The broken promise of welfare reform

The deal was more pressure to work in return for more help – especially day care – for working families. Now the help is falling victim to state-level budget-cutting.

The welfare reform deal of 1996 was a straight-up trade: tighter work requirements in return for more financial support for poor working families. Now the deal is coming unstuck as cash-squeezed state governments crippled by anti-tax ideology find themselves unable to come up with money for, e.g., day care. This would be a good time for the proponents of welfare reform to speak out in defense of the working poor.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “The broken promise of welfare reform”

  1. I thought the promise of welfare reform was, "We'll give less money to people who aren't working, and in return take less of your paycheck." Granted, the promise still wasn't kept, but that was the promise most people heard.

  2. Unfortunately it is not yet time for opponents of welfare reform to try to reverse it. It is just accepted that welfare reform was a success. I think this view is caused in part by pre-existing irrational views about AFDC (which lead journalists to absolutely refuse to believe what a small fraction of the budget went to AFDC when David Ellwood showed them a pie chart) but mostly by the fact that, by pure coincidence, welfare reform was implemented exactly at the time the economy boomed. By 2000 the debate was settled, evidently forever.

    Since then, there has been a huge increase in severe poverty (income below half the poverty line). The numbers for 2009 are not out yet, but I'm willing to offer 100 to one odds that they will set a new record (the official series doesn't go back before the 70s I don't know why).

    And yet it is widely agreed that welfare reform was a success and almost universally agreed that it was not a disaster. This view is defensible only to those who don't think it's a problem that millions of people in the USA have to survive on income less than half the poverty line.

    I don't expect to live to see the day that welfare reform will be considered an insane horror. I also don't doubt that the day will come.

  3. Brett only shameless liars and Republicans, but I repeat myself,claimed that welfare reform would make significant tax cuts possible. That belief was widespread, but it was based on a massive delusion about the amount of money going to welfare (even defined as broadly as possible). Federal AFDC spending was 1% of the budget (TANF spending was actually higher than AFDC spending would have been without welfare reform). That was roughly matched by state spending. Cutting spending by 2% of the federal budget does not make room for much in the way of tax cuts.

    Most of the expected value welfare reform spending cuts were cuts to food stamps (IIRC more than all of the cuts in the ). However, that's another small program.

    The fact is that most US taxpayers thought they were sending a lot of money to the federal government which sent it on to the idle poor. Most US taxpayers were totally wrong. It wasn't a promise that happens to have been broken. It was nonsense to begin with.

  4. So, just out of curiosity, Chaz, where do you get off comparing single mothers you don't know to drunken sailors? That was quite random.

    It's a funny habit of conservatives that I've noticed. They only are able to feel compassion for people they actually know, such as themselves. Everyone else in the world is automatically assumed to be on the make in some way. I guess that's why they are always sooooo angry?

  5. And while I'm ranting, can I just say how the new war on teachers reminds me of the Clintons? It all *sounds* so logical, with all the talk of "data" and "accountability." Never mind there don't seem to be any good studies or pilot programs to back up their theories. (Or maybe someone here will know of some? But charters are out- the data are squishy, and also they changed so many variables at once that I don't think they can pin anything in particular on the magically non-cba'd teachers.)

    Oh yes, and also, again, the target is women. Coincidence? (When was the last time someone blamed the cops for crime?)

    Does anyone else think it's a problem that this blog is so male-dominated? If you need some smart women to become contributors, I went to grad school with some really smart ones. I can give you names.

  6. Robert, on "broad" definitions of welfare – as far as I can tell, it seems to now be widely regarded as social spending in general. So whether it's rehab programs or mental health clinics, parenting classes or free and reduced children's lunches, it all seems to slide into the handy term. So you have folks like CharlesWT referring to poor single mothers who can't afford daycare as "drunken sailors" (or maybe that was meant to describe those of us depraved enough to think they might require a little help).

    From Princeton Wordnet:

    Bogeyman: an imaginary monster used to frighten children

  7. NGC – you know, that's a pretty brilliant point. As a teacher (Kindergarten through 12) I've felt the same sort of anger, wondering how it is we seem to treat the sacrifices of other civil servants differently. When the military fails, we wouldn't dare blame the soldiers. When crime rises, we don't blame the cops.

    I think there are some things that are different about teaching – most people have kids/know kids in school; everyone has had a teacher they don't like; the nature of teaching is complicated and has ideological components.

    But yeah, there's also a huge gender gap. While less so at the secondary level, elementary is heavily female. Moreover, as an identity, it probably ranks right around motherhood. So it isn't surprising that as such it is so devalued and dumped on. Yet just as anyone who has known a hardworking mother knows what heroes they are, managing the academic and emotional growth of 30 kids a day isn't something to sneeze at.

    Sexism. Very interesting.

