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.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
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More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
Is oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere a sign of living beings, or something more mundane?
Huddled in a coffee shop one drizzly Seattle morning six years ago, the astrobiologist Shawn Domagal-Goldman stared blankly at his laptop screen, paralyzed. He had been running a simulation of an evolving planet, when suddenly oxygen started accumulating in the virtual planet’s atmosphere. Up the concentration ticked, from 0 to 5 to 10 percent.
“Is something wrong?” his wife asked.
The rise of oxygen was bad news for the search for extraterrestrial life.
After millennia of wondering whether we’re alone in the universe—one of “mankind’s most profound and probably earliest questions beyond, ‘What are you going to have for dinner?’” as the NASA astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild put it—the hunt for life on other planets is now ramping up in a serious way. Thousands of exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than the sun, have been discovered in the past decade. Among them are potential super-Earths, sub-Neptunes, hot Jupiters, and worlds such as Kepler-452b, a possibly rocky, watery “Earth cousin” located 1,400 light-years from here. Starting in 2018 with the expected launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers will be able to peer across the light-years and scope out the atmospheres of the most promising exoplanets. They will look for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.