Archive for the ‘Poverty and Class’ Category

the welfare waiver controversy

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

This started out as a Facebook response to some of my friends, but got long enough that I decided I should just post it here.

I’m going to write about the welfare ads that the Romney campaign has been running ads about, and particularly the claim that “Obama gutted the work requirements.”   Let me start by noting that I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life working on TANF and related programs, 10 years as a civil service (non-political) employee of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, and the past 6 for an advocacy organization.

Having said that, let me add the disclaimer that I’m writing this as an individual, not representing my organization.  If you want to read what I wrote about the waivers in my work capacity, it’s at:

I’m writing this on my own time, on my own computer, on my own blog.  And while I know many of the people at HHS (both career employees and political appointees) who work on this issue, I did not know of the policy before it was announced to the public, and I haven’t had conversations with them about their motivations since.

So, what did the Administration do that Romney is claiming “gutted” welfare?  They issued a memorandum to states, which you can read for yourself,  “to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

There are two different questions which are both in play: a) does the Administration have the legal authority to grant waivers of the work participation rates under TANF? and b) is proposing to grant such waivers, “gutting” or “undoing” welfare reform?

On the first question, I think the answer is yes, but I will accept that this is a point on which rational people can reasonably disagree.*   It’s fair to say that the Clinton Administration did not think that they had the legal authority to do this, but they also had a strong political interest in being able to say to liberals “we don’t have the authority to give waivers” rather than “we choose not to” so I don’t think they looked hard for the legal arguments to support waivers.  It’s also fair to say that the Republicans in Congress who are most outraged by this have accepted similar legal stretches under R administrations.

Moving to the substantive question, the memo says  very explicitly that states can get waivers in order to test whether there are better ways to get people to work.  The current work participation rate is a truly lousy measure — all it does is look at whether someone put their behind in a seat for the required number of hours a day, not whether the program did any good at helping them get jobs.  And states spend an enormous amount of time and effort documenting these hours of participation, which is just not a good use of the limited resources (e.g. taxpayer money) available for this purpose.   It is 100% true that governors — including Mitt Romney when he was Governor of MA — have been asking for this kind of flexibility for years.

Moreover, the proposal for waivers came with a very large string attached — states who get waivers are going to have to do random assignment evaluations to see if their programs are actually working better than the status quo.  And, unlike in the pre-welfare reform waiver period, the federal government isn’t going to put up any new money to support the evaluations.  So a state that does this has to be really convinced that it’s got a better way to do things, and be willing to tested.  This is NOT the easy way out.

I sincerely think that the folks at HHS thought that they had written this memo carefully enough, with a strong enough emphasis on work, that it wouldn’t be controversial.  With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that they were wrong, but I think this was a misjudgement not a strategy.  The idea that Obama did this for political advantage is truly crazy — if the Heritage Foundation and the Romney campaign hadn’t taken this on, I don’t think there would be more than a couple of hundred people in the entire country who would have noticed that this memo was issued, and I would be shocked if it changed the vote of a single one.

But Heritage jumped on the waiver memo as soon as it was released with screaming rhetoric about undoing welfare reform.  This is their way of doing things — they made similarly outrageous claims about the Emergency Fund that was part of the Recovery Act.  I don’t think there’s ANYTHING that the Obama Administration could do on welfare that Heritage wouldn’t immediately jump on.  And I’m personally convinced that the Romney campaign picked up the Heritage rhetoric without actually reading the memo or having the foggiest idea what it was actually about.  What’s sad is that they’re not backing down in the face of widespread coverage of the falsity of the claim because it’s a political winner.   One of the most frustrating parts of this whole discussion is that it’s shown how little the public understands how much welfare has changed since 1996 — how hard it is to get benefits in most states, that there are work requirements, that there are time limits.



in which I despair over American politics

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Today I sent an email to my colleagues in which I said that the more optimistic newspaper reports suggest that we’re heading for a government shutdown, while the more pessimistic ones suggest that the Democrats will just cave completely.

The Republicans in Congress are proposing deep cuts in core services, and the Democrats seem to be meeting them half way.   The deficit commission itself included in its core principles that we should not balance the budget on the back of the most vulnerable, and that we shouldn’t cut so quickly that we put the recovery at risk.  They suggested that we should start stabilizing spending in 2012,  and yet we’re slashing services in this year’s budget, with the year half way gone.  I’m increasingly convinced that  for a significant part of the Republican party in Congress, cutting social safety nets is a goal in itself, not a means to the end of cutting deficits. And if given the choice between cutting taxes and cutting deficits, they’ll choose cutting taxes every time. Meanwhile, the Democrats take the rhetoric about deficit cutting and shared sacrifice seriously, and go after their own base to show that they’re serious.

