The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens

By Daniel L. Hatcher New York University Press, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1479874729, 288 pages, $35 Attorney Daniel L. Hatcher’s thesis is this: Public and private agencies charged with caring for America’s most vulnerable citizens — children and the elderly — commonly contract with consultants to maximize agency revenue by targeting the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, and then routing Social Security benefits, veteran’s benefits, child support and Medicaid payments to the agency. What’s more, agencies have an incentive to pursue those children whose parents have died or who come from the poorest families, and to classify the citizens in their care as disabled or in need of psychotropic medication because doing so yields a higher reimbursement rate from the federal government. Hatcher goes on to say that agencies increase profits even more when their charges are sedated because fewer staff are needed for their care. Hatcher’s work is well cited, pulling from public records, academic and peer-reviewed literature, newspapers and magazines, and studies published by government and advocacy organizations. One particularly egregious practice Hatcher points to is that of an agency appointing itself payee for the purposes of collecting a foster child’s Social Security or other benefits, the justification for which is covering the costs of foster care that are not reimbursed by the federal government. “An individual or organization appointed as fiduciary over a foster child’s funds must exercise discretion to determine how to best use the child’s funds in the child’s best interests. Because states are already required to pay for foster care costs, the child’s own funds should not be used for that purpose. The fiduciary should make reasonable efforts to engage the child in deciding how to best use the child’s funds.” Those who have long held concerns about “the foster care industrial complex” will find Hatcher’s work edifying. In one example Hatcher summarizes a case wherein Maryland’s health and human services agency lobbied against a bill that would prohibit the agency from using foster children’s benefits to pay for foster care. “The Maryland agency asserts it must take assets from children in order to help children, creating a form of foster care that is self-funded by abused and neglected children.” The solution, according to Hatcher, is to use federal regulations to prohibit foster care agencies from using children’s funds for the fiscal self-interests of the agency or state. Put simply, when agencies use the children as revenue, the agency’s short-term focus on financial gain ignores the long-term harm to children and society, Hatcher says. Are our public agencies, which are presumably staffed by ordinary people and not super-villains, truly converting the direst of human experience into profits to sustain themselves? And if so, what do we do with this knowledge? Child welfare finance reform has been on the minds of advocates for decades. Perhaps Hatcher’s work will serve as a call to action and mobilize the community to lobby for real change. This is not an easy book to read — not because of Hatcher’s style or because it’s too in the weeds, but because his thesis borders on the unbelievable, despite the fact that he presents a compelling body of evidence to the contrary. But for those who believe we need to know our enemies in order to combat them, it’s a must read for sure. — Reviewed by Christie Renick

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