What Really Happened to Welfare

What Really Happened to Welfare

 If there was ever a time for a serious "conspiracy" on behalf of the poor, this is it.


Glenn Beck and the tea partyers have been closing in on the true source of all of America’s woes, and she is…Frances Fox Piven, noted author and political scientist, welfare advocate and co-inventor of the "motor voter" strategy to register low-income voters! Readers may be surprised to learn that, forty-four years ago, Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, engineered the current financial crisis and designed the Obama strategy expressed in Rahm Emanuel’s statement, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Nor did she do this all by herself. Among her many confederates in the vast left-wing conspiracy to overthrow capitalism and install socialism was, curiously enough, Woodrow Wilson.

The plot was hatched in an article published in this very magazine in 1966 [see Richard Kim, in this issue]. Cloward and Piven noted that, at the time, large numbers of eligible people were not enrolled in Aid to Families With Dependent Children (or "welfare"), and recommended a massive effort–by civil rights groups, social service agencies, etc.–to get them on the rolls. Not only would this enrollment drive provide some badly needed help for the very poor but by imposing large spending obligations on the public sector, it would "break the system."

Here some closer reading–or any kind of reading–on the part of Beck and friends would have helped, because "the system" Cloward and Piven proposed to smash was not capitalism but the welfare system. Yes, they wanted more eligible people to receive welfare benefits, but at the same time they pointed out that those benefits were appallingly low, leaving many recipients without, for example, adequate furniture or winter clothing.

The heart of Cloward and Piven’s argument–and here the dots were not so tightly connected–was that getting welfare to everyone who was eligible would put fiscal pressure on the states (welfare required state matching funds), which would then persuade Congress to replace it with a "guaranteed annual income," set at a dignified and adequate level, for all. At the time, this was not a wild-eyed radical goal: John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson were for it, as was Richard Nixon, who was also, it should be recalled, a fan of national health insurance.

Consistent with the Cloward-Piven strategy, and thanks to the efforts of a robust welfare rights movement and the dedicated work of legal services lawyers, the welfare rolls increased in the late 1960s and early ’70s, along with other important gains for the poor during that period. Congress enacted Medicaid in 1965 along with Medicare, and Robert Kennedy’s encounter with near-starvation conditions in Mississippi in 1967 eventually led to the expansion of food stamps into a fully national program that now helps one in eight Americans. Without these and other programs, like the earned-income tax credit, poverty rates would be even higher, and poverty itself deeper, than they are today.

But welfare did not survive the ’90s, much less blossom into a guaranteed minimum income. What ended welfare as we previously knew it was not the Cloward-Piven strategy but a campaign that began to emerge from right-wing think tanks in the ’70s, when architects of what was then the "New Right" came to see welfare as a key wedge issue to help build a newly populist right. The idea was to deflect the economic resentments of middle- and working-class whites away from the powerful and onto the black urban poor, who were recast as overweight and excessively fertile "welfare parasites." Rising welfare rolls, reaching 14.2 million people in 1994, added fuel to the backlash, even though welfare was absorbing only a tiny percentage of public expenditures.

Welfare as we knew it did need reform. It did not do nearly enough to connect people to jobs and it provided far too little help to people in need. Instead, the welfare "reform" law of 1996, while placing a rhetorical emphasis on work, sent a strong message to the states that the main goal was to reduce the size of the rolls by any means possible. The new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which had been advanced by Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America allies, ended the statutory entitlement to assistance, meager as it was, and basically limited federally financed help to a total of five years in a lifetime.

Not every state reacted in lockstep, but enough did that the welfare rolls dropped to under 4 million in 2007. In the hot economy of the 1990s, many former welfare recipients found jobs–although in about half the cases the jobs paid less than the poverty level. And two out of five former recipients ended up with neither a job nor welfare. Most states adopted "diversion" policies that pushed would-be applicants away at the front door, and cut off people who had managed to get on the rolls for minor infractions such as failing to appear for a mandated appointment or showing up late for a work assignment. Then too, as time passed, more and more people hit their five-year lifetime limit. The rolls kept spiraling down.

In all, TANF was reaching a whopping 1.3 percent of the American people by the time the recession came along. Only 22 percent of poor children were in families receiving cash assistance in 2008, down from more than 60 percent in the mid-’90s. And six states had caseloads of 10 percent or less of poor families with children.

Nor, for those who managed to get on the rolls, were the benefits even remotely adequate. As low as they were when Cloward and Piven wrote, they are lower now. Only Alaska offers benefits that meet even half the poverty line, and at the bottom of the pile, Mississippi pays only $170 a month for a family of three, or about 11 percent of the poverty line. The idea that adding a little to such miserly offerings could undermine the work ethic, propounded in apparent seriousness by conservatives, is, to put it mildly, preposterous, and was rendered moot anyway when the market crashed and jobs began to disappear.

Massive unemployment is the real crisis, at least to everyone who does not dwell on Planet Beck. Need it be argued here that the financial meltdown of 2007-08 was not brought about by crafty political science professors and their constituents among the urban poor? It was the big finance guys–with their subprime mortgages and fancy new derivatives–who, with no help from Cloward and Piven, almost brought down the capitalist system. The groups hardest hit by the ensuing unemployment have been those who were already struggling–blue-collar workers and people of color.

One might think welfare would be playing a role in ameliorating the situation, but welfare caseloads actually fell in twenty states in 2008. By contrast, the food stamp program responded well and now reaches about 38 million people, up about 30 percent. Welfare receipt has barely reached 4 million, up about 9 percent from the low point in 2008. The difference between the two programs? There is a right to food stamps. You go to the office, and if you meet the statutory definition of need, they have to help you. For welfare, the street-level bureaucrats can, pretty much at their discretion, just say no.

Millions of Americans are in dire need. Six million have no income other than