September 19, 2005

The Incredible Shrinking Rolls

Preach on, Brother Max:
Welfare reform was always a fraud. The evidence for its claims of success never amounted to much. How could it be otherwise? Work doesn't pay a single woman enough to raise children. Never has. Welfare reform is about pushing a woman into the workforce for not much more money and a lot less time with kids, plus a child care bill that somebody has to pay. It's ridiculous.
Check out the MDRC's valuable case studies on this subject, which paint a very muddied picture. People have been leaving the welfare rolls, yes, but after reform in, for instance, Los Angeles, "families were not substantially better off financially even though many parents went to work." Meanwhile, the poverty rate continues to move upwards. As far as I've ever been able to tell, most of the positive post-reform gains have come as a result of other Clinton-era initiatives, like boosting the Earned-Income Tax Credit (in 1993) and increasing child-care assistance (in 1998) and so on. Generic liberal stuff. Well, plus a healthy economy and flukishly tight labor market in the '90s.

Welfare reform did, of course, shove people into the workplace. What's not so clear to me, though, is why this is such a fantastic goal in and of itself, as reform boosters like Mickey Kaus suggest. Does it make low-income families better off? Not so clear. The children! Does it help the children? Well, even in Minnesota, which has one of the more generous TANF programs in the country, reform "had no overall effect on the elementary school achievement of very young children." (Some disadvantaged children in the state saw gains, true, although against this, note that Minnesota was one of the few states that spent more under its reformed program than it did under the Bad Old System.)

Perhaps we'll just say that "shrinking the welfare rolls" is a positive end because it got a lot of people off their lazy asses and helped us feel morally better about ourselves as a nation. If that's your aim, then cheers, it worked. Plus, it saved the federal government a couple billion dollars each year—enough to fund an extra Don Young Highway or two. On the not-so-trivial other hand, shrinking the welfare rolls acts as a tax on the working class, by expanding the pool of labor and putting downward pressure on wages. Oops. Many centrist Democrats will say that welfare reform can and will be a stunning success story if only we increase the Earned-Income Tax Credit and raise the minimum wage and provide heaps more funds for child care and heaps more money for job training and so on. Well, no shit. Top Ramen is a great meal if it comes with a side of steak. If people are going to be forced to work then of course it helps to make that work pay. Otherwise, not.
-- Brad Plumer 11:38 PM || ||