group of people had finished their picnic or conversation, they would simply leave their bottles neatly stacked on a wall or sidewalk and walk away.

If this strikes you as indolent and unlike the environmentally conscious Germany you’ve heard about, then you’ll understand my surprise. Especially given the impressive 97-99% recycling rate of items on which there is a deposit.

The reason for the high recycling rate is because of the Pfandsammler, the people who spend their days doing the hard work of ensuring every possible bottle makes it into a recycling container. A neatly stacked 6-pack of bottles won’t last more than 2 minutes on the sidewalk — that’s €1.50, enough to buy a loaf of bread. I personally witnessed people with flashlights searching trash cans, misfiled recycling containers, and every manner of public space for single use containers that commonly seem to become litter or trash in Colorado.

Note that this isn’t a profession, the Pfandsammler effectively serve as an underclass of people trying to make a few extra bucks. They’re mostly elderly, homeless, or those simply on hard times. While Pfandsammler were an unintended consequence of the system, and are controversial, it’s difficult to argue against the power of economic incentive.

And that brings me to the uncomfortable part for me — the part of the trip I’ll really take home (besides the science). I know exactly what the liberal conversation would be about a program like the Pfandsammler in the United States, because I’m sure I’ve made this exact point. Deliberately incentivizing the poor to be the manual labor to fix Longmont’s abysmal 35% recycling rate would be unethical. To do so would also demean those people. It would imply that the only value we find in others is when they can do something for us. Democrats raise similar objections every time a Republican proposes a law requiring work in exchange for receiving public benefits.

And yet.

I’ll admit I’ve always had a hard time arguing against the principle of Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s new program to include a work requirement to be eligible for Medicaid. While requiring paying work would be the same as simply throwing people off the rolls, the inclusion of community-focused volunteer work in the eligibility has always made the program fundamentally different to me. There are seemingly reasonable exemptions for the elderly, infirm, primary caregivers of a dependent, full-time students, and the homeless. The work requirements don’t start until July 1 and are currently subject to the predictable legal challenges.

After seeing the impact of the Pfandsammler, I’m questioning my remaining objections to Kentucky’s new program. While I think I’d still be against ‘volunteer’ trash collection by the homeless, perhaps Governor Bevin’s program has more in common with the Works Project Administration than I’ve been giving it credit for.

Longmont Police Chief Mike Butler recently said in an interview they are considering requiring work in exchange for space in homeless shelters. I think even with my more open mind, I still find that distasteful. Homelessness in the United States is heavily correlated with mental illness. But I also know that the path to homelessness lies in finding a good job. Perhaps, as with Kentucky’s program, I could be convinced by the right structure to the program.


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