And it’s killing me, because it was completely predictable that this would happen in December, when they made the grand bargain to extend unemployment benefits for another year, and the Bush give aways to the rich for two more years, but didn’t pass a continuing resolution, and didn’t extend the debt ceiling.

I just finished reading Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner Take All Politics, and I am deeply depressed and scared.  I’m not entirely convinced by their economic analysis (which I’ll write more about another day), but I am totally persuaded by their tale of how big business and the financial sector have consistently blocked increased taxation  of the hyper rich and regulation.  (Not that this is a new story to me, but they do a good job of putting it in historical context.)  But the book came out last year, so they leave it pretty much as a story about how divided government and the increased use of the filibuster protects against any progressive changes through “drift”.   But what we’re seeing now is not drift, but an all out attack on the role of government.

And meanwhile, I get lots of messages on Facebook and twitter about the attack  on abortion rights and the threats to NPR, but most of my lovely middle-class progressive friends don’t seem to have noticed that there’s an all out war on the poor.  I know, that’s not quite fair, some of you have.  And I haven’t been banging the drums about it myself, because it doesn’t feel like it will make any difference.  But unless we can build a movement that Chuck Schumer is as afraid of as John Boehner is of the tea partiers, we’re going to get compromised down the river every single time.

What does society look like in 2030?

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

I’ve just been reading a paper that sketches out four possible scenarios for “vulnerability” in 2030. It was written by something called the Institute for Alternative Futures for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and lays out a most likely scenario, a gloom and doom option, and two possible brighter futures (one of which we get to by having a catastrophe that allows for non-incremental improvements).

I’m somewhat chagrined that I think their baseline scenario is overly optimistic, especially with regard to education.  The gloom and doom scenario requires everything to go wrong — a double-dip recession, peak oil,  global climate disruption.  I think the odds of all of these happening in the next 20 years is very low — but it seems quite possible that one — or something not even on our list — could happen.

If you have the time to take a look at the report, I’d love some other reactions.  (There’s also a formal way to comment to the folks who wrote it.)

Basic economic security?

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

This week, Wider Opportunities for Women issued their “Basic Economic Security Tables” for the Washington DC region.   Not unpredictably, the Washington Post coverage led with the finding that a family of four needs $108,000 to be “economically secure” in Fairfax county.  I sometimes work with folks from WOW, and I generally think they do good work, but I have to admit that I winced reading this — I worry that it feeds into the world view where people who earn  six digits feel entitled to whine about how they can’t make ends meet.

And, I make less than $108,000 a year, and I don’t feel like we’re “just getting by.”   So, I thought I’d take a look at their budget for a family of four: two workers, one preschooler, one school-age child, which is the one that is closest to our family type.

  • Housing — $1546.  This is based on HUD’s fair market rent and seems reasonable to me.  I can’t think of where in Fairfax you could rent a three bedroom apartment or house for much less than $1500,.
  • Utilities — $188.  Sure.  We pay a bit more, especially in the winter, but a smaller house would be cheaper.
  • Food — $868.  They get this from the USDA low-cost food plan, which is one step up from the thrifty food plan.   I think we spend somewhat less than this on food, but as I’ve discussed before, we eat less meat and less prepared foods than the budget assumes.  The thrifty food plan definitely means you need to pay attention to what you’re buying — if economic security means being able to buy ice cream and meat without worrying about the cost, the low-cost plan seems reasonable.
  • Transportation — $652.  They assume two cars, and a lot of this cost is depreciation.  I think you could probably get away for less, if you bought used cars and kept them until they fell apart.  It certainly feels like we spend a lot less on transportation, but because we don’t have car payments, but pay insurance 2x a year and repairs at irregular intervals, I may be undercounting the real cost of car ownership.
  • Child care — $2,210.  With two school age kids, I took this out of the budget.  With no other changes, it brings the annual total bill down to$81,540.
  • Personal and Household Items — $702.   This is based on a statistical report that says that renters on average (nationally) spend 27% of a family’s housing, utility and food expenses in these categories.  I think it’s too high — this is a very high cost of housing area, but I don’t think that should drive up personal and household costs correspondingly.   Even with cable and netflix and occasionally eating out or going to the movies, we spend way less than this.
  • Health care — $508 (assuming employer provided health insurance).  This is based on an average of plans in the area — you can definitely spend less if you’re willing to go with a HMO like Kaiser.  (I have Kaiser, and my premium is fully employer paid, so I spend less than $1000 a year on all health care, including glasses, etc.)
  • Emergency savings — $345 and retirement savings — $320.   I’m willing to buy that to be “secure” you should be saving this much.
  • Taxes — $2007, and credits of $334.  I’m sure WOW did the math correctly for their hypothetical family.

