The U.S. is spending considerably more on safety net programs than it did in the mid-1970s, but the poorest families — most of them headed by single mothers — are receiving less.
This is a key finding in the latest of several studies conducted by Professor Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University. He looked at spending the 15 largest “social safety net” programs between 1975 and 2007.
He traced payments from social insurance programs like Social Security for retirees and unemployment compensation and from means-tested programs, i.e. those that limit eligibility to people below a set income level.
Overall safety net spending in real dollars was 74% higher at the end of the period, but families in deep poverty, i.e., below half the federal poverty line, received 35% less than they did the year before Congress replaced welfare as we knew it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Well, we knew that TANF is a poor excuse for a safety net program — and in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ chart book shows.
Moffitt’s findings, however, do far more than confirm this. Basically, as he says, they show that long-standing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor “have grown sharper over the last 20 or 30 years.”
“The deserving are those who work, who are married or at least widowed, who have children and who are native born.”
The undeserving are the obverse, Moffitt contends, though I personally think the bans on safety net benefits for recent immigrants have other roots.
Quibble aside, what his data show isn’t merely declining support for the “undeserving” poor. We also see increasing support for famiies who aren’t poor — or even near-poor.
The shift reportedly means that a family of four earning $11,925 a year is probably getting less aid than the same-sized family earning $47,700 — 200% of the federal poverty line.
This is partly because the real-dollar value of TANF cash benefits has dropped so significantly, along with the percent of poor families served — about 43% fewer than in 1996.
At the same time, most of the fastest growing programs serve “specialized populations,” Moffitt says. These include Supplemental Security Income, which helps only lower-income people who are elderly, blind or severely disabled, i.e., those who qualify as deserving because we don’t expect them to work.
Otherwise, most of the fastest growing programs benefit families with at least one worker — the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Childless workers obviously don’t qualify for the latter at all. And their EITC benefit is piddling.
By contrast, a married couple with two children qualifies for a maximum $5,460 credit — and for phased-down credits until their adjusted gross income reaches $49,146.
The one exception, Moffitt notes, is SNAP (the food stamp program), which isn’t restricted to any “specialized population.” But it provides only about $5 per person per day, he says — a generous rounding up, according to CBPP data.
By and large, we see “rising support for those who work and declining support for those who do not, Moffitt says. “If you’re trying and not succeeding, the welfare system today gives you basically nothing.”
We’ve cut support to families without a breadwinner — and to single-mother families in particular — because of a “presumption that they have not taken personal responsibility for their situation,” he explains.
By these lights, earning is a mark of deserving — as is marrying (someone of the opposite sex) and staying married, no matter what.
Poverty betokens some character flaw — at the very least, a failure to try hard enough, as a majority of Republicans (and not they only) apparently believe.
Moffitt understandably believes it would be futile — perhaps counterproductive — to attack the work bias in our safety net programs. He mentions doing more for those who face the largest obstacles to work, e.g., lack of marketable skills and/or affordable child care.
But he also hopes “we could find ways to assist those families who are making an effort, but not succeeding.” Effort then becomes a market of deserving.
And who will decide who’s really trying?