Beating up on welfare recipients

For decades, moms and children on welfare have played the role of disparaged stage extras in American politics. It’s pretty disgusting to watch. These families deserve a lot better than they get.

Governor Romney has a new  30-second spot on the old standby of welfare reform.

The ad claims that President Obama…

Quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work. You wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.

At issue is a July 12 federal memorandum, which allows states greater flexibility in crafting their work requirements to move poor single moms into paid work.  The spot rather grotesquely mischaracterizes what the Obama administration has done. To begin with, there’s no such thing as “Obama’s plan.” Welfare is mainly operated by the states, which enjoy all-too-wide discretion to impose stringent requirements on welfare recipients. States remain completely free to impose tight work and eligibility requirements—requirements that many fiscally-stressed states have tightened since President Obama took office.

Regular readers know that the 1996 welfare reform abolished a 60-year-old entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), replacing it with the avowedly transitional Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).The Obama administration’s memorandum does nothing to alter or weaken the central pillars of the 1996 law, including a five-year lifetime limit on federally-funded cash aid for most recipients, the removal of such assistance as a legal entitlement for low-income families, and a variety of other restrictions on individual recipients.

Right now, states are often rewarded for simply cutting recipients off, or for other activities that do not successfully place recipients into stable jobs. The Obama administration is granting waivers to do better. Under the July 12 memorandum, states must “explain in a compelling fashion” why their proposed approaches would provide “more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs” which “will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits.”

It’s rich that supposed guardians of federalism are in a snit because states might receive greater leeway to depart from a (conservative) federal policy agenda. The hypocrisy was not lost on the Obama administration, which rightly noted that Mitch Daniels, Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and, Mitt Romney and a host of other GOP notables signed a 2005 Republican Governor’s Association letter asking that states be given even greater leeway for TANF waivers.

I’m inclined to give conservatives a bit of a hypocrisy-pass here. On issue after issue–from health reform to abortion to medical marijuana to the minimum drinking age, gun policy, and more–few people across the ideological spectrum deeply care about the division of labor between the federal government and the states. If the federal government happens to profess a more liberal position, conservatives pine eloquently about the states as laboratories of democracy and decry one-size-fits-all solutions. Liberals in-turn, argue that national constitutional or policy issues are at stake. If If the federal government happens to profess a more conservative position, everyone switches places in the federalism debate. There’s no sense complaining about anyone’s hypocrisy. Having seen several state governments in action, I tend to favor greater responsibility and authority moved to the federal level.

More generally, these Romney commercials warn us about a nonexistent problem: The supposed excessive generosity of cash assistance for poor families with children. The most pressing welfare problem is quite different: We’re neglecting millions of low-income families who need help. The number of Americans in poverty increased by ten million between 1996 and 2010. Unemployment among low-income single moms has correspondingly grown. Yet TANF serves a progressively declining share of children living in economic need. When welfare reform was enacted, 68 American families received AFDC/TANF benefits for every 100 families with children in poverty. By 2010, only 27 did.

Consider my own state of Illinois. In 1996, our monthly AFDC caseload averaged about 224,000 families. In 2011, the average caseload had dropped to less than 34,000. Nationwide, the number of families receiving such aid has declined by about 60 percent over the same period.

Benefit levels—always low–have declined, too. Our state’s maximum TANF monthly cash benefit for a family of three is about $432, down in inflation-adjusted terms by about 19 percent since 1996. University of Chicago students generally spend more than that on our individual cafeteria meal plan. If one throws in the value of food stamps, the maximum benefits available to Illinois TANF recipients reach 60 percent of the federal poverty line. We’re about average for the United States.

I get why Governor Romney wishes to change the subject to welfare rather than taxes or inequality. The 1996 welfare reform is popular. Poor single moms who rely on welfare are not.

I confess that I was never a big fan of the old AFDC. Benefits were too low. The idea of an open-ended cash entitlement for at-home single moms doesn’t express the ethic of mutual obligation that most Americans demand of public aid. Nor does this arrangement match current gender roles. Long-term dependence was a legitimate problem, though the reasons for such dependence were often grossly caricatured. The stigma of AFDC undermined more important and more effective efforts to help low-income people. Work requirements in some form seem both justified and necessary for the political legitimacy of welfare support. The outsized proportion of African-Americans and Latinos on the welfare rolls has always cast long shadows over TANF and many other public policies.

For decades, moms and children on welfare have played the role of disparaged stage extras in American politics. Conspicuously comfortable politicians offer all sorts of advice regarding how poor families should live their lives. It’s pretty disgusting to watch. These families deserve a lot better than they get.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

20 thoughts on “Beating up on welfare recipients”

  1. Beautifully argued my friend. How times change. In 1964, LBJ ran on a campaign ad showing pictures of poor people and asking Americans to vote for him so that he could help them. Today the ad would say “Look at these deadbeats — vote for me and I’ll punish them”.

  2. “The number of Americans in poverty increased by ten million between 1996 and 2010.”

