Welfare Utopia

Oregon, one of the whitest states in the union, also has one of the most generous safety nets. Is that a coincidence or something more troubling?

George Dolgikh / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

SALEM, Oregon—In much of the country, poor people are finding that there are fewer and fewer government benefits available to help them stay afloat. But here in this progressive corner of the Northwest, the poor can access an extensive system of state-sponsored supports and services.

In Oregon, a higher share of poor families is on welfare (now called TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families) than in most states. The state has some of the highest food-stamp uptake in the country. It subsidizes childcare for working parents, asking the poorest of them to contribute as little as $27 a month. It helps people get off of welfare by linking them to employment and paying their wages for up to six months, and then allows them to continue to receive food stamps as they transition to higher wages. Families can be on welfare for up to 60 months, as opposed to 24 months in many other states, and once the parents are cut off due to time limits, their children can still continue to receive aid.

“I think there’s a certain culture here in Oregon: We think there’s a role for government in the lives of working people,” former governor Ted Kulongoski, who went on food stamps when he was in office to raise awareness for the program, told me.

When Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” in 1996 and passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (commonly known as welfare reform), many states took the opportunity to gut their safety nets. Oregon, on the other hand, has tried to patch the holes. When, during the recession, the number of people seeking welfare skyrocketed, the state loosened some work requirements and allowed more people to receive cash assistance. The state nearly doubled its welfare caseload over the past decade, while other states have been drawing down the number of families that can receive benefits by putting more and more barriers in place.

That Oregon still maintains a safety net while other states have eradicated theirs is testament to the state’s progressivism. But the example of Oregon also highlights a troubling aspect of federal policy that turns social programs over to the states. Now that states have so much discretion, a few miles can make a big difference in how a poor person is helped by the government. Across the border, in Idaho, poor people are not as lucky.

What makes a state generous, like Oregon, or punitive, like Arkansas, which I visited earlier this year? Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram, the authors of the book Disciplining the Poor, point to a number of things, including which party controls the state legislature and the benefit-to-wage ratio in the state (basically, the higher wages are relative to benefits, the less likely states are to make cuts). And Oregon, a blue state with a strong history of labor unions and policies that have protected workers, such as a high minimum wage, definitely fits that description. The state has gotten more progressive over time; it has voted Democratic in all presidential elections since 1988, both of its senators are Democrats, as are four out of five of its representatives.

“I think what you see in other states is you see this kind of partisan, ‘we are going to take it out on poor people,’ philosophy. You just haven't seen that here,” Tina Kotek, a Democrat who is currently the Speaker of the House in Oregon, told me.

But Soss and his co-authors have also found a more troubling explanation for the differences between Oregon’s strong safety net and those in other states. Their research shows that states with a higher percentage of minorities on the welfare rolls are more likely to be punitive, implementing policies that reduce welfare caseloads, such as strict time limits on TANF;  family caps that deny benefits to additional children; and benefits disqualification for small violations, like a child’s poor school performance. By contrast, states with poor populations that are predominately white are more likely to be generous, adopting the federal government’s five-year lifetime limit, waving work requirements if participants have young children, and continuing to give benefits to children even if the parents reach the time limits.

The demographics of Oregon, where the population is 86.6 percent white, may help explain why the state’s safety net is so strong. In 1995, the year before welfare reform passed, 79 percent of families receiving welfare were white in Oregon. In Arkansas, by contrast, which is 80 percent white, 55 percent of families receiving welfare in 1995 were black and 44 percent were white. People, it seems, are much less giving when it comes to helping out people who don’t look like them.

The case of Oregon highlights what can happen when federal programs are turned over to the states: They help some Americans more than others, depending on where people live, and, often, depending on the color of their skin.

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Oregon didn’t always have such an extensive safety net. In the first few years after welfare reform, the state, like many others, had incentives to get people off the benefit rolls, and that was what it did, Mark Edwards, a sociologist at Oregon State University, told me. Then, in 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a study showing that 12.6 percent of households in Oregon were food insecure, meaning they had uncertain access to adequate food, which made Oregon the “hungriest” state in the nation.

