“The big change was how it helped me see myself,” Tomas Vargas, another recipient, told me. “It was dead positive: I am an entrepreneur, I think of business ideas, I make business choices, I want to be financially stable.” When the program started, he worked in logistics. Now, in addition to nurturing his side projects, he is a case manager for individuals on parole.
Zach Parolin: Welfare money is paying for a lot of things besides welfare
He noted that receiving the money had made him more civically and politically engaged, if also more infuriated at the country’s scorn toward low-income households. “It’s like it’s a big game,” he said. “These people are living with a silver spoon, talking—but how about you walk this life? Have you ever even seen it?”
Finally, the cash recipients were healthier, happier, and less anxious than their counterparts in the control group. “Cash is a better way to cure some forms of depression and anxiety than Prozac,” says Michael Tubbs, a former mayor of Stockton, who spearheaded the project. “So many of the illnesses we see in our community are a result of toxic stress and elevated cortisol levels and anxiety, directly attributed to income volatility and not having enough to cover your basic necessities. That’s true in the public-health crisis we’re in now.”
More work, less destitution, more family stability, less strained social networks, less stress, fewer incidences of homelessness, fewer skipped meals: This is what welfare could give the country.
And it just might. America’s welfare politics have shifted radically of late, in part because of the economic pressures felt by Millennials, the first generation in recent U.S. history likely to end up poorer than their parents. Two once-in-a-lifetime recessions, persistent wage stagnation, wild wealth and income inequality, the student-debt crisis, housing shortages, and a broader cost-of-living crisis have made redistributive policies much more palatable to them—and they’re now the country’s largest voting bloc. The pandemic has shifted U.S. welfare politics too, emphasizing the need for child-care benefits and demonstrating the power of cash as stimulus.
Right now, Democrats are pushing to send low- and middle-income parents $300 a month for each child younger than 6 and $250 a month for children ages 6 to 18 as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief package. The program would be temporary, but there is wide support for making it a permanent entitlement. Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, has put forward a proposal to eliminate TANF and replace it with a straightforward child allowance. A number of state, local, and nonprofit efforts are getting going too.
The Stockton demonstration project is ending. But a group Tubbs founded, called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, is extending the initiative nationwide, with cities from Compton to Gary to Newark making plans to send low-income residents cash.
These policies are being described as child allowances, guaranteed incomes, and universal basic incomes—not as welfare—thus dropping some of the racist freight attached to TANF. But they are, in fact, a kind of welfare. Both as a policy and a concept, it is what so many Americans need.