So suddenly this week - into the presidential race about "the economy, stupid" - charges one of the least understood, most micro-managed, least policy-driven debates we ever have in our country. The debate over welfare.
See, e.g. the new ad Romney has put out, per Rachel Maddow...
1. This is a personal issue. I was a kid when Ronald Reagan railed against Welfare Queens. He talked a lot about single mothers, too. At the time, my mother was a single mother (not on welfare, but certainly struggling, financially). I took it personally. I'm still pretty angry about it.
So I tend to take it personally when politicians go after welfare, single mothers, anybody whom they perceive to be sponging off of them. Particularly when said politicians are on federal salaries, with federal health care, and reaping benefits from the various and sundry types of corporate welfare we have in America.
But here's my good friend Mitt Romney, paying "a lot of taxes" (trust him), and going after President Obama on welfare.
2. Yes, it's a dog whistle on racism. I mean, we all know this. But okay, let's pretend we aren't sure for a minute. Why would Governor Romney attack President Obama for granting state waivers for experimentation (specifically NOT for reducing work requirements) that Romney himself requested as a governor?
And why would Newt Gingrich - the chief architect of welfare reform - call Obama the "Food Stamp President?"
Nope, it's not because Newt is right that Obama has given more food stamps than anybody else. Check out this video of Rep. Gutierrez breaking down who is the Food Stamp President:
No, this argument and the new Romney ad are about race-baiting.
3. But the public policy part of me wants to know more. I know what people assume welfare looks like. But is that true?
First, let's talk about who is poor:
- We artificially lower the number of "poor people" as defined by the federal government, by counting based on a pretty darn low economic threshold (particularly low for urban and suburban America). Under the federal numbers, 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2010.
2010 Poverty Thresholds, Selected Family Types
Under 65 years
65 years & older
- Children represent a disproportionate share of the poor in the United States. Children make up 24 percent of the total population, but 36 percent of the poor population. In 2010, 16.4 million children, or 22.0 percent, were poor.
Children Under 18 Living in Poverty, 2010
Number (in thousands)
All children under 18
White only, non-Hispanic
- In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.
- 29.9% of female-headed households live below the federal poverty line.
- About half of all kids will spend at least part of their childhood in a family headed by a single mother, and the typical single mother is white, has one kid, is separated or divorced, works and probably earns less than $25,000 a year.
- The single mother poverty rate in the U.S. is far above the average in high income countries even though the single mother employment rate in the U.S. is also above the average.
And now who, of the people who are poor, receives welfare?
- The average monthly number of TANF families was 1,847,155 in FY 2010. The estimated average monthly number of TANF recipients was 1,084,828 adults and 3,280,153 children.
- The average number of persons in TANF families was 2.4, including an average of 1.8 recipient children. One in two recipient families had only one child. Less than eight percent of families had more than three children.
- Almost half of TANF families had no adult recipients. About 49 percent of TANF families had only one adult recipient, and 5 percent included two or more adult recipients.
- TANF and Race - (and let's remember here that there are over 2.5 times the percentage of poor African Americans and Hispanics as there are poor white people...)
Trend in TANF Families by Race/Ethnicity
FY 2000 - FY 2010
Black or African American
*Can be of Any Race
Source: Appendix Table 10:8
- Eighty-two percent of TANF families received SNAP (food stamp) benefits in FY 2010, which is consistent with previous levels. These families received average monthly SNAP benefits of $378. In addition, 97 percent of TANF families received medical assistance in FY 2010.
- About 34 percent of food-stamp recipients are white, while 22 percent are African Americans and 16 percent Hispanic, with the rest being Asian, Native American or those who chose not to identify their race, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- About half of SNAP recipients are younger than 18, and 8 percent are older than 60. Some 41 percent of all recipients live in households where family members are employed.
4. Is TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families - or "Welfare") Working? No.
Let's be honest, Newt. This was never really about finding good ways to move people from welfare into work. It was about finding ways of shoving people off of welfare and you didn't care where they landed. After all, you are the one who was suggesting we return to a poorhouse system - specifically suggesting removing children of "welfare mothers" from their homes and placing them in orphanages, and have recently suggested that poor children be required to be janitors in their schools so that they learn a good work ethic.
Want to know how I know that the "reform" wasn't about helping the poor? Because when we axed AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and created TANF we didn't add in a tracking and reporting mechanism to see where families were going after they left welfare. Why? Because the architects of the new law either (charitably) didn't want to know, or (less charitably) didn't care.
Want to know what such a tracking system would show? We don't know for certain, but we do know that TANF isn't reaching most families poor enough to qualify for assistance.
A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that in 2005 state TANF programs provided cash assistance to just 40 percent of families who are poor enough to qualify for TANF cash assistance and who meet the other eligibility requirements for these programs. During the 1980s and early 1990s, by contrast, the former AFDC program provided cash assistance to about 80 percent of very poor families that qualified for assistance. In 2005, an average of 2.1 million families per month received TANF cash assistance — if these programs served 80 percent rather than 40 percent of eligible families, the number of families receiving assistance would have been 4.2 million. [Emphasis mine.]
5. Because We Don't Seem to Care What Happens After Welfare, TANF encourages politicians to shove families off of public assistance, not to help them. That has real consequences for children, particularly in a time when jobs are difficult to find.
In 1995, TANF’s predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, lifted out of deep poverty 62 percent of the children who otherwise would have been below half of the poverty line; by 2005, this figure for TANF was just 21 percent. TANF programs in states with a very low TANF-to-poverty ratio do little to protect children from deep poverty.
6. And the success of TANF varies wildly from state to state, based on whether the politicians are putting in place actual anti-poverty policies, or just trying to push families off of welfare to boost their own statistics.
7. What do we get for Welfare Dollars?
- Economic Stimulus: Here's one thing I can tell you: when money is given to families who qualify for welfare, it gets put directly into the economy. Yes, some of the money we give to rich people in tax cuts goes into the economy. But a lot more of the money going to rich people goes to the Caymans or Switzerland than the money going to poor people. And what stimulates the economy? People buying stuff. Welfare translates to people buying stuff they could not afford otherwise. The same holds true for Unemployment Insurance. And public works funds that largely go into people getting jobs to build and fix stuff.
- Long-Term Economic Gains and Poor Kids Who Turn Into More Productive Adults: Evidence suggests that poverty among young children not only slows them in school but also shrinks their earnings as adults. Poverty researchers Greg J. Duncan of the University of California, Irvine and Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin found that among families with incomes below $25,000, children whose families received a $3,000 annual income boost when the children were under age 6 earned 17 percent more as adults, and worked 135 more hours per year after age 25, than otherwise-similar children whose families didn’t receive the income boost.
8. How do people feel about Welfare?
- Most Americans oppose cutting food stamps, with 92 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Independents saying cuts to the program are the wrong way to reduce spending.
- Almost nobody thinks welfare is the most important problem we have.
- 52 percent of people support the Ryan Budget that would severely cut all aid to the poor. Well, no, they really don't.
9. In Conclusion. So I guess the things that stand out the most to me are:
- No, welfare is not a black issue.
- No, Obama is not the "food stamps president" in any legitimate way.
- TANF ia failing as a social safety net.
- There are a lot of poor kids in America, and we are failing them.