The Big Sneaky: Bush, Ryan and Christie Pretend Welfare is Still A Federal Program.
It's time to stop this madness of state-run “welfare” programs that enroll fewer than ten percent of eligible Americans and instead start insisting on a Basic Income.
Not many watched the televised chats about poverty on January 9th. A few GOP candidates got together before an audience of about 1,000 to show they care about poverty. If you listened, you’d have thought that all of them, including the host and the moderator, had fallen asleep in 1995 and just woke up, because everyone—including Speaker Paul Ryan—acted like the 1996 Welfare Reform law had never happened, and that “welfare” is still administered by the feds. They all agreed that the program is a mess—and that they can fix it, if only we would turn over control to the states.
We did that in 1996.
Surely Christie, Bush, and Carson, who all participated in one of the sessions, know this. Ryan surely does, as he has been quoted numerous times assessing state control of the welfare program as a success.
So what did block granting the funds and handing them to the states do to reduce poverty?
It shifted the priorities of welfare away from income support to people who don’t have enough to survive toward intrusive goals including reducing pregnancy and encouraging low-income people to marry.
It made it legal for states to reduce their caseloads to only a fraction of their numbers of residents in poverty while maintaining the size of the substantial block grants. In Florida, there are 3.3 million people living below the poverty line, but fewer than 3% of them are enrolled in TANF. In New Jersey, there are 983,199 poor people, but fewer than 6% of them get any help from TANF. In South Carolina, there are 832,565 poor people but only 4% of those are on the TANF rolls.
It also made it possible for states to do some really creative accounting, like putting large portions of their block grant spending into the “other” category, with no obligation to clarify for what the money was used. New York spent $300 million in the “other” category in 2014.
Dressed up in suits on a pristine stage, the men attempted to tell the audience that they are qualified to talk about poverty because of some personal connection to it. Ben Carson was fawned over as the poor boy who climbed out; Bush pretended to have met some poor people once and to have felt for them; and Christie had to reach back and talk about his grandparents to find someone even close to poor in his family. (Ryan didn’t mention that his mother raised them on Social Security Survivor benefits. It might have made the point that it is good to give mothers income without expecting something in return).
Meanwhile, the candidates couldn’t wait to talk about their ideas for continuing the raid on their state’s welfare grant, even though they’re giving virtually no cash assistance to virtually none of their poor families. Jeb Bush said, “let us use our welfare grant for early childhood education.” What should we think of a governor who lets over three million of his poorest eligible residents go without any cash aid at all, and is thinking up ways to spend even less on cash welfare? Bush also calls the current welfare program “obsolete,” but fails to say that the current program is already state controlled, not federally controlled.
Ben Carson said, “we should tell the states that if you can administer the program and it costs you less than the block grant, you can use the rest of it for whatever you want to.” He said that it would incentivize them to be efficient. Sneaky Carson also said that state control “saves us money at the federal level” but that would only be true if the states had to return what they don’t spend, and he suggested they should keep it. In other words, then, state administration as he likes it saves no money.
Another sneaky thing at the GOP chat session on poverty is that everyone on the stage failed to mention that most of the people who live in poverty in this country are mothers with young children. Instead, they talked about welfare recipients as if they were, in Christie’s words, “home on the couch,” presumably stuck there because if they “went to work” they’d have less money than they get on welfare, and might lose their homes. There was zero mention of children on welfare. Between Christie and the rest, you’d get the idea that everyone on welfare is a single adult, home on the couch, waiting to be saved.
None of the participants bother to say the real name of our national welfare program—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—so anyone who wanted to look it up and fact check wouldn’t know where to begin.
Here’s another sneaky thing Ryan did: he selectively clarified policy points to serve his pro-work agenda, and omitted points that might have lead audience members to hear about Basic Income for the first time.
Basic Income would give every American a minimum income sufficient to meet his or her family’s basic survival needs, without forcing us to participate in make work schemes or expensive behavior modification programs that are the bulk of what the states now spend their welfare block grants on while millions eke by on nothing. When Bush raised a point about having expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit in his state, Ryan was quick to clarify, “I just want to clarify that the EITC is NOT welfare.” Yet when the subject of Food Stamps (SNAP) came up, Ryan didn’t bother to clarify that Food Stamps are not welfare, either. He also highlighted that Food Stamp use has doubled, which stuck in the minds of listeners as evidence that too many people are on welfare. Yet Ryan did not mention that the numbers of people on welfare are plummeting all over the nation, including in his state, where he only gives any “welfare” to 6 percent of people poor enough to qualify for it. He doesn’t appear concerned for how the other 94 percent are getting along.
The sneaky candidates didn’t mention that the amount of cash aid in most of their states is abysmal, such as Alabama, which pays only $215 per month to a family of three, and Texas, which pays about $260. At this “forum” data and thoughtful consideration of what poor people actually get, and how many get it, was beside the point.
Topping it all off is the bizarre assumption that “people” cannot be trusted (Carson said, “people will always find a way to manipulate a loophole”) but state bureaucrats can be. The idea that we cannot be trusted to make wise economic decisions is repeated by those with the mic frequently and loudly, yet if you re-read the data I present here, it seems clear that handing an individual in need a few dollars is a far better bet for ending poverty than handing it to a conglomerate of state bureaucrats. Therefore, let’s stop this madness of “welfare” programs that enroll fewer than ten percent of eligible Americans and start insisting on a Basic Income.
Listening to this Orwellian assembly, empty of data, full of unsubstantiated statements, and brimming with maudlin concern, I kind of wanted to throw up.
To truly address poverty, we need a basic income that ensures economic security for every family in America.
Diane R. Pagen, LMSW