The Romney camp’s new attack line on the Obama administration – that he “gutted” the work requirements imposed on families receiving public assistance – has been widely debunked as a distortion of a mundane policy memo. But the real scandal here isn’t what Obama did or didn’t do to “workfare”; it’s that both parties have gutted the welfare system as a whole to conduct a cruel social experiment on impoverished families.
As many watchdogs have pointed out, the memo in question from the Department of Health and Human Services basically offers states more flexibility to meet mandatory targets for moving people off of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and into gainful employment. This program, administered jointly through federal and state agencies, is the central plank of Clinton-era welfare reform, and its principal political aim has always been to reduce the statistical presence of the poor, not alleviating their poverty.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), as welfare reform approaches its Sweet Sixteen, TANF’s track record contrasts bitterly with that of its predecessor, AFDC, which Reaganite conservatives had savaged as undeserved entitlement:
Over the last 16 years, the national TANF caseload has declined by 60 percent, even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened. While the official poverty rate among families declined in the early years of welfare reform, when the economy was booming and unemployment was extremely low, it started increasing in 2000 and now exceeds its 1996 level.
These opposing trends — TANF caseloads going down while poverty is going up — mean that a much smaller share of poor families receive cash assistance from TANF than they did prior to welfare reform.
This punitive approach to poverty has driven poor mothers of color further to the margins of the economy, making them even more politically invisible.
As Josh Eidelson noted at Jacobin, the work requirements are a clandestine release valve for the poor people that politicians want to get rid of, but are too tight-fisted to actually care for. As the welfare system coercively links people’s benefits to (government-defined) work activities, participants have been tethered to a world of underpaid labor in which jobless poverty might sometimes seem preferable to low-paid, demeaning dead-end jobs.
And often families fall through the cracks. According to CBPP, among those who’ve tumbled off the welfare rolls, many are “disconnected from both welfare and work.” The underlying assumption seems to be that the poor will avoid work as long as the nanny state lavishes them with welfare checks. It’s hard not to notice the racist overtones of this canard – the mythical black welfare queen–unless you fail to notice poverty altogether. And “reform” makes it easier for politicians to wear ignorance of both race and poverty like a badge of honor.
CBPP’s analysis shows that in the long term, although employment rates rose among single mothers when TANF was in its infancy, “as the economy has weakened, a substantial portion of the early gains have been lost.” The employment trendlines indicate that overall, “the economy, rather than policy, is now the main driver of employment among single mothers.”
If policy alone doesn’t drive the “undeserving poor” into the labor force, it certainly can wreck the lives of families, and the funding crisis keeps worsening as states tighten their fiscal belts around the necks of struggling moms. The New York Times earlier this year described the plight of women in Arizona who had been both pummeled by the recession and steamrolled by the state’s attack on cash-assistance programs:
The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.
Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.
The lost opportunities for children threatened with dire poverty are immeasurable. 2005 data reveal that TANF gave a crucial lift to about one in five of the children who “otherwise would have been in deep poverty.” But a decade earlier, AFDC protected about three in five of the kids who would otherwise face that extreme hardship . One main reason is simply that fewer families receive benefits, but another problem is that TANF’s block-grant structure ensures that funding levels will stay locked and erode due to inflation. CBPP points out that “States receive 30 percent less in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars than they did in 1997, a year when the unemployment rate averaged just 4.9 percent.”
With bipartisan support, welfare reform “worked” like a neoliberal bulldozer into TANF, one that the Romney-Ryan ticket now wants to plow into other programs like Medicare.
Can TANF be fixed? Though state governments and the White House generally remain devoted to the welfare-to-work concept, revising the work requirements might ease the burden. LaDonna Pavetti, an analyst of Family Income Support Policy at the CBPP, says, “The problem is with how the work requirements are defined and how states’ performance is measured,” and broadening the definitions of what qualifies as “workforce participation” would make it easier to meet the participation rate requirements. Otherwise, as Pavetti testified at a congressional hearing last year, “States often gear engagement with participants toward meeting the work rates first and foremost, and may try only secondarily to meet the actual work-related needs of families they are serving.”
That says a lot about the perverse motives that drive dehumanizing welfare policies. The political class laments how poor people lack incentives to be self-sufficient, while policymakers receive accolades for “reforms” that attack the most vulnerable.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.