So, what do you think?  Do WOW’s numbers seem reasonable to you?  Is my reaction just a version of the recurrent survey finding that the overwhelming majority of Americans think they’re “middle class?”

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Friday, August 6th, 2010

I’ve spent much of this week at work banging my head against the wall that of all the offsets Congress could have found to use to pay for state fiscal relief (FMAP) and education jobs, the one they chose to use was a cut in Food Stamps (SNAP).  And then the Senate decided to cut Food Stamps some more to pay for child nutrition programs.

I get that inflation has been lower than predicted, and so the Food Stamp increase in the recovery act is lasting longer than expected. But, as Dave Obey said, that would have just meant that “some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.”  (And kudos to @AnnieLowrey for following the story from the start.)

At least with the FMAP/EduJobs bill, I can make the macroeconomic argument that it makes sense to spend more money today, prevent huge layoffs in the states and local governments, and cut spending in 2014.  (If the economy is this bad still 4 years from now, we’re going to have much bigger problems.)  But in the child nutrition bill, the increases would actually come AFTER the cuts.

Matthew Yglesias wrote about the child nutrition bill s today and noted that it really is robbing Peter to pay Paul — taking from dinners to pay for lunches, and from the summer to pay for the school year.  I wanted to highlight one of his commenter’s responses, since it’s rare to hear from people who are directly affected.  JRoth wrote:

I’ve been on SNAP benefits for over a year (family of 4, household income in ‘08 and ‘09 around $20k), and I can tell you that the margin between the old benefits ceiling (somewhere around $500) and the new (well over $600) makes a huge difference in my family’s grocery budget. With the former, I can just about squeeze the entire month’s food into the SNAP budget – a couple months we had to go the last 2-3 days on leftovers and cobbling together whatever was in the freezer. Under the new benefits, I can buy my kids fresh fruit without stressing over the difference between a $2 pint of blueberries and a $2.50 pint.

Point being, insofar as the public health goal of SNAP is enabling more healthful family eating, an extra $25/person/month goes a long way in obviating the (perceived) need to buy the high calorie/low nutrition food products that are implicated in low income obesity.

As for school lunches, the current budget is laughably small (under $2/child/lunch, iirc), and so any improvement in that number will represent an improvement. But school lunches remain a nutritional wasteland, even in places where there’s an awareness (my kid’s school offers whole grain in most meals and healthful-seeming dishes, but the reality is A. they still taste gross and B. the backup options are unconscionable things like Uncrustables.

That sounds right to me.  I was shocked and slightly horrified to read last month that Fairfax schools were selected best in the country for nutritious school lunches.  My kids eat the school lunch about once a week (N thinks it’s a huge treat, and would have it every day if we let him; D only wants to do it on the days that they have grilled cheese or breakfast for lunch.)  If that’s the best, I can’t begin to imagine what the worst looks like.

What nepotism buys

Monday, July 26th, 2010

In today’s NY Times, there were a bunch of letters in response to a story from last week about how many interns at City Hall have connections to the rich and powerful.   I’m not shocked or even particularly surprised by the article.   New York is a city where people use their pull to get kids into preschool, after all, and once upon a time my mom was able to use her mid-level city job to get my brother a summer job with the Buildings Department.   But I was bemused by the letter from the former high school teacher of some of the young adults in the article, who defends the practice by noting what “excellent, hard-working and conscientious students” the kids were.

I don’t have any data on this (not sure how you’d go about trying to find it), but my sense is that it’s less and less common for nepotism to be a matter of getting stupid and lazy people into jobs. There are exceptions, of course, but I think business is really more competitive these days, such that it’s harder to hide your dumb nephew for very long.  Nepotism is what lets one excellent, hard-working and conscientious student get ahead of all the excellent, hard-working and conscientious students who don’t have someone opening doors for them.  (Or, as another letter-writer notes, can’t afford to take an unpaid internship.)