  8. The war on teachers isn't that new, it's just now reaching critical mass. Just like prisons were privatized, and that must have been pretty profitable for those involved, public schools are being privatized. It's a brilliant plan, really. It decimates a big, liberal union; it gets rid of a whole level of local government (the democratically elected and accountable school board); and it creates opportunities for graft like you wouldn't believe. If this is a topic that interests you, I suggest stopping by: http://www.schoolsmatter.info/

    But back to the subject at hand. IIRC, something like 40% of those families on assistance have either a disabled adult or child. That might have something to do with them "not working," though I don't suppose that will much of a difference to our friend Brett.

  9. "So, just out of curiosity, Chaz, where do you get off comparing single mothers you don’t know to drunken sailors?"

    "So you have folks like CharlesWT referring to poor single mothers who can’t afford daycare as 'drunken sailors'"

    I apologize for being unclear. I was referring to the various state and local governments who, for the pass decade, have been blowing through their tax revenues like there's no tomorrow. Now that the tax revenues are down, they want to be bailed out and/or raise taxes to meet all the obligations they've committed to, good and bad. Many are in no position to raise taxes because their tax base is already eroding. Doing so will cause even more people and business to leave. They keep it up and whole sections of the country could start to look like Detroit, Cleveland, etc.

  10. CharlesWT, Here's one article I saw today:

    http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2010/05/charter-s

    You can find plenty more like that if you do your own googling. Try the Cleveland White Hat schools for starters.

    Now I will tell you one really important set of ways charters are different. Public schools are run by a form of local government called the school board. The school board is democratically elected by the voters of the jurisdiction (i.e., those living in the school district).

    The meetings and records of the school board and management are open to the public — not the records of individual students, I mean the financial and administrative records. If the voters aren't happy with what is happening in their district, they can speak at school board meetings, campaign for new candidates, even run for the school board themselves.

    These are some of the checks and balances of a democratic system. Now let's look at charters. They are run by private entities and the voters have no say in who the people running that private entity are; there is no accountability. Their meetings and records are private; there is no transparency.

    Yes, on rare occasions, there's a big case of graft in a public school system — anyone remember that school system on Long Island a couple of years ago? But there are proportionally many, many, many more cases among the charters, and if you can't see how the PUBLIC structure of public schools works to limit graft, and the PRIVATE structure of charters works to allow graft, I can't help you. Because in that case, no answer that goes against your preconceived notions would sway you.

  11. Ohio Mom, I was just laid off… (God, it was actually November of last year – has it been that long?!) from a charter which I had good reason to believe was taking federal money for which it was not providing proper services. There's a whole issue of this with charter schools in general, to the extent that they kick kids back onto other schools for either behavioral reasons or because they simply don't have the resources.

    But at our school the service failure was incredible. It was technically an academy of the larger charter "school", which in turn had a contract with a county district. So our population, which was almost entirely low-income, qualified for federal title I funds, which among other things pays for free and reduced lunches. Yet we lacked the facilities and no meals were ever delivered. The kids, especially in the early grades often subsisted on junk food, if they had lunches or breakfast at all. There were a number of children who would consistently come without food and the teachers would go around collecting leftovers for them.

    I could go on and on – the overall incompetence of the administrations was mind-blowing. And as there was no union the staff had no protection if we objected to policy. Arguably capricious firings were the norm.

    You know, writing this out reminds me that I had been afraid to start any trouble (I have a wife and 2 kids to support). But I should really contact the local paper. A few years back the head of the school (oh yeah – her husband is director of finances, and both are on the board) they were in the paper over financial corruption.

  12. Too bad CharlesWT seems to be gone, Eli your story is just the right answer to his comment. So sorry you lost your job. It's no fun living through this patch of history.

  13. NGC, Eli, OhioMom:

    teachers as a focus for resentment in a country marked by anti-intellectual and anti-knowledge movements? Teachers, being in general part of the reality-based community, are also in many people's perceptions the vanguard for corruption of the young. I think this one is overdetermined.

  14. Eli, you should totally go public. People need to know what can happen at a bad charter. Those children were robbed, straight up, pure and simple.

    And exactly how are they supposed to learn if they're hungry?

    As for Charles' larger point about governmental financial stupidity — it seems largely true, but it's no worse than what went on in the private sector, the fat cats of which *did* get bailed out. Unlike you and me.

    As a society, we really should figure out a way to hedge against downturns, so we aren't all broke at the same time. Where is Phil Angelides when you need him??? Well, that will be an interesting report.

  15. paul, yes, those attitudes are real, and they make it much easier for those who want to dismantle the public school system as much as they can (I don't think they want to or will succeed totally. For one thing, it's hard for me to imagine there's much profit to be gained in the very rural school systems or in special ed). But I don't think for example, that Eli Broad is being motivated by anti-intellectual sentiments. The real motivating force here is greed — like they say, follow the money.

    Here's some more on charter graft:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/education/26cha

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