Sunday, June 05, 2016

The U.S. trashed a promise to the poor ... who cares?

As this endless primary season sputters to a close, I'd be remiss if I didn't call out something that did not happen. There's been a lot of re-litigating the previous Clinton presidency. The Donald, dick-obsessed, seems to think it was about Bill's organ. Bernie and progressive Democrats generally lament the permission given to our finance oligarchs to grow their criminal casino economy.

But, despite occasional mentions, there's been little focus on what was probably the worst domestic crime of that presidency: the 1996 "welfare reform" which ended the federal promise of cash assistance to women and children (AFDC) if they became too poor to survive. The Depression era program was racist from the start, effectively limited "deserving" white mothers who fell on hard times, but was gradually agitators extended its coverage to most women and children who desperately needed a hand up. The "reform" ended the promise with a blizzard of regulations and exclusions and a new state run offering (TANF) which cheapskate (read Republican-governed) states could cut back as they chose. And they did.

You don't have to take my word for it. Here's Robert Pear in the Times.

The welfare law has indisputably achieved one of the goals that Mr. Clinton announced in his first campaign for president, to “end welfare as we know it.” Nationally, the number of people receiving cash assistance has fallen to 4.1 million, from 12.3 million in 1996. In Arizona, the number of cash assistance recipients has plummeted to 20,495, from a monthly average of 155,000 in 1996-97.

The 1996 law reversed six decades of social welfare policy, eliminating the individual entitlement to cash assistance for the nation’s poorest children and giving each state a lump sum of federal money with vast discretion over its use. The amount of the main federal block grant has remained at $16.5 billion annually since the law was adopted, but inflation has shrunk the value of that money about a third.

In addition, the reach of the program has been greatly reduced. In 1996, for every 100 families in poverty, 68 received cash assistance. That fell to 23 for every 100 in 2014. And in a dozen states including Arizona, the number is fewer than 10 in 100.

As Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer have exhaustively documented, for most of the truly destitute, "they just don't give welfare anymore."

Instead, the U.S. responds to the "deep" poverty of 6.6% of us (up from 4.5% before "reform) with bureaucratic fiddling: the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, food stamps (SNAP) etc., all of which benefit people who are less poor more than the very poor!
Both Bernie and Hillary back proposals that would add additional layers of needed support for our poor people. But they've been unwilling to buck the majority of us who hold to the moral notion that those who don't work need not be fed.

That's too bad. There is no reason that a country this rich needs to immiserate poor women, their children, and too far many physically and mentally challenged individuals.

Here's Jonathan Chait back in February bemoaning the cowardice of our Democratic champions:

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for president promising to “end welfare as we know it.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders should promise to bring welfare back.

Thus far, they are doing no such thing. Neither Clinton nor Sanders has a welfare-reform proposal, despite the raft of options they have floated for helping lower-income families. Neither Clinton nor Sanders brings up welfare when discussing what good they would do for the poor.

Didn't happen.

We know how to combat poverty: poor people need money. Apparently that simple truth is more than anyone in the political arena dares utter.


Rain Trueax said...

Poverty is not an easy problem with which to deal. I don't think, anyone wants one generation after another to be on welfare with no real incentive to get off of it. But just ending it, which they didn't as we still have many on various assistance programs (food, heat, housing, medical), but nothing done then actually helped change the situation for many stuck in a poverty spiral downward (which often encourages young men to turn to gangs, drugs, etc. as their solution which then puts them in prison or dead). Jesus said we'd always have the poor with us and that is the case. The question is are all those who are poor in that situation because it can't change or because we haven't found the right key to open the door?

Anyone who thinks the Clintons are on the side of the poor or the middle hasn't paid much attention to their policies. What he did with bank deregulation and trade deals that didn't help jobs here at all goes along with welfare. The problem voters like I have is if Bernie can't get it, which seems likely, she's our only alternative. But no way do I kid myself that she cares about the average person or someone who is poor. Of course, the problem is-- would what Bernie wants to do help either? His education policy to make universities affordable (he only says government would cover tuition-- it'd still not be free) would help. Education is definitely part of the problem or rather the lack of skills that make for good jobs. I liked him though for years before he ran for president, when I'd hear him on the talk shows and he'd give his take on various issues the country faced. He always made sense but whether he could do any of it, well there is still that Congress who doesn't want to help anybody but the oligarchs and themselves. This is a VERY disillusioning year for me in terms of feeling good about real hope for change. Seems they all get in and it's the last we hear of programs that might actually help change generational poverty in places like rural American and inner cities.

Hattie said...

We don't recognize poverty as long as it is not unsightly. In the cities we can be very aware of the street people and the bus nuts, and we see the improvised encampments along the freeways, but most poverty is hidden. When I was working in a prison, I knew the inmates were poor people. They were paid 35 cents an hour for their work. They owned two sets of underwear, two shirts, two pair of jeans, a cap and a jacket. Their personal space was a dorm bed and a locker. When I mentioned to my boss one time that the prisoners were poor, my boss look surprised and said, "I never thought of them that way."
The constant threat of falling into poverty ourselves is at the heart of our meanness toward the poor and the reason so many will do just about anything for money. With our insufficient safety net the possibility of descending to the bottom is always there, even for the affluent.
I despair of ever hearing original and possibly effective approaches to eliminating poverty in this country. I would favor a guaranteed annual income. If the prisoners had that, for instance, they could improve their immediate situation some, send money to their families, have some savings when they were paroled. But you can see how unfeasible that would seem to most, like such a far-out idea, and that's why it can't work. Like Medicare, it would have to be for everyone, but Americans would never accept such a program.
I go right back to Shaw and the notion of the deserving and the undeserving poor. The drunk, the mother with too many children, the woman of loose morals, the petty thief: undeserving. The young woman "in service," respectable, mending her stockings and washing her hair on her evening off: deserving. That's how we see the poor, still. In our minds they conform to certain stereotypes. They are not human like us.

Anonymous said...

What are the latest numbers? The charts are outdated.

janinsanfran said...

Anon: the figures I used here derive (among other sources) from this article at Demos which I did link to. Their data does seem to jump around as to years. Still, the strange situation that federal policy has created seems clear: the very poorest receive less assistance today than in the past while the working poor who have just a little more (and who are very profitable to their cheapskate employers) have MORE access to government assistance.

Wonder what difference raising the minimum wage will have on this distribution of benefits?

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