It’s been well established by now—in outlets from the New York Times  to PolitiFact  to the Washington Post —that the Romney campaign’s ads accusing President Obama of gutting welfare reform by waiving its work requirement are invented out of whole cloth (and it’s been noted, widely, that this cloth has an insidious racial design). Not only has Obama maintained the deeply flawed TANF program created by President Clinton’s 1996 reform law; it was Republican governors who requested the technical waivers their party now finds so deplorable. While the liberal media droned on about such pesky realities, Rick Santorum gleefully played up the welfare theme at the RNC podium—accusing Obama of fostering dependency and letting laziness reign while undermining hardworking families.
The “Barack Obama, Welfare King” attack line is beyond absurd. It’s downright perverse when you consider how Obama failed, during the crisis of the Great Recession, to fix the “reformed” welfare system bequeathed to him by Clinton. Thanks to its block-grant structure, TANF couldn’t respond to the sudden dire need gripping the country. As the number of unemployed people doubled, TANF caseloads increased just 13 percent; in twenty-two states, caseloads responded very little or not at all to the downturn, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBBP). Poverty rates have spiked to a fifty-year high, with one in five American children now living in poverty, but welfare reaches fewer and fewer of them. In some states, like Georgia, as Peter Goodman vividly documented in the Huffington Post , it’s become next to impossible for desperate families to obtain 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. The president’s 2009 stimulus package, dismissed by Republicans as a big-government boondoggle, contained a provision, in fact, that was directly aimed at helping people on welfare to 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 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 CBBP 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, and offered low-income parents the chance to build new skills. The Emergency Fund provided an additional 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 lots of flexibility to implement it 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.
It reached 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 over 27,000 people and involved 5,000 businesses over the course of the program. Participants were paid $10 per hour for up to forty hours per week—not a lot, but more than most would have received from 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. Eighty-two percent said it helped them make ends meet. Seventy-eight percent said it put more money at their disposal than they’d had before. The same number said it had given them new skills and helped them make contacts that would help them in future job searches.
Pundits of left and right like to talk about ladders out of poverty. This really was one.
But House Minority Whip Eric Cantor didn’t like it. In fact, 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 also offered things like emergency housing assistance and money for back to 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, joined by his GOP colleagues, formally called to abolish the Emergency Fund. Groups like Jobs with Justice staged scattered protests, and Democrats tried to save it, but they couldn’t muster the votes and the ECF was allowed to expire the following September—thereby depriving 100,000 families of their livelihoods at a moment when the recovery was stalling and unemployment was breaking, again, into the double digits.
Aside from a column by the now-retired Bob Herbert in the New York Times and a spot on NPR, the catastrophe that befell these Americans received no national media attention—leaving history to be written, in more ways than one, by Republicans.