welfare and the recession

The New York Times ran a front-page story today about the failure of the welfare rolls to increase even as the economy tanks.  It's by Jason DeParle, who covered welfare reform for the Times in the 1990s, and wrote the best book there is on the subject: American Dream, and I think he got it just about right. There are some states with significant percentage increases in their caseloads, to be sure, but the base is so low at this point that the absolute numbers of new cases is pretty small.  And the two states with the highest unemployment rates — Michigan and Rhode Island — have experienced large decreases in the number of families receiving welfare.  Frankly, it scares me.

The article is currently #9 on the Times list of most emailed articles, and it received 171 comments on their website before the Times cut it off.  (I didn't know that the Times cut off comments on their articles… I wonder if this is based on a time limit, a number of comments, or a subjective judgment of the quality of the discussion.  Actually, the comments are far more balanced and reasonable than I would have guessed.)

As the article notes, there are some provisions in the recovery bill that provide incentives to states to let more people receive assistance.  So far, they haven't received much attention, and that's probably a good thing politically.  They're pretty small dollars in the scheme of the bill (although I'd have said the same thing about the family planning provisions, and that didn't protect them).  I think it's really key that Ron Haskins, who was the lead Republican staffer for the Ways and Means Committee during welfare reform, was willing to be quoted in the article that he thinks caseloads ought to be rising:

Even some of the program’s staunchest defenders are alarmed.

“There
is ample reason to be concerned here,” said Ron Haskins, a former
Republican Congressional aide who helped write the 1996 law overhauling
the welfare system. “The overall structure is not working the way it
was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a
deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare.”

“When
we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We
know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people
starve,’ ” said Mr. Haskins, who is now a researcher at the Brookings Institution
in Washington. “And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is
going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on
the rolls.”

That provides a LOT of political cover to Republicans who don't want to do anything that can be seen as undoing welfare reform.

That said, I don't think it helps things when progressives refer to the bailout as "corporate welfare."  I think the term inherently suggests that welfare is a bad thing.

6 Responses to “welfare and the recession”

  1. Shawn Fremstad Says:

    I’m skeptical that Haskins helps much. For folks in states, he’s an inside-the-beltway analyst who works for (what is incorrectly considered to be) a liberal DC think thank. Moreover, at the state level, the problem is bipartisan: 12 of the states with decreases in the number of families receiving Temporary-Assistance income supplements have Democratic governors.
    A not unimportant element of the problem has to do with how Temporary Assistance is framed by media, analysts, and advocates. A telling quote in the DeParle piece: “‘Food assistance is not considered welfare,’ said Donalda Carlson, a Rhode Island welfare administrator.”
    This didn’t happen by accident. Hunger advocates saw the writing on the wall a decade ago and strategically reframed the food stamp program as a “work support” rather than “welfare” as David Super has detailed in this New York University Law Review Article. http://www3.law.nyu.edu/journals/lawreview/issues/vol79/no4/NYU403.pdf.
    No similar concerted attempt has been with Temporary Assistance. While individual organizations have engaged in some reframing—the former Welfare Law Center, for example, now calls itself the National Center for Law and Economic Justice—leading DC tanks working Temporary Assistance, like CLASP and CBPP (where I worked from 1999 to 2005), still frame the issue area as “welfare.”
    The metaphor “welfare” is, and probably for the next decade or two, will remain an inherently bad thing in the minds of basically all Americans. Since it’s a Sisyphean task to try to change what people hear when we say “welfare”—what they hear is free money for people who I have nothing in common with, and who never have or want to work—we’d be much better off explaining: 1) why Temporary Assistance isn’t “welfare”; 2) coming up with a new, progressive narrative about what Temporary Assistance should be. Important parts of this narrative include:
    1) reframing the component parts of it in terms of the functions they serve, most notably: a) providing a supplemental source of unemployment compensation for workers with children; b) providing income support for parents and children with health problems or disabilities; c) helping low-wage workers advance through education, training and other services;
    2) as a overarching conception, relying on the metaphor of “social insurance” rather than “welfare.”
    Ultimately, TANF is so structurally flawed (particularly the financing) that fundamental reform will be needed, but we won’t accomplish that if we don’t start thinking about the program as something other than “welfare.”

  2. Jennifer Says:

    Why would use of food stamps, free & reduced lunches, food banks and unemployment assistance be up, while cash welfare is down? Our local paper also reported increased #s of people on the Oregon Health Plan.
    If more people are using those other forms of assistance, could it be that they don’t yet feel the need for cash welfare? I mean, if people feel that cash welfare is a last resort — maybe they haven’t played that card yet.
    I hope I don’t sound hard-hearted. Unemployment in my area is over 10%.

  3. jen Says:

    Aren’t there tons more hoops to jump thru for welfare? I’m realizing I know very little about this, but anecdotally I had somehow formed the opinion that there are few strings attached to unemployment benefits (besides proving you got laid off and doing minimal job searching), even fewer strings on food pantry stuff, and tons of paperwork and humiliating interviews and means tests for welfare. No?

  4. sara Says:

    I think jen is on the right track. In my state, you keep unemployment by calling into an automated phone system and pressing a button claiming that you are still job hunting. Obtaining welfare is far more involved.

  5. Cecelia Says:

    I live in Michigan and I hate reading that we are one of the states with the highest unemployment. I am tired of this and all of the suffering around me.
    This is my saying – Excess used improperly is the demise of a nation. There is so much wealth of food, resources, etc; but people hoard this in their homes so they can have fine dishes and cars that cost $30,000 while we are all suffering down here.
    The welfare system is also a part of the capitalistic system to maintain and uphold poverty. It is not there for people to rise above the system. Bailing out the people would be a huge change in consciousness. We want to help the people who built our world? The workers, the service workers, the working class, the middle class? I don’t think so, not in capitalism. This is a failed system on so many levels.

  6. amy Says:

    The problem w/trying to expand the welfare rolls is that nearly all forms of welfare require you to be seriously destitute, at this point. If you’re a lower-middle-class type with a house and a couple of cars, maybe a 401(k) and a little college fund, a savings account, etc., all that will have to go at fire-sale rates before you can even bother with the paperwork. Given where the job losses are hitting, I don’t know that trying to scoop people into these programs is going to do a hell of a lot.
    Food stamps…well, let’s see, I’m a single mom, been working freelance the last few years, household income in the $30K range, pay out of pocket for health insurance, have no unemployment insurance. Jobs have dried up, interviews cancelled. However, I have house, income-producing rental property, self-employed/non-pension retirement savings, college savings, emergency savings. I’m not eligible for food stamps or any other kind of aid I can use, likely wouldn’t be for several years. My child’s eligible for SCHIP, but as detailed before, SCHIP can be a dangerous program if you’re not already flat busted, because it can be very difficult to find out what’s actually covered. We’ll continue to pay for private health insurance for her and keep the assets protected so long as they last.

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