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.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
A unified theory of why political satire is biased toward, and talk radio is biased against, liberals in America.
Soon after Jon Stewart arrived at The Daily Show in 1999, the world around him began to change. First, George W. Bush moved into the White House. Then came 9/11, and YouTube, and the advent of viral videos. Over the years, Stewart and his cohort mastered the very difficult task of sorting through all the news quickly and turning it around into biting, relevant satire that worked both for television and the Internet.
Now, as Stewart prepares to leave the show, the brand of comedy he helped invent is stronger than ever. Stephen Colbert is getting ready to bring his deadpan smirk to The Late Show. Bill Maher is continuing to provoke pundits and politicians with his blunt punch lines. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is about to celebrate the end of a wildly popular first year. Stewart has yet to announce his post-Daily Show plans, but even if he retires, the genre seems more than capable of carrying on without him.
Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?
I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
Strangling public-sector unions in Wisconsin has shrunk teachers’ pay and benefits. Who’s next?
Back in 2009, Rick Erickson was happy with his job as a teacher in one of the state’s northernmost school districts on the shores of Lake Superior. He made $35,770 a year teaching chemistry and physics, which wasn’t a lot of money, but then again, he received stellar healthcare and pension benefits, and could talk honestly with administrators about what he needed as a teacher every two years when his union sat down with the school district in collective bargaining sessions.
Then, five years ago, Wisconsin passed Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which dramatically limited the ability of teachers and other public employees to bargain with employers on wages, benefits, and working conditions. After Act 10,Erickson saw his take-home pay drop dramatically: He now makes $30,650. His wife is a teacher, too, and together they make 11 percent less than they did before Act 10. The local union he once led no longer exists, and so he can’t bargain with the school district for things like prep time and sick days. He pays more for health care and his pension, and he says both he and his wife may now not be able to retire until they are much older than they had planned.
Unless he divests himself of his business holdings, the president-elect could violate constitutional rules meant to guard against corruption.
With the recent news that two Republican electors are refusing to vote for Donald Trump, we have been inundated with inquiries asking whether other electors should decline to select Trump because of a particular constitutional issue. It’s one we worked on when we were advising Presidents Bush and Obama, respectively: the Emoluments Clause.
Every elector must search his or her own conscience, but after a blizzard of reporting on the president-elect’s foreign business relations in recent days, it appears that Trump will be in violation of this clause of the Constitution from the moment he takes office—and the plan for his business that he hinted at on Twitter last week does not solve the problem.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Trump’s nominee for attorney general claims to have “filed 20 or 30” desegregation cases as U.S. attorney in Alabama, but there’s little evidence to support that.
Civil-rights organizations balked when Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986 over allegations he made racist remarks, was chosen to succeed Loretta Lynch as attorney general. Sessions’s allies have sought to portray those criticisms as unfair, in part by pointing to his record of filing desegregation lawsuits as U.S. attorney in Alabama.
Sessions himself claims to have been a champion of desegregation. “I filed 20 or 30 civil-rights cases to desegregate schools and political organizations and county commissions when I was a United States attorney,” Sessions told National Review in 2009. Trump spokesman Jason Miller offered a similar claim in November, telling reporters on a conference call that “when Senator Sessions was U.S. attorney, he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama.” Miller’s claim about his record has been reported by outlets including Politico, Wired, and The Washington Times. Conservative outlets have dismissed the questioning of his civil-rights record as "another in a long line of liberal smears" against a principled conservative, in part by citing his record on school desegregation.
Even in big cities like Tokyo, small children take the subway and run errands by themselves. The reason has a lot to do with group dynamics.
It’s a common sight on Japanese mass transit: Children troop through train cars, singly or in small groups, looking for seats.
They wear knee socks, polished patent-leather shoes, and plaid jumpers, with wide-brimmed hats fastened under the chin and train passes pinned to their backpacks. The kids are as young as 6 or 7, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight.
A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family. As they tentatively make their way to the greengrocer or bakery, their progress is secretly filmed by a camera crew. The show has been running for more than 25 years.
Everyone has someone on their holiday shopping list who’s impossible to buy for. For the second year in a row, we asked Atlantic readers to describe their someone, and brainstormed a few perfect gift ideas for them.
There should be a word for it—the agony of loving someone, or feeling familially obligated to them, and having no idea what to buy them as the next gift-giving occasion draws near. Liebengeschenkenschmerz? We’ll workshop it.
Even if you’re a winter-holiday fanatic, that anxiety can put a damper on seasonal festivity. So, for the second year in a row, we set out to help, with a different take on the traditional gift guide. Last month, we put out a call to Atlantic readers to describe the person on their shopping list who’s the most difficult to buy for. We picked 15 across the spectra of relationship, age, gender, and location, and a collection of Atlantic staffers buckled down to brainstorm some fitting gift ideas. (Note: The descriptions from readers, in italics below, have been edited lightly for style and clarity.) Maybe one of our suggestions will suit the impossible someone on your list, or otherwise inspire some gift-giving greatness.