Metropolitics and Work Requirements

As Emily Badger writes in the New York Times, state legislatures have hit upon a not-that-clever but maybe clever enough plan to make racial discrimination in the allocation of Medicaid legal. States including Michigan will subject Medicaid applicants to work requirements, but offer exemption to residents of counties where unemployment is above a certain level.

This is, by any reasonable person’s analysis, an effort to discriminate using superficially color-blind means. Counties where unemployment is high enough to trigger the exemption are largely rural and white, while poor residents of disadvantaged urban or older suburban areas are subjected to work requirements because, while very unequal, urbanized counties are economically more dynamic.

The proposal taps into longstanding anti-welfare myths about urban cultural pathology, while offering the excuse of structural unemployment to explain the woes of rural whites. Of course, the gross inequalities of places like Genesee County, Michigan (where Flint is located) are in fact historically structured by the decisions of major industrial employers like General Motors to locate production outside the city limits, the efforts of white suburban residents to resist annexing industrial areas to the city, and public administrators who engineered segregated schools and communities as a matter of policy. Andrew Highsmith’s book Demolition Means Progress covers this ground compellingly (I reviewed it here).

In the contemporary moment, Badger quotes Urban Institute employment expert Heather Hahn, who notes a crude geographical determinism in Michigan’s legislation. Assuming that the proposal is, in fact, innocent of racial bias (we’re being charitable), it nonetheless ignores the complexity of regional employment markets:

“This is trying to thread that needle between ‘are you poor because of structural reasons, where you live,’ or ‘are you poor because of your own choices?’” said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute.

The problem, Ms. Hahn and others say, is that geography captures just one kind of barrier to employment. “If you’re taking only the geography as the structure,” Ms. Hahn said, “it’s really overlooking the much more obvious racial structure.” African-Americans who face racial discrimination in the job market are more likely to have a hard time finding work….

Policies that exempt high-unemployment places, but not people who face other obstacles to work, selectively acknowledge barriers for only some of the poor. In effect, they suggest that unemployment is a systemic problem in struggling rural communities — but that in poor urban neighborhoods, it’s a matter of individual decisions.

The political implications are also crystal clear. No one, Badger contends, is in the dark about the motive:

“What’s so galling here in Michigan is the social meaning of this exemption could not be more clear to people who live here,” said Nicholas Bagley, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, who has argued in a series of blog posts and in a New York Times op-ed that the policy would run afoul of civil rights laws. “It is a way of extending solicitude to people who live in the hard-bitten white rural counties,” he said, but not to black residents in poor urban neighborhoods.

This is not a new story, but its revival is nonetheless disturbing.