The other thing that’s changed, I think, is that it’s harder for blue collar workers and lower level managers to use nepotism.  Kids used to be able to count on following their fathers into factory jobs, and that’s pretty much unheard of now.  Earlier this month, the Times ran a long profile of a young man, a recent college graduate, who was looking for work, but had turned down one job because it wasn’t at the level he was hoping for.  One of the points Uchitelle makes is that his father and grandfather both got their starts through connections:

They said it was connections more than perseverance that got them started — the father in 1976 when a friend who had just opened a factory hired him, and the grandfather in 1946 through an Army buddy whose father-in-law owned a brokerage firm in nearby Worcester and needed another stock broker.

What do you think?  Am I being naive in thinking that there are fewer total incompetents getting jobs because of nepotism now?  And is it any less pernicious if it’s used to decide between two competent people rather than to promote incompetence?

mental accounting

Monday, June 21st, 2010

I finally had a chance to listen to the Planet Money podcast from last month about payday loans.  Overall, it mostly covered familiar territory, but I was intrigued by the research suggesting that rate ceilings tend to act as “anchors” for interest rates, and wind up as floors.

I was also struck by one element of the story of the man who kept on coming back to take out high-interest loan after high-interest loan, in order to support his gambling habit.  In passing, they noted that he owned his house free and clear.  I think the implication was that he was making a mistake taking out payday loans, when he could have taken out a much cheaper mortgage.  Alternatively, I could tell a story that he had figured out a mental accounting scheme that let him keep gambling relatively small amounts, without risking losing his house.  The payday loans may not have been as irrational a choice as all that.

In perhaps related news, Jim McDermott and Barney Frank have introduced bills that would legalize — and tax — internet gambling.   In general, I’m vaguely supportive, mostly because I think it’s pretty much impossible to stop people from gambling on the internet anyway.  I like some of the causes that the money is supposed to support — although I’m also very aware that in most of the states where lottery sales are supposed to support education, they just supplant money the state would have spent from general revenues otherwise, with no net increase in spending.

is unemployment insurance the new welfare?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

If you listen to the US Congress, unemployment insurance is becoming the new welfare.

Orrin Hatch today dropped an amendment that would require states to test applicants for cash assistance (TANF) and unemployment insurance for illegal drugs before they could be approved for benefits.  We’re used to dealing with this sort of stupidity in the TANF program, but I have to admit that I was surprised to see this applied to unemployment insurance as well.  At least Hatch is honest enough to admit that testing all these people would cost far more than the value of any benefits it might save — when this comes up at the state level, legislators are constantly surprised to learn that it doesn’t save money.

This proposal isn’t likely to go anywhere, but meanwhile the Senate is dropping the COBRA subsidy for health insurance for the unemployed as well as the $25 a week additional federal benefits from the UI extension bill.  And almost no one is talking about continuing benefits for the “99-ers” those who have exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment insurance.

My theory is that people are terrified by the notion that you could do nothing wrong, be  a good worker, lose your job, search hard for another one, and still be unemployed after two years.  They don’t want to believe that they live in a country where it could happen, and they don’t want to believe that it could happen to them, or to their friends or family.  And we’ve got this really weird dynamic of unemployment right now, where unemployment is really high but no longer climbing,  nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work  for more than 27 weeks, but at this point if you’ve got a job, your odds of being laid off are pretty low.

So people are  convincing themselves that the long-term unemployed  must have done something wrong.    They must not really be looking, or they’re too picky, or they’re not willing to move to where the jobs are, or something.  And so it’s ok to cut them off, because they deserve it.

Update: Nancy Folbre just said almost the exact same thing in the New York Times today, except she’s an economist, so she used bigger words.

Book Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I finally made it to the top of the library waiting list for Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford, and this snowed-in week gave me the chance to sit down and read it.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed by it.  I thought that the passages where he describes his work on motorcycles were lovely — Laura was right  when she said “I dare you not to get carried away by his intoxication with his work.”  But the rest of the book read like it was written by the philosophy PhD  that Crawford is — and that’s not a compliment.  I got lost in the jargon, and found myself skimming long passages.

As best as I can tell, Crawford makes four different arguments.  Three of them I basically agree with, although I don’t think they are particularly original.

