Welfare Shifts to the “Deserving” Poor … and Not-So-Poor

May 27, 2014

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?





Old Narrative Gets New Life in GOP Policy Proposals

March 15, 2012

I decided to write about Professor Matthew Fraidin’s column on child welfare mainly because it shows how the stereotypes we absorb and construct shape programs and services for low-income people.

Both he and David Henderson, the blogger/consultant I cited, focus on a narrative that predisposes us to think of poor people as incompetent — not as wise as we are about what’s good for them and their families.

But what really got me going is a more pernicious version of the poor people story that’s running just below the surface of some current policy developments.

In this narrative, low-income people aren’t incompetent. They’re lazy, prone to crime and willfully irresponsible.

Newt Gingrich, for example, has floated the notion that poor kids should be hired to clean their schools because their communities offer no exposure to “habits of working” — no “habit” of doing anything in exchange for cash “unless it’s illegal.”

If this were all, we could write it off as Newt spouting whatever comes into his mythy mind.

But Professor James Q. Wilson implied something rather similar when he wrote, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, that “making the poor more economically mobile” will require, among other things, “finding and implementing ways to … induce them to join the legitimate workforce.”

Seems that lawful work just doesn’t appeal to them.

Meanwhile, four states have passed laws requiring applicants for public assistance to pass drug tests. Dozens more considered similar proposals last year.

And again we got a bill to mandate nationwide drug testing in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The sponsor, Senator David Vitter (R-LA), says it’s needed to ensure that “potentially billions of dollars of welfare funds” don’t “end up in the wrong places or being spent on illegal drugs.”

In other words, we’ve got lots of poor parents who aren’t trying to become self-sufficient, as TANF intends. Indeed, they’re spending their meager benefits on drugs instead of on their children’ needs.

The data don’t support this. But the narrative does.

As Jordan C. Budd writes, most of the drug testing bills reflect “the implicit assumption that the poor are inherently predisposed to culpable conduct.” Groundless searches are justified because everyone in the class is suspect.

A bill the House passed in January provides a further twist to the narrative. This one got folded into the original House extensions package and into the final package as well.

The measure is supposed to prevent TANF recipients from using their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards to withdraw cash from ATM machines in liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.

The clear implication is that TANF benefits are going for booze, gambling and oggling naked dancers. Here again, undeserving poor parents indulging sinful appetites — and wasting money that should be spent on their needy, neglected children.

No evidence, however, that they’re spending money in these dens of sin. Some may use the ATMs because they work in those places. Others because there’s a liquor store around the corner, while a bank is several miles away.

These policy initiatives are relatively new, but the narrative is an old one, predating the “Welfare Queen meme” that journalist Ed Kilgore says is making a comeback. The difference is that it’s no longer as overtly racist.

But we know who these undeserving, profligate poor people are, don’t we? Had we any doubt that the mythical welfare queen was black?

UPDATE: After I posted this, I found a just-published article by Barbara Ehrenreich that traces the evolution of the narrative I discuss here. Informative and insightful, as her work always is.