The inheritance game

The inheritance game

Wikipedia describes how lemon laws compel manufacturers to honor express and implied warranties on their products :

Lemon laws are American state laws that provide a remedy for purchasers of cars and other consumer goods in order to compensate for products that repeatedly fail to meet standards of quality and performance…. Although the exact criteria vary by state, new vehicle lemon laws require that an auto manufacturer repurchase a vehicle that has a significant defect that the manufacturer is unable to repair within a reasonable amount of time.

About now, one wonders how this concept might apply to a hopelessly defective president. But two columns this morning raise the question of what redress we have as citizens when saddled with a defective government and economic system.

Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley examines the massive stimulus passed to address an economy collapsed by the global pandemic. What Americans who have avoided needing a social safety net are finding is that, well, it doesn’t work as advertised. Web sites crash; the haves deplete available funds before the have-nots can get someone to answer the phone; etc.

“How are you going to pay for it?” goes out the window when the right people are in need. Funny, how that works. And still it doesn’t.

Nearly a third of Americans had not paid their rent earlier this month. What the stimulus package offers, Mathis-Lilley writes, is deferment rather than forbearance. It allows you to skip payments rather than add them to the end of your rental agreement. The bill expects you to pay back skipped payments as a lump sum after months with no income. Instead of getting evicted now for nonpayment, you get evicted later.

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Failures like this are not a bug, Mathis-Lilley believes, but a feature of how our government safety net operates:

That’s because government programs in the United States—even those supported by the purportedly pro-government party—are not designed to solve problems. Rather, they are designed to solve a given problem only to a degree—and that degree can’t require an amount of spending that would necessitate financial sacrifice on the part of high-income taxpayers. This is not a leftist conspiracy theory, but the overt position of the party’s leaders, who believe they will not be able to achieve crucial voting margins in upscale suburbs if they authorize too much taxation and spending.

Even when we shove deficit concerns aside, it’s how we do business.

Now an unprecedented number of Americans born into a comfortable, albeit tenuous, social strata get to experience firsthand the “half-a-loaf style” of the safety net’s faulty design. “To put it cynically,” Mathis-Lilley writes, “the job of much Democratic legislation is to make liberal voters of means feel good that something is being done for the less fortunate, not necessarily to actually do that thing.”

One might call such legislative products lemons.

Slate’s Nicole Karlis interviewed Lauren Sandler, author of “This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home” about how capitalism is failing those Mathis-Lilley describes as having “made the dubious personal decision to be born into one of the bottom wealth quintiles.”

Sandler enters the world of Camila, 22, a single mother in New York City searching for affordable housing. We think of the homeless as people sleeping on the streets, Sandler explains. In fact, there were 20,000 sleeping in New York’s shelters when she moved there in 1992.

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A large proportion are people “you would not recognize as stereotypically homeless in any way.” Women in Camila’s shelter worked at Applebee’s or the Gap or as home healthcare aides. Even when Camila’s name comes up in an affordable housing lottery, she still cannot afford it “because it’s not affordable for people who are poor.”

It is simply untrue, Sandler found, that “homeless people are homeless because they couldn’t make it, and that we live in a country where everyone has a shot.” She continues:

I mean, it’s hard to imagine someone working harder or being more determined or more organized or more tenacious than Camilla was. And it didn’t matter. So anyone in that shelter would tell you that the most foundational need that they have is housing. There’s a million other things that are needed as well. But without that most basic element of stability, the rest of it is impossible. And what it means to get stable housing, not just in this city, but in this country, is something that is systemically impossible because of our policies.

A homeless outreach organizer in Seattle asks in a Zoom meeting, “Everyone’s so appalled with price gouging about hand sanitizer. Why is no one appalled about price gouging about housing?”

Why indeed? A safety net exists on paper, but as with features of the pandemic stimulus, it is impossible to access.

The notion that this isn’t completely rigged, the notion that you can somehow supersede the extent of systemic injustice, unless you’re born into a family that can help you do it, it’s all just the inheritance game. And it is impossible. And it’s a tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that people don’t see it.

Also tragic is that those now experiencing these structural defects will forget about them as quickly as things “get back to normal.” No one will demand we make lemonade from legislative lemons. No one will insist democracy and capitalism make good on their express and implied warranties. No one (almost no one) will demand “big, structural change.”

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