  • Skilled trades jobs can be as lucrative (or more so) than white collar jobs, and are less vulnerable to being outsourced to other countries.
  • Skilled trades jobs can be as intellectually demanding as white collar jobs, and should not be considered as only an option for people who can’t cut it on the academic track.  (Crawford cites Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work on this, which has been sitting on my to read pile for at least a year)
  • There is a value to doing work where you can see the results of what you do, where the people who benefit from your work know you, and are known to you, where you learn from people who have done the same work, not just from books.  This reminded me of Wendell Berry’s statement (which I’ve talked about here before) that “The right scale in work gives power to affection.”  (I’m not agreeing that this is the only work with value, but there is a power to it.  It’s why I used to volunteer to make meals at Food and Friends before going off to work at HHS — I needed to something where the results were tangible.)

And finally, Crawford argues that there is an autonomy and independence that comes from work where it is objectively clear whether you know what you’re doing or not — the light turns out when you flip the switch, or it doesn’t, the motorcycle starts or it doesn’t.  He contrasts this with an office culture that rewards conformity, where judgments are made about workers’ beings, because their product can’t be objectively measured.  I’m just not sure I buy this argument.  I think he’s comparing the most easily caricatured aspects of office work with idealized versions of his job — because even most motorcycle mechanics don’t own their own shops, and can’t spend 20 hours in search of the truth when the client isn’t going to be billed for more than five.  And at the same time, he seems to blame the flaws of offices on the drive for profits, although not-for-profits can be just as dysfunctional work environments in their own ways.

It’s almost impossible to write a review of this book and not think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.    I haven’t read Zen in 20 years, and don’t remember that much about it, but I remember my outrage near the end when you learn that after riding thousands of miles with his son, he’s only just noticed that while he has a view of the open road, his son only has a view of his back.  Crawford has some similar blind spots, particularly around gender.  Early on he writes “It so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men, but I am sure that women, no less than men, will recognize the appeal of tangible work that is straightforwardly useful.”  Well, yes, but there’s also an issue that the forms of tangible, straightforwardly useful work that are traditionally done by women are paid far less than the forms of tangible, straightforwardly useful work that are traditionally done by men.

I also suspect that there are very few women in the trades who would agree with Crawford’s claim that the objective quality of your work is all that matters in achieving acceptance.  (He makes a nod towards acknowledging this reality in a footnote where he tells a story about a time where he was hazed by his coworkers and notes that “the new guy, the nonwhite guy, and the woman are especially likely to incur extra hardships.”  But he doesn’t seem to notice that there’s something categorically different about being the “new guy” — which you will be on one job, but not the next, and being nonwhite or female, which are permanent characteristics.

So, in spite of finding parts of Crawford’s story very appealing, I found the book a disappointment.  Go read Life Work, by Donald Hall, instead.

The health care vote

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

I listened to the health care debate in Congress on and off today while driving around to soccer fields and the mass flu vaccination site, and for the last hour I've had c-span on while sorting my clothes.  Although I know that there's still a long while to go before we actually get a law, and this bill is truly an act of sausage making, I'm still fascinated by the process.

Wow, the margin is a lot closer than I would have guessed– they've got exactly the 218 votes needed, with only one D not yet recorded.  I'll be interested to see how many of the Dems voting no are on the left.

Ok, here's the roll call results.  I'm not an expert on all members of Congress, but the only nos that jump out at me as being from the left are Kucinich, and maybe Artur Davis.

So, the big news of the evening was probably the passage of the Stupak amendment, which says that any insurance plan purchased through the "exchange" can't cover abortion.  My understanding is that this would NOT affect coverage under employer-provided insurance.   When I looked into this last year, I found out that about half of employer-provided plans do cover abortions. 

I think this is bad policy, for precisely the same reason that I think the Hyde amendment, which bans coverage of abortion under Medicaid, is bad policy.  It pushes abortions into the second trimester, which is more dangerous and more expensive.  But I'm not particularly surprised by it.  Fundamentally, I'd rather health insurance reform that didn't cover abortion than no health insurance reform.  And with such a thin margin, I'm not sure Pelosi had a choice.

The cynic in me wonders if maybe more of the public will holler when it's their insurance that is affected, not just poor women's coverage.

Update:  I listened to this NPR story on the Stupak amendment on my way home tonight, and now I'm even more confused.  They say that it doesn't prevent the exchange from including plans that cover abortion (although insurers would have to offer plans that were otherwise identical but didn't cover abortion) as long as you're paying with only your own money and don't receive a tax subsidy for the insurance.

So what I'm confused about is what are the rules for employer-provided insurance, which is also tax-subsidized.   Is it covered by the Stupak amendment?  Or are they pretending that employer-provided insurance isn't subsidized by taxpayers?

Update 2: Nice analysis of the D's who voted no from the NY Times.