Before there was demonizing of Muslims, Latino immigrants and other minorities, refugees, transgender people and the press, shame and blame were leveled most often on America’s poor.
That hasn’t changed. State governments continue to target public assistance recipients by lowering subsidies, tightening eligibility criteria or cutting people off benefits. Only the conversation has been re-framed from dismissing them as “welfare queens” to patronizing them with the supposed tough-love approach.
That’s what the state of Kansas has done to 17,000 people since 2011, declaring it was for their own good. And now they have a study by the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability to justify it.
The long-term unemployed have been rendered perhaps the most voiceless group in society, making them easier to dehumanize in public policy debates. We blame them rather than a lack of decent jobs, training or support systems for single parents, or systemic exclusion or discrimination in the work force.
Bill Clinton’s 1996 federal welfare overhaul replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, using block grants to states and making public assistance temporary. It prevented states from granting welfare benefits for more than two years at a time, and imposed a lifetime cap of five. It also imposed work requirements, and it permitted states not to increase aid when recipients had more children.
But Kansas went even farther, with a lifetime limit of three years and other punitive measures. The foundation’s study tracked more than 6,000 families over four years who were pushed off public assistance, and said the number of able-bodied adults on public assistance dropped nearly 78 percent. “Incomes continued to climb each year for those removed, eventually more than tripling — increasing by 247 percent within four years,” it said. “Over that same period, these families saw an estimated $48 million increase in wages.”
But in a piece in the conservative National Review, of all places, author Robert VerBruggen questioned the findings. He wondered how many people didn’t find work. He said the authors responded that about 80 percent “had some record of employment after being removed from the program, but there was some fluctuation of people moving into and out of the labor force. About 65 percent were working in any given year after removal.”
VerBruggen also questioned whether those families actually earned as much as claimed. Comparing the aggregate incomes of those families before and after, he concluded they rose by an average of $4,200, to about $12,100 each. Wage income alone averaged $11,100 a year, still poverty-level wages for one person, let alone a family. And Earned Income Tax Credits were counted as income. Not factored in were the additional costs of transportation, child care and other ancillaries.
“It’s possible,” VerBruggen surmised, “that many of these folks would have found work even without Kansas’s new, stricter policy.”
Nationally, welfare benefits are reaching fewer poor people. For every 100 families in poverty, only 23 received cash assistance from TANF in 2015 — down from 68 families when TANF was first enacted in 1996, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Since the 1990s, the federal government has not increased TANF funding to states (effectively a 28 percent loss due to inflation), so states are “incentivized to reduce the rolls in any way they can.”
Another perspective on welfare comes from a collection of papers edited by Camille Gear Rich of the University of Southern California’s Gould law school. “This focus on rewarding the working poor discounts the possibility that it might be better for poor mothers to stay at home with their children and not participate in wage labor,” says her report. “This focus obscures the fact that many of the income supports for the working poor actually function as cash transfers to corporations to allow them to hire people for salaries that do not produce a living wage or health care benefits, with the understanding that government will fill the gap and provide these necessities.”
During his administration, George W. Bush pushed for $350 million in spending to promote marriage and sexual abstinence to reform welfare. But government can’t end poverty by regulating the poor, making them marry, or stop having sex or bearing children.
Before cutting off anyone’s lifeline, our leaders need to offer substantive training for decent jobs and comprehensively address mental health, substance abuse or other multigenerational barriers to employment. They also need to preach less and listen more.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.