It’s been well established by now that the Romney campaign ads accusing President Obama of gutting welfare reform by waiving its work requirement are invented out of whole cloth (cloth, it’s been noted, with an insidious racial design). Not only has Obama maintained the deeply flawed program created by President Clinton’s 1996 welfare law; but Republican governors requested the technical waivers their party now finds so deplorable.
The “Barack Obama, Welfare King” attack line is downright perverse when you consider how Obama failed to fix the “reformed” welfare system bequeathed to him by Clinton. Thanks to its block-grant structure, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program couldn’t respond to the dire need that gripped the country as the Great Recession hit. Between December 2007 and December 2009, even as the number of unemployed people roughly doubled, TANF caseloads increased just 13 percent; in twenty-two states, the number of caseloads responded very little or not at all to the downturn, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Poverty rates have spiked to a fifty-year high, with one in five American children living in poverty, but welfare reaches fewer and fewer of them. In some states, like Georgia, it’s become next to impossible for desperate families to get any relief from the welfare system.
Meanwhile, what little Obama did do to help those suffering most from the recession has been distorted beyond recognition. Notably, the president’s 2009 stimulus package, dismissed by Republicans as a big-government boondoggle, contained a provision that was directly aimed at helping people on welfare get jobs—the supposed goal of welfare reform. It’s worth revisiting the story of this initiative, crafted in the spirit of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration rather than the get-tough work requirements beloved by the GOP—because it’s the story of a government program that was succeeding before Republicans set out to destroy it.
The TANF Emergency Contingency Fund (ECF) was a small measure tucked into the Recovery Act with little fanfare. But it managed an impressive feat during its year and a half of existence: it placed more than 260,000 low-income parents and youth in paid jobs, at a time of painfully high unemployment, all for the modest price tag of $1.3 billion in federal money, according to a study by the CBPP and the Center on Law and Social Policy. By subsidizing jobs for the poor—actually paying part of their wages—the program helped small businesses, nonprofits and local governments get through the recession at the same time that it offered low-income parents the chance to build new skills. The emergency fund provided a stimulus to local economies by putting money in the pockets of people most likely to spend it immediately. At a most basic level, it gave jobs to people who needed them—and showed how government can help when the market isn’t meeting human needs. States were given plenty of flexibility to implement the program as they saw fit, and more than thirty eagerly took advantage, including the reddest of the red—South Carolina and Mississippi. Even Governor Haley Barbour was a fan.
The measure achieved its most ambitious scale in Illinois. Put Illinois to Work became the country’s largest subsidized employment program. With an infusion of $200 million in federal funds, it employed more than 27,000 people and involved 5,000 businesses over its lifespan. Participants were paid $10 an hour for up to forty hours a week—not a lot, but more than most would have received in unemployment benefits, and far more than a stingy welfare check. (In other states, the subsidized jobs paid less.)
A survey of the Illinois program’s participants taken by the Social Impact Research Center makes for moving reading. Ninety-two percent expressed very high levels of satisfaction; 87 percent said it helped them make ends meet; 78 percent said it put more money at their disposal than they’d had before; the same percentage said it had given them new skills; and 72 percent said it helped them make contacts that would be useful in future job searches.
Pundits on the left and right like to talk about ladders out of poverty. This really was one.
But then–House minority whip Eric Cantor didn’t like it. In May 2010 he singled out the program as the “New Non-Reformed Welfare Program” designed to “promote welfare dependence” because in addition to the subsidized jobs, the program offered things like emergency housing assistance and money for school supplies.
After receiving 280,000 text messages and online votes on the issue from his ardent Tea Party constituents, solicited through his so-called YouCut initiative, Cantor formally called for abolishing the emergency fund. Progressive groups like Jobs With Justice staged scattered protests, and Democrats tried to save it, but they couldn’t muster the votes. The ECF was allowed to expire on September 30, 2010—thereby depriving 100,000 families of their livelihoods when the recovery was stalling and unemployment was again heading into double digits. With the total number of unemployed at around 15 million, the ECF fell far short of solving a national emergency. But in a different world, the success of this program would have been viewed as something to build on, not tear down.
So now the Republicans, having snatched away the best chance that would-be welfare recipients had at escaping poverty through real jobs, are rewriting history to blame Obama for fostering their dependence. You can’t make this stuff up.