“Welfare reform” without tears? Maybe not

About 5% of the nation’s population lives in “extreme or severe” poverty, according to official statistics.

Back in 1996, when “welfare reform” was being debated, opponents of the bill warned that it would result in an upsurge the numbers of the profoundly destitute. Proponents scoffed.

Since then, the welfare-reformers have been crowing. Despite the vigilance of poverty researchers, they say, no one is finding the predicted horror stories. (That’s partly, some of them admit, because there was less to the bill than met the eye; the big non-cash programs such as housing and food stamps continued, and many people were able to move from AFDC &#8212 renamed TANF &#8212 onto the disability rolls.)

But official data show a steady increase since 2000 in the numbers of the “extremely” or “severely” poor, (below 50% of the income level that defines simple “poverty”) and the horror stories aren’t hidden from those willing to look.

Naturally, the Bush Administration is on the case: it has proposed to stop collecting the data.

I’d be interested in responses from my friends among the “welfare-reform” fans.

Update Doug Besharov’s thoughts, from 2002.

Second update A reader comments:

The relevant numbers for 1996, 2000 and 2005:

Percent of People By Ratio of Income to Poverty Level: 1970 to 2005


All people


Year 0.50 0.75 1.00 1.25 1.50 1.75 2.00


2005…….. 5.4 8.6 12.6 16.8 21.5 26.1 31.0

2000 12/…. 4.5 7.5 11.3 15.6 20.2 24.9 29.3

1996…….. 5.4 9.3 13.7 18.5 23.4 28.5 33.5

I don’t think the welfare reformers have much of anything to apologize for. The 2000 numbers were very good. If you want a baseline, 1996 seems like a perfectly appropriate choice. It doesn’t show what McClatchey wants to show, so it doesn’t make the newspapers. The newspaper article is a fraud, and not a very good one.

Given that 1996-2006 was a pretty good decade economically (I can’t find the figures quickly, but GDP per capita must be up something like 30% over the period) I’m not sure that an unchanging number of people in severe poverty over that period counts as success. But judge for yourself.

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