    Obama has touched on this on occasion, but I’m very disappointed that he hasn’t made a stronger argument here. The War on Poverty essentially turned into a cold war circa 2000, with the poverty rate roughly stabilizing. Since the financial crisis, a significant fraction of the population has gone into poverty for the first sustained period since the War on Poverty began. There’s a significant national debate to be had over the question, “Is a 13-15% poverty rate OK in the United States?” The de facto answer is apparently yes, but it’d be nice to talk about that first.

  3. Factual accuracy is nice, but it’s pretty obvious what the ad is really saying: “Obama is making you White people pay taxes so he can give the money to lazy Black people.” For voters who already believe that, and maybe even for voters who have a vague sense that it might be at least somewhat true, facts won’t make much of a difference.

    1. This. The point is simply to have the word “welfare” appear in conjunction with a black President.

    2. These people didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 and aren’t going to vcte for him now no matter what, so who cares?

      1. Well, the reason to care about these ads is that the subtext — and it’s barely sub at all — is racist. So, it’s another reason to not like Romney. Not that anyone needs one.

      2. Romney’s utter lack of a principled core is going to cost him the election. People who hate Obama will just hate him more; people who don’t hate Obama now will begin to dislike Romney, and more, with every stupid lying stunt.

        1. You should see the latest:

          Add Rush Limbaugh to the growing list of conservatives who are completely shocked by Team Romney’s latest move to defend itself by touting Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care law.
          Limbaugh was literally left sputtering as he contemplated the Romney response.
          Limbaugh’s criticism came just hours after political observers of all stripes were stopped dead in their tracks by Team Romney’s defense against a Democratic super PAC ad that all but accuses Romney of facilitating a woman’s death after Bain Capital shut down the steel mill her husband worked at, thereby denying the family of health insurance.
          In two separate appearances on Fox News, Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul dismissed the ad and said that under Romney’s Massachusetts health care law — which Romney has repeatedly promised to strip away from the country as a whole if he’s elected president — the woman would still have insurance.

          1. God, you can’t make this shit up, can you. He really is the richest, lyingest, soul-sellingest prick that a major party has ever run for President.

  4. Statement by President Bill Clinton on Governor Mitt Romney’s New Television Advertisement
    New York, NY—Governor Romney released an ad today alleging that the Obama administration had weakened the work requirements of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. That is not true.
    The act emerged after years of experiments at the state level, including my work as Governor of Arkansas beginning in 1980. When I became President, I granted waivers from the old law to 44 states to implement welfare to work strategies before welfare reform passed.
    After the law was enacted, every state was required to design a plan to move people into the workforce, along with more funds to help pay for training, childcare and transportation. As a result, millions of people moved from welfare to work.
    The recently announced waiver policy was originally requested by the Republican governors of Utah and Nevada to achieve more flexibility in designing programs more likely to work in this challenging environment. The Administration has taken important steps to ensure that the work requirement is retained and that waivers will be granted only if a state can demonstrate that more people will be moved into work under its new approach. The welfare time limits, another important feature of the 1996 act, will not be waived.
    The Romney ad is especially disappointing because, as governor of Massachusetts, he requested changes in the welfare reform laws that could have eliminated time limits altogether. We need a bipartisan consensus to continue to help people move from welfare to work even during these hard times, not more misleading campaign ads.

    1. This is a pretty good CYA attempt. I wonder how long it will take him to just say it was a mistake.

  5. With due respect for the misstatement of policy on an issue that’s central for you, and as I’m sure you recognize, this ad isn’t about policy. The policy is just something to lie about in order to widen the range of attacks, smears, and evil associations that can be heaped on Obama. There’s race, as Jay points out. There’s taxes-going-to-welfare-queens, a golden oldie from the days of the sainted Reagan. There’s even a shot of Clinton in that ad, ostensibly giving liberals a nod but also, and more important, raising the bones of the old Clinton-hasse that they hope will vivify their “base” for one more rally before they expire from old age. And of course it all gets stirred into the witches-brew of their new Obama-hasse. It used to be about how he was some kind of alien Marxist radical liberationist Muslim activist sleeper cell in the White House, but now tying him to the old bugaboos is making him morph into a second-coming-of-Clinton welfare-queen-in-chief.

    This farrago of cross-generational tie-ins, taking off from a lie about policy and hiding behind a facade of praise for Clinton and bipartisanship, is why so much money is being poured into running this ad so widely. It’s all about the branding. And I mean that in the old sense as well as the more contemporary.

    1. Naaah!! The video is nothing like Romney, who more nearly resembles the other end of the horse.

  6. Well, I for one keep waiting for sd and Megan McArdle to weigh in here, expressing their shock at these absurd and obvious lies.

    Where are you, truth-seekers?

  7. Here is a message from the non-academic left: Romney’s message certainly carries racial implications, as do many discussion of welfare. But there are plenty of white people who have been on, or have had relatives on welfare and who saw, pre-TANF, that welfare can become a trap.

  8. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the administration had published the memo to HHS so everyone could have read it? That however would have made it easy to form for an honest opinion. That would have limited the spin an grin effort and not creating much response.

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