Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Beware of "reformers" if you like Medicare and Social Security

We've just passed the 15th anniversary of the "welfare reform" that Newt Gingrich and a bunch of conservative think tanks cooked up and that Bill Clinton signed in 1996.

Full disclosure: I worked alongside welfare mothers against this bill back in the day and I'm still mad about it. The former President's acquiescence in this punitive law took Hillary Clinton out of the running for me in 2008; perhaps that wasn't fair, but this seemed a core matter of principle: you don't advance your career by beating up poor people and get me on your team.

Just as we've seen lately that the Republican answer to sick people not being able to afford medical care is "just die," welfare "reform" said to poor mothers and their kids: "sink or swim."

There has been a lot of sinking. The law gave block grants to states with which they were allowed to assist the poor in a program called "Temporary Assistance to Needed Families" (TANF) -- these grants are no larger today than they were in 1996. Yes, that means inflation has cut the real value of the funding by 28 percent. Moreover, aside from a provision that barred most assistance lasting more than five years with federal funds, there were weak or no rules about how many poor mothers and children had to be helped, so states that were so inclined simply stopped paying for assistance.

The colors on this map follow a politically predictable pattern.

No state is generous -- how'd you like to try to live on 40-50 percent of the Federal measure of poverty in the better states? According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:
In 2010, the monthly TANF benefit level for a family of three was less than the estimated cost of a two-bedroom apartment (based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Fair Market Rent”) in all states, and less than half of the Fair Market Rent in 24 states.
The "welfare reform" has proved remarkably recession proof. You'd think that with a financial collapse and unemployment nearly doubling there'd be some rise in the the welfare rolls. But although in 2009 the food stamp program saw a 57 percent increase, TANF participation has remained flat as economic hardship has increased.

Welfare "reform" has achieved its goal: it has swept poor children and their mothers under the rug and out of sight and of political discussion. Democrats are no longer burdened by the charge that they support undeserving free-loaders; Republicans always wanted the poor to drop dead anyway. These folks seldom vote; they can be squashed like bugs and they have been.

Who's next?

This post draws on articles by CBPP, and Jake Blumgart at the American Prospect. Ezra Klein alerted me to the anniversary.

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