If "welfare reform" is a success....

Thursday, August 24, 2006 at 02:23 PM

As you may have heard, welfare reform under Clinton had its 10th birthday this past Tuesday.  And all "right-thinking" conservatives hailed and toasted and praised until their servants called them to dinner.

I had the misfortune to catch one celebratory ceremony televised by C-SPAN, where Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) from the American Enterprise Institute, Robert Rector from the Heritage Foundation, and Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute all got together at Cato to talk about it.

What I perceived to be the consensus:  great job so far, but we need lots more reform to make those damn poor people quit having illegitimate children, and those silly Black people quit going to prison.  What I never heard was any direct mention of whether the people still on welfare, or the people who might be on it if not for the rules changes brought about by "reform," had lives that were one bit better than they would have been under the old system.

Rector in particular hailed the fact that the rolls of federal welfare programs have been reduced, a fact that I thought was kind of self explanatory.  You know, change the eligibility rules to make fewer people eligible, and sure enough, the number of participants goes down.

Other conclusions/statements of questionable truth and/or relevance:

  1. They said the number of children living in poverty is falling, but that appears to be true only if you comapre "today" to the situation in 1996 when reform was enacted.  In reality, poverty declined from 1996 to 2000, roughly the period of the dot.com and telecommunications boom, but has been steadily rising from 2000 to date.

  2. They did mention that things had gotten worse for "the underclass" from 2000 to date, but again failed to even mention how much worse today's job market is compared to 1996.

  3. They were remarkably concerned with the rate of illegitimacy, but never made any attempt to connect that to other factors in the real world, such as the growing number of people no longer in the labor force, or the incredible post 1980 increase in the number of people--especially black people--in jail or prison.

Much of this makes sense when you look at the sources.  AEI speaks for itself.  Both Heritage and Cato espouse philosophies that could not help but oppose welfare, thinking that government aid, using tax dollars by God, is bad, bad, bad.  In fact, Cato's official Handbook for Congress concludes its section on welfare reform with the following:

Congress should build on its efforts and end federal involvement in charity, returning responsibility for caring for the poor first to the states, then to the private sector. The civil society, or private charitable activity, is far better at meeting the real needs of the poor. At the same time, Congress should continue to tear down barriers to economic growth and entrepreneurship.

And Michael Tanner has written elsewhere that:

Surveys of former welfare recipients indicate that they believe their quality of life has improved since leaving welfare. And they are optimistic about the future. A majority of former welfare recipients believe that their lives will be even better in one to five years. Many of the former recipients actually praise welfare reform as a stimulus for their beginning to look for work and as an opportunity for a fresh start, and a chance to make things better for themselves and their children. Both the women and their children appear to benefit psychologically from the dignity of working.

Which surveys?  Conducted how and in what context?  "Many" praise welfare reform?  How many?

Heritage, it should also be noted, has for many years conducted an effort (largely led by Rector) to convince people that the concept of "poverty" in America is outlandish, that the people we classify as living in poverty, in fact have a pretty cushy life:

...For most Americans, the word "poverty" suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. But only a small number of the 35 million persons classified as "poor" by the Census Bureau fit that description. While real material hardship certainly does occur, it is limited in scope and severity. Most of America's "poor" live in material conditions that would be judged as comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago....

This despite other (many other) experts who think we're actually woefully undercounting the number of poor in America:

The current method for measuring poverty in the United States was developed in 1963 by a young statistician for the Social Security Administration named Mollie Orshansky. Using data from a 1955 Department of Agriculture survey, Orshansky developed a set of thresholds that set a poverty line at three times the annual cost of feeding a family of three or more under Agriculture's "low-cost budget." She developed the thresholds purely for her own research and said at the time that her data's limitations would yield a "conservative underestimate" of poverty.
Brady says that based on his calculations the real number is closer to 18 percent [rather than the official 12.7]--or 48 million Americans currently unable to afford the most basic necessities. Less conservative estimates have put the numbers of poor at 25 percent, or more than 70 million Americans.

Just for the record, here are the Census Bureau's official 2004 stats:

Poverty: 2004 Highlights
The data presented here are from the Current Population Survey (CPS), 2005 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), the source of official poverty estimates. The CPS ASEC is a sample survey of approximately 100,000 household nationwide. These data reflect conditions in calendar year 2004.


The official poverty rate in 2004 was 12.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent 2003.

In 2004, 37.0 million people were in poverty, up 1.1 million from 2003.

Poverty rates remained unchanged for Blacks (24.7 percent) and Hispanics (21.9 percent), rose for non-Hispanic Whites (8.6 percent in 2004, up from 8.2 percent in 2003) and decreased for Asians (9.8 percent in 2004, down from 11.8 percent in 2003).

The poverty rate in 2004 (12.7 percent) was 9.7 percentage points lower than in 1959, the first year for which poverty estimates are available (Figure 3). From the most recent trough in 2000 both the number and rate have risen for four consecutive years, from 31.6 million and 11.3 percent in 2000, to 37.0 million and 12.7 percent in 2004 respectively.

For children under 18 years old, both the 2004 poverty rate (17.8 percent) and the number in poverty (13.0 million) remained unchanged from 2003. The poverty rate for children under 18 remained higher than that of 18-to-64-year olds (11.3 percent) and that of people aged 65 and over (9.8 percent).

Both the poverty rate and number in poverty increased for people 18 to 64 years old (11.3 percent and 20.5 million in 2004, up from 10.8 percent and 19.4 million in 2003).

The poverty rate decreased for seniors aged 65 and over was 9.8 percent in 2004, down from 10.2 percent in 2003, while the number in poverty in 2004 (3.5 million) was unchanged.

In my humble opinion as a someone who grew up on welfare and someone who sees a terrible job market in the U.S., all I can say is if this is success, we better start looking around for some failures.