Perhaps no law in the past generation has drawn more praise than the drive to “end welfare as we know it,” which joined the late-’90s economic boom to send caseloads plunging, employment rates rising and officials of both parties hailing the virtues of tough love.
But the distress of the last four years has added a cautionary postscript: much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared. Despite the worst economy in decades, the cash welfare rolls have barely budged.
Faced with flat federal financing and rising need, Arizona is one of 16 states that have cut their welfare caseloads further since the start of the recession — in its case, by half. Even as it turned away the needy, Arizona spent most of its federal welfare dollars on other programs, using permissive rules to plug state budget gaps.
While data on the very poor is limited and subject to challenge, recent studies have found that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid — roughly four million women and children. Many of the mothers have problems like addiction or depression, which can make assisting them politically unpopular, and they have received little attention in a downturn that has produced an outpouring of concern for the middle class.
Poor families can turn to other programs, like food stamps or Medicaid, or rely on family and charity. But the absence of a steady source of cash, however modest, can bring new instability to troubled lives.
Pamela Loprest and Austin Nichols, researchers at the Urban Institute, found that one in four low-income single mothers nationwide — about 1.5 million — are jobless and without cash aid. That is twice the rate the researchers found under the old welfare law. More than 40 percent remain that way for more than a year, and many have mental or physical disabilities, sick children or problems with domestic violence.
Using a different definition of distress, Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard examined the share of households with children in a given month living on less than $2 per person per day. It has nearly doubled since 1996, to almost 4 percent. Even when counting food stamps as cash, they found one of every 50 children live in such a household.
The Census Bureau uses a third measure, “deep poverty,” which it defines as living on less than half of the amount needed to escape poverty (for a family of three, that means living on less than $9,000 a year). About 10 percent of households headed by women report incomes that low, a bit less than the peak under the old law but still the highest level in 18 years.
This is the type of thing that happens when success is measured by how many people are taken off welfare. People who talk about reducing welfare love to give anecdotes (Reagan and his welfare queen), but Pierce has an anecdote for them:
Chase put Marcus into the heart-transplant program. On April 15, 1997, she informed the Social Security Administration that Marcus Stephens was waiting for a heart transplant. A claims examiner in the Mississippi Social Security office named Brenda Smithers put a notation in Marcus’s file.
“Dr. Chase has mentioned that they need to think about a heart transplant,” the note read.
THE POSSIBILITY OF A TRANSPLANT BROUGHT THE RIDDLES BACK TO Memphis even more often. “They tested Marcus a lot,” says Sammie Riddle. “Once, he had some problems that set him back, and you could see that, maybe, they were thinking, ‘Why waste a heart on this one?’ Then he came back, and they put him right back there at the top of the list.”
On May 27, 1997, the Riddles got another letter from the Social Security Administration. “Earlier,” the letter began, “we told you we were reviewing MARCUS T. STEPHENS’s case to see if he is disabled under the new definition of disability for children. After reviewing all the information carefully, we have decided that he no longer qualifies for Supplemental Security Income (SSI).” At the time the letter was mailed, Marcus was almost totally bedridden. In addition, in its files, the Social Security office had Dr. Chase’s notification that Marcus was waiting for a heart transplant. Brenda Smithers had put it there more than a month before. Clearly, the review was no review at all.
Marcus died in December of that year, partially as a result of welfare reform. Oh, Pierce has data too:
Over the next year, more studies debunked the notion of general fraud in the program, the notion of parents “coaching” their children, and the myth of the “crazy checks.” The inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Disability Policy Panel of the Congress, and an investigation by the Social Security Administration all advocated fine-tuning the SSI program but discovered little evidence of fraud and abuse and no evidence at all of successful parental “coaching.”
Reporters–from leftist Alexander Cockburn in The Nation to Christopher Georges in the conservative Forbes MediaCritic–were sharply critical of the journalism that had helped spur the attack on the SSI program. (According to Georges, one of ABC’s primary on-camera sources, a physician, offered to sell him information concerning SSI fraud. Georges declined.) Even The Washington Post came to editorialize that the SSI critics “had argued mainly on the strength of anecdotal evidence” and cautioned Bill Clinton not to cut the program too severely.
But the damage had been done. The uproar over the SSI program still clearly echoed throughout the larger world. As part of the welfare-reform legislation that President Clinton signed on August 22, 1996, every child who had been enrolled in the SSI program under the expanded definition of disability since the Zebley decision had to be reevaluated–280,000 of them in less than a year. Also, the Social Security Administration proposed a more restrictive set of eligibility standards for the SSI program.
but, you see, the law was a success because welfare caseload went down. The idea that there is pervasive fraud in government programs is why a religious leader like Rick Warren will say:
WARREN: Well, certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There’s over 2,000 versus in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation…
WARREN: The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity. There are a lot of negative things that happen to us. Rather, we should be focusing on wealth creation and job creation, in my opinion.
Marcus Stephens might have died, but he died with dignity, I guess. And fairness decreed that he had to die, or something. When a supposed Christian pastor argues that we help the poor too much and that helping the poor hurts the poor, it’s difficult to respond.