What we’re seeing now is a system that’s a shadow of its former self. We argue in the book that it’s really dead. In fact, if you go out in communities, people say, “What's that?” In fact, when we asked one woman—her family’s about to get evicted, they have these two lovely little girls, they’ve really, really tried to find work, her husbad just got work as one of the dancing tax men for Liberty Tax, so he's got a temporary job, but they're three months behind on their rent, and there's no furniture in the apartment—and yet, when we asked her about TANF and why she doesn’t go on it, she says, “What's that?”
Another woman, in Chicago, who's living in a homeless shelter with her daughter, says, “They just aren't giving that out anymore. Haven’t you heard?” Welfare isn't only dead as a program, because of its rules and restrictions; it’s dead in the imaginations of the poor.
Some poor have really been helped by the changes in the ‘90s. These tax credits we've added to the bottom line of the working poor have been very meaningful and we really applaud that effort and really think of it as a huge triumph for social policy. But, what we hadn't seen is that all of these people were really falling through the cracks with no visible means of support.
Rosen: This seems to be so off-the-radar for many Americans. You wouldn't hear about it from the presidential candidates who are campaigning right now. Why is this so invisible and what are the consequences of that invisibility?
Shaefer: I think part of it is that when welfare reform happened in 1996, it was paired with these big tax-credit expansions, which were really good for the working poor, and it was paired with an incredible economy. I think the narrative really became that it was a success, and that sort of stuck, even though over the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of the evidence of the shortcomings.
It’s always been that people didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about poverty in this country. You see a lot more discussion about inequality, which is a different—it’s related, but it’s a somewhat different thing. And I think there are a lot of misconceptions about poverty. I mean, even we were really surprised to find that the families who we started to follow had this very significant attachment to the labor force. At the very, very bottom of society, people have worked recently—maybe not recently, but if you look back over a year, they have been working. We see that in the large-scale data too. I think that really doesn't fit with the perceptions that a lot of people have.
Edin: This is a really critical point. So in the SIPP (Survey of Income and Program Participation) data from the Census Bureau we find that 70 percent of households had an adult worker in the last year. And only 10 percent claimed even a penny from the TANF system. So what we’re seeing here is a group of people who have really drunk the Kool-Aid of welfare reform. The official name is Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and, man, they are about personal responsibility. They see themselves as workers. They’re fiercely proud of the fact that they’re not dependents. And this is part of why they don’t go down to the welfare office when, even though they really need to, because that would go against how they see themselves. Ironically, this is one big evidence of the success of welfare reform—it's really made mothers think about work in a fundamentally different way.
When I was studying welfare back in the early 1990s, there was a tradeoff between raising your kids and being a worker. Now, it’s as if you can’t be a good parent without being a good worker. This fierce commitment to work really revealed to us just how brutal the very tail-end of the labor market can be for so many working parents.