Fifteen years after we passed welfare reform, did it work? Ezra Klein takes on this question today.
If welfare reform was meant to cut the rolls, then it definitely worked. And if it was meant to give states the flexibility to cut their spending on the program, it definitely worked. . . If you think the point of the program is to help the poor, then no, welfare reform is not working.
As Jake Blumgartwrites at The American Prospect, the reformed program "has failed to cushion the neediest through recessions. While in 2009 the food-stamp program responded to the increased need for government assistance, growing by 57 percent, the number of TANF caseloads merely inched upward...At the heart of the worst recession in 80 years, TANF funds only reached 4.5 million families, or 28 percent of those living in poverty. By contrast, in 1995, the old welfare system covered 13.5 million families, or 75 percent of those living in poverty."
Another possible definition of "working" is that the program has helped or forced a lot of low-income Americans, and particularly single mothers, find jobs. In the late-1990s, when the labor market was very tight, there's strong evidence that welfare reform was helpful in pushing people into the job market. In the Aughts and, in particular, since the recession has hit, it's a lot less clear that welfare reform is increasing employment rather than simply limiting support for the unemployed.
Ezra includes this graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as evidence that welfare reform has not "worked" in any real sense. As you can see, the percentage of poor families receiving TANF (the successor to AFDC, aka "welfare") has fallen dramatically since welfare reform was enacted.
But I'm not sure why this is supposed to be an indictment of the system. Why is it a problem that fewer poor families are enrolled in a program that is only open to people who aren't working? The American Prospect and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities can't possibly be lamenting the fact that we no longer have more than 70% of our poorest families on a program that has unemployment as a prerequisite. But the way this graph is used makes it sound like they consider this regrettable.
Ezra mentions that reform moved many welfare mothers into jobs, but I think he gives this short shrift. Leave aside the tiresome bourgeois morality which wants to see people trying to support themselves before they turn to the generosity of their neighbors. People are not made better off by a program that encourages them not to work--as AFDC indisputably did, given the decline in the rolls.
Don't get me wrong: it's entirely understandable that people would prefer to collect welfare rather than work long hours at an unpleasant low-wage job. But someone who collects welfare today rather than go to work for $7 an hour is very likely to be collecting welfare ten years from now, when it will still be a rather joyless existence hemmed in by lack of money and the whims of the bureaucracy. Someone who is working at anything has their feet on a path that might actually lead somewhere. As anyone who has suffered through a long spell of unemployment can attest, it's hard to get back into the workforce if you've been out of it a while. Harder still if you were never really in it, developing basic skills like showing up on time every day and handling difficult customers.
Welfare enabled people to make bad long-term decisions that were rational short-term choices. Welfare reform changed that. That's good news.
Of course, it's bad news that the mothers who went out to work didn't all gain the comfortable middle class existence we'd ultimately like for them. But there was still a noticeable decline in the number of poor families that persisted even into the early years of the Great Recession:
This looks like a modest but real success to me at weaning families from welfare dependency. Even at the nadir of the worst recession in eighty years, the percentage of families in poverty--as well as the percentage of families on TANF--was below pre-reform levels. Unless you really think that these families would be better off spending the rest of their lives on the dole, this seems like a real achievement.
There's another reason that progressives should celebrate: changing the structure of welfare has eroded much of the opposition to it. As long as people felt like welfare was a way for people to simply live off of tax dollars without working, there was bound to be a lot of opposition to the program. Restructuring it as temporary assistance for those who are overwhelmed by unexpected circumstances has essentially whittled that opposition down to nothing. When was the last time that welfare came up in an election?
Sure, maybe progressives would prefer that a generous system of benefits for anyone who wanted them was the uncontroversial norm--but that doesn't really seem very realistic in a pluralistic and fairly conservative country like America. By ending welfare as we knew it, Clinton preserved the safety net for people who really can't cope. If he hadn't, welfare mothers would now be competing with retirees for money in the Great Deficit Reduction Olympics. And I think we all know who would have lost that race.
Update: several commenters think I should have included the two sentences now at the end of the Ezra Klein quote, which I initially left out because I was already in danger of grabbing the whole post. They think it changes my post. I disagree, because my point remains the same: Ezra is giving short shrift to the succesful drive to move people into work. But I can also see why people felt like my clip was misleading, so I've added it, and sorry, Ezra, for grabbing nearly your whole post.
Now about those sentences . . .
After saying "If you think the point of the program is to help the poor, then no, welfare reform is not working", Ezra acknowledges that it was nice that people moved into work in 2000s, but dismisses this achievement because the trend did not continue to steadily decline towards zero. This is pretty much the standard progressive line on welfare reform--it only looked like it was working because of the awesome Clinton economy--and it's not correct.
It's not, in fact, in question whether we produced a permanent change; we did. There was a substantial structural decline in the percentage of families in poverty which persisted into the aughts. I could have included the percentage of female headed families in poverty, or children in poverty, and they would have shown the same trend: all of them clearly inflected downwards around welfare reform. All ticked up during the 2001 recession, but clearly settled at a level much lower than their pre-reform average. I find this hard--actually, impossible--to square with Klein's assertion that if you think the purpose of reform was to help needy families, then no, it hasn't worked.
Dismissing the achievements of welfare reform because the poverty rate didn't decline towards zero makes no sense to me. While it would be nice if it had happened, no one really expected it to. The fact that a miracle failed to materialize is hardly a searing indictment of reform. You can argue that the decline in the poverty rate was assisted by other reforms like boosting the earned income tax credit, and I completely agree. But boosting the EITC does nothing to help people who aren't earning income. If we hadn't done welfare reform, "not earning income" would still describe the majority of poor families.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.
Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.
In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
What I learned from attending a town-hall meeting and listening to students’ concerns
Sometimes it takes a group of young people to set you straight.
For months now, I’ve been reading about college students who’ve been seeking “safe spaces.” They’ve often been met by derision—even the highest ranked Urban Dictionary definition is mired in sarcasm, describing them as having “pillows” and “soothing music” that “allows them to recover from the trauma... of exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”
I also had some mid-life skepticism about teenage hyperbole, that is, until I attended a town hall meeting at Duke University (my alma mater) earlier this month. The “community conversation,” as it was called, had been hastily convened to discuss the rash of racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Listening to those students—and watching their expressions—I realized that what’s been happening at Duke is serious, and no amount of sarcasm can disguise the pain and anger on campus, or cover up the real dangers lurking there.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.