Foster kids, secondhand clothing, and citizen experts I sincerely wish would STFU

Michigan Senator Bruce Casswell has introduced legislation that would give foster children vouchers only good at used clothing stores, so that they can not “waste” state money buying themselves new clothing. He has argued that it’s a cost-saving measure.

There is an outcry, simply because on its surface, the proposal is mean. There are also all the stories about single mothers who themselves alone without handouts bravely provided for their children with only thrift store clothing, etc. etc. Republicans say that buying used clothing is recycling! So it’s pro-environmental, too! Those of you who think that secondhand clothing are bad need to get rid of your elitist attitudes! Well, MY daughter wears nothing but vintage and secondhand clothing and she looks great!

Blah blah blah blah. Natter natter natter.

I suppose we live in a world where, if you want to call yourself a democrat with a small d, you have to pretend that all these blithering personal anecdotes about secondhand clothing amount to intelligent contributions to policy debate. However, most of these comments just remind me of this story from the Onion: Open-minded man grimly realizes how much life he has wasted listening to bullshit.

Now, I am on the side of single mothers, in general, and I am always impressed by anybody who can tell the story of raising kids on one, female salary.

But that doesn’t mean that everybody can do it, or that it’s desirable, or that we should set policy according to what personally happened to somebody once.

And even if your personal history as a single mother with success using secondhand stores were relevant, which it’s not, and stupendously interesting, which it may be, the policy issue affects foster kids, not you, your children, or children in families headed by an adult, any adult, single, female, or otherwise.

They are, I repeat, foster kids. They may have nobody. And they may have a parent that they, themselves, sneak money to, rather than a gloriously together, competent parent who can make it work (and who can try to get resources from her extended family; remember, these are foster kids, which means the extended family network is thin or stretched.)

IOW, foster care policy is, really, not about you and what worked or didn’t for you, in all your self-mythologizing glory. Go write a memoir if it’s really all that interesting.

I strongly suspect that the money-cutting issue is basic smoke for this Casswell character to get his name in the news because I can’t believe the program change would amount to diddly squat in terms of real money saved. Minutiae politics, again: take a small-money program that serves a powerless group, wrap it up in large-scale emotional tropes for your constitutes (frugality, being independent, staying off the dole), puff like crazy, and then attempt to ride to a political win.

So let’s say this is a big-money program, which it’s not, but let’s pretend.

If there is one SCREAMINGLY OBVIOUS CONCLUSION from our past policy experience with programs for poor families, it’s that programs where we try to engineer their lives and their choices cost us more than any savings we might get from constraining choices, and those additional costs are always time and transactions costs.

Do I want social workers with 300 kid caseloads spending their time in thrift stores? No. Do I want foster parents spending their time in thrift stores? No. Not if they don’t think it’s a good use of time. If they enjoy the treasure hunt, fine. But if it’s taking them away from baseball, helping with homework, or earning extra money, then no.

So if the concern is that the allowances given to children are too high, then cap it and then let them optimize according to their preference. Be done with it.

Republicans supposedly believe in the free market. The reasons for simply giving the allowance and staying out of people’s lives come down to information and preferences–things markets are good at sorting and serving.

So we give a kid $200 a year (I doubt it, but let’s say we do). Who cares if they spend it all on one pair of really fancy jeans and four packs of Hane’s men’s t-shirts, some bras and undies, and a pair of Chuck’s? (my uniform) Plenty of teenage girls are the size they are going to be for a long time: why shouldn’t they buy something that has more wear in it? Or if a kid wants 50 pairs of torn jeans from a thrift store? Again, who cares which one they choose? It’s all the same amount of money. $200 = $200. Kids that prefer the latter can do the latter, and it is a form of recycling. How about you affix an allowance and let kids cash-out or save-forward the benefit they don’t use? There’s an incentive to be thrifty.

The main problem I have with the thrift store idea concerns the transaction costs of thrift store buying. Thrift store buying makes the most sense for little kids and small children who outgrow their clothing before they wear the clothing out. So shopping for younger kids is not much of an issue–people take their kids’ outgrown clothing readily to thrift stores, and there is a lot of choice, and there is often a lot of wear left in that clothing. With smaller kids, you don’t have to spend days on end looking for things.

For older children, the time costs of looking in thrift stores becomes a much bigger factor.
If you are hard to fit, the idea that you will simply roll into the thrift store and buy your size 9 E shoes (my shoe size) is ludicrous. Why? Because there are about 2 pairs of shoes made each year that fit me, and thus I wear them until they fall apart, no matter how ugly or expensive they are. So the foster kid who has size 9E feet is out of luck. Ditto for the teenage boy or girl who is 6’6”.

Do I want people with 9E shoes walking around their feet stuffed into size 9 shoes? No. Even though I did it the entire time I was growing up, largely because what I suffered through, though unfortunate, is not salient except to the degree that it gives me empathy.

Nor do I want a kid who is already probably feeling pretty gawky due to his size having to walk around with Erkel flood pants because that’s all he could find at Goodwill. It wasn’t a good look for Erkel.

I suppose under this “free-market” solution from Mr. Caswell we could require people like me turn in their 9E shoes every 2 years so that the wide of footed foster kids can properly learn frugality and their second-tier place in the blossoming American caste system.

Finally, there’s the idea that poor kids’ time is meaningless, that they can just spend their time sifting through thrift store bins. Brilliant. So while my friends’ children get to spend their time shopping online and studying for the SAT, foster kids get to spend their time not doing those things and looking for their thrift store treasures. BRILLIANT.

I love regulatory time-grabs from poor people. Swell policy! I mean, they have so much time. In between having sex out of wedlock, smoking, waiting in line for their lavish welfare checks, watching soap operas, and feeding Pepsi to their grubby kids, they just have all the time in the world.

I suppose we could feed these kids watery gruel and send them to break up rocks with chain gangs to offset the cost burden to the state. Or we could have them look for Coronado’s gold by digging holes in the desert. Something where they get off the back of hardworking people like me.

2 thoughts on “Foster kids, secondhand clothing, and citizen experts I sincerely wish would STFU

  1. All I can say is “AMEN!” Thanks for telling it like it is.

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