Chagrined, the state started to enact policies to increase access to food and food stamps. The state had convened a Hunger Task Force in 1989 that met frequently to draw together advocacy groups, professors, and legislators to address issues of hunger, and the group figured out ways to tweak the federal SNAP program to make it more flexible, Edwards said.

“There was a big shift to, ‘We need to have more of a service mentality, we should get everyone on SNAP who is eligible, let’s pull out all the stops to do that,’” Edwards told me.

This set the stage for Oregonian advocacy groups and legislators to work together on issues that affected the poor. The state’s governors constantly spoke about hunger, including Governor Kulongoski’s 2007 publicity effort of putting himself on food stamps. Kulongoski asked people to donate food if they came to the inaugural ball for his second term and created a Hunger Awareness Week with the business community. By 2012, 94 percent of those eligible for food stamps received the benefit in Oregon, according to the USDA.

The golden pioneer statue at Oregon’s state capital (Don Ryan / AP)

This environment created a place where advocates had the ear of the government, and could try and convince them to expand the safety net beyond food stamps.

“Oregon is perceived as a place of tremendously high collaboration between nonprofit groups and the state,” Edwards said.

Food stamps are just one of the benefits available to the poor in Oregon. If their income is low enough, they can receive TANF, which, for a single mother with two children, amounts to $506 a month. (In Arkansas, families can receive up to $204 a month.) While they look for a job on TANF, they receive money for childcare and transportation, and, if they find a job, they can receive subsidized childcare from the state, depending on their income. They also receive state subsidized health care. In addition, the state puts people who are on TANF through job readiness classes, and, when those people are prepared for the workforce, the state links them with temporary employment in a program called Jobs PLUS. For six months, participants receive minimum wage from their employers, who are compensated by the state (employers can pay more than minimum wage if they want).

Oregon has been successful at getting people to sign up for these other benefits because of its anti-hunger outreach efforts. Those coming into the Department of Human Services office to ask about food stamps, having heard about them through the state’s outreach efforts, get on other programs, too, Kim Fredlund, the director of self-sufficiency programs for the Oregon Department of Human Services, told me. They fill out one application, and then find out if they qualify for other programs, like TANF, employment-related daycare, and health care.

Rather than trying to discourage people from signing up for government benefits, case workers try to get them into programs that can help them find a job or get the psychological or financial help they need, Brittany Miller, a caseworker, said.

“We're very resourceful in finding ways to make it work,” she said.

Shelby Bivans went into her local DHS office to apply for food stamps in 2014, after she’d lost her job of 14 years as a legal assistant. Her husband had gotten laid off three years before, and they had no savings by the time she was laid off, so they sold everything—TVs, furniture, appliances. Bivans, who is white, didn’t want to get on welfare—she had a perception of it as a program for homeless people. But then her car was repossessed, and she had nothing left.

When she went to apply for food stamps, a case worker convinced her to apply for welfare, too. The benefits allowed her to stay in her home, and the state put her in a 40-hour-a-week program that helped her update her resume and start applying for jobs. She soon moved into a job, subsidized by the state through a program called Jobs PLUS, at a property-management firm, which got her on a regular schedule. With help from state workers who helped her get ready to re-join the workforce, that temporary job eventually turned into a full-time job. Bivans rapidly worked her way up in the organization, and now makes $15.25 an hour, 50 percent more than her starting wage.

Shelby Bivans in her new workplace (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

The subsidized-employment program in Oregon, Jobs PLUS, has bipartisan support because it is focused on getting people work experience, something Oregon Republicans and Democrats both see as a good thing. “I believe that if you give a person a job, that’s the best social program you can come up with,” Kulongoski told me.

“I think it’s destructive to have people dependent on handouts in perpetuity, but you do have to incentivize them to get off of these rolls,” Ron Maurer, a Republican legislator who worked with Democrats on the bills, told me. That’s a big difference from many other states, which provide a stick, not a carrot, to get people off the rolls.

Oregon even expanded its safety net during the recession, when demand for services increased dramatically. Many states cut people off benefits because they were running out of money, according to Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’s Welfare Reform and Income Support Division. Not Oregon. The state took money out of a program that got people back into the workforce, because there weren’t many jobs available, and put that money into cash assistance. This helped prevent deep cuts to TANF. During the recession, the state also allowed mothers with young children to stay at home longer, rather than look for work, helping them to save on childcare costs. Oregon has since changed the law so people on food stamps can own a car, added back general assistance, which is benefits for people without children, and doubled the limit on how much money people can make and still receive welfare while they’re transitioning to work.

“We decided here in Oregon that we should maximize every option that the federal government gives us. We take state flexibility to its furthest extent,” Kotek, the state legislator, said.

The number of single-parent families on TANF nearly doubled between 2007 and 2013, and the number of two-parent families increased fivefold. The state led the nation in TANF caseload growth during the recession, when the rolls grew 73 percent between 2006 and 2014.

Of course, there is a negative side to being so generous. A 2014 state audit found that Oregon was not doing enough to get people off of welfare and into the workforce. In 2010, the last year for which there was comparative data, the audit found, Oregon ranked 39th in the nation in getting TANF recipients into jobs, and 36th in helping them retain jobs. It was last in the nation for TANF clients participating in work or work-related activities.

“We saw lost years in case records, with clients asked to do nothing,” the Secretary of State’s office reported at the time. (The Secretary of State who signed off on the report, the Democrat Kate Brown, is now Oregon’s governor.)

Christina Kennedy, a family mentor at Central City Concern, which helps people struggling with homelessness and addiction, told me she often sees families get complacent on TANF. They learn how to budget the money they receive, because the idea of going to work and finding daycare and arranging transportation is too intimidating, she told me. “They say, ‘Why do that and barely make ends meet, when I could do nothing and be fine?’”   

That clients can receive benefits and not do anything for them is a throwback to the old welfare, the kind before 1996. But it could be argued that being too permissive with welfare recipients is worse than the alternative: forcing them off benefits and asking them to fend for themselves.

Kennedy herself received TANF from 2008 to 2011, and she didn’t participate in work activities either. That’s because she was going through a drug treatment program, and needed to focus all her energy on staying clean. The benefit allowed her to continue the rehab program while paying for diapers and rent and other needs, she told me. That $432 a month was what helped her get clean and stop using drugs, she said. Without it, she said, she might still be stuck and the state would likely have spent money arresting her and prosecuting her for drug crimes, she told me. Now, she’s gainfully employed and even looking to buy a house.

“It was a stepping stone to other things,” she told me, about TANF. “The safety net allowed me to do the things I needed to do to get me to where I am now.”

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Social programs like welfare were founded, in large part, to help white mothers like Kennedy fit more seamlessly into the American economy. Mothers’ Pensions, which preceded modern-day welfare, were targeted at white immigrant mothers whom reformers wanted to assimilate. The mothers received governmental support and, in exchange, were subjected to home visits and sometimes unwanted advice (like: Don’t cook with garlic, it’s an aphrodisiac that will make you have more children), according to Soss, one of the authors of Disciplining the Poor and a University of Minnesota professor.

But these programs only sought to help certain types of people, even as Mothers’ Pensions became Aid to Families with Children, the predecessor to modern-day welfare. There were efforts to purge the rolls of minorities, according to Soss, and in the South, the government would shut down local welfare offices during planting season and force women into the fields, Soss said. The Aid to Dependent Children program (later renamed Aid to Families With Dependent Children), passed as a part of the Social Security Act of 1935, was 80 percent white in 1939.

It wasn’t until the Great Migration brought more black families to the north that welfare truly began to serve a diverse swath of Americans. And when states tried to kick people off the rolls then, they got pushback from the federal government. The Civil Rights movement paved the way for the Welfare Rights movements, which won a series of Supreme Court victories beginning in 1969 that collectively made it more difficult for states to deny families welfare, Soss said.

Of course, very little of this mattered for welfare recipients in Oregon because they were, by and large, white. When the state was admitted to the union in 1859, its constitution forbade black people from living in the state, and black people were not allowed to move to Oregon until 1926, according to Walidah Imarisha, who teaches about black history in the state. Oregon had the highest per capita Klan membership in the country, and passed a series of exclusion laws that discouraged black people from voting and from moving to certain areas. In 1970, only 3 percent of Oregon was black.

But growing diversity in other parts of the country, coupled with the end of rules that had kept black families off welfare, meant that the rolls were diversifying elsewhere. By 1995, recipients of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program were 37 percent African American and 36 percent white (the remainder were Hispanic, Asian American, or unknown).

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and others protest welfare reform in 1996. (Cameron Craig / AP)

Welfare reform once again made it easier to deny benefits to people of color, Soss says. The new program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, put in constraints that limited states’ ability to be generous, and allowed them to be punitive. And this meant that states, whether deliberately or not, started to purge minorities from the rolls.

“States with larger black populations have adopted the most disciplinary policies, and, as a result, African Americans have been subjected to the most disciplinary regimes,” Soss and his coauthors write in Disciplining the Poor.

For instance, Louisiana, where 82 percent of families receiving AFDC were black in 1995, adopted some of the strictest policies. The state imposed immediate “full family sanctions,” meaning a whole family could lose benefits the first time a client missed a meeting with a case manager, failed to provide proper documentation of weekly work activities, or otherwise disobeyed the state's myriad rules and requirements. The state also forced compliant families off of welfare after 24 months, though federal law allowed a maximum of five years. Today, just 4.2 out of every 100 families with children in poverty in Louisiana receive welfare benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In Oregon, on the other hand, 46 out of every 100 families with children in poverty are on TANF, one of the highest ratios in the country. Here, however, that group is very white: 64 percent of those receiving benefits today are white (22 percent are Hispanic). According to calculations from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the only states that has a bigger percentage of poor families on TANF is Vermont, a state that is 95 percent white, and where 95 percent of TANF recipients are white.

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Being poor is a very different experience today in Oregon and Louisiana. That's partly because giving states so much discretion with federal money can allow racial biases to dictate policy in ways that are fundamentally unfair.

This is relevant this year: Both Republicans and Democrats are gearing up to introduce new ways to fight poverty. House Speaker Paul Ryan and other conservatives want to turn more anti-poverty and safety-net programs into so-called block grants that allow the states to experiment with new policies. Turning TANF into a block grant was what allowed states to play with welfare in the first place, becoming in most places more punitive and less generous.

“The unintended consequence of giving states maximum flexibility is that they could choose to really reduce the safety net,” Fredlund, the self-sufficiency director told me. “I was glad to see Oregon didn’t make that choice.”

Oregon has a nasty racial history in which the state prohibited blacks from moving there. Its racial homogeneity may not be the reason that Oregon is so generous to its poor, or at least, it’s probably not the only reason. But the case of Oregon makes it clear, if it wasn’t already: The opportunities available to Americans already differ from state to state. Some places choose to put money into their schools while others lower taxes and hope to attract businesses and jobs. Some, like Oregon, have extensive programs to help the poor; others believe that a tough-as-nails attitude will be better in motivating the poor to find work or stop depending on the government.

States experiment with policy—it’s part of the American way of government. But the consequences of that experimentation deepen the country’s already deep racial divides.

“The efforts to take things from the federal level down to the state level create the mechanisms for all sorts of inequalities that aren’t possible when you have one general program,” Soss told me.

For everyone who says that Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress of 1996 ended welfare as we knew it, Oregon shows that the safety net hasn’t disappeared everywhere. In some ways, the state is a shining example of what can go right when states are allowed to decide how to use federal money to best help their citizens. But what that says about other, less white, states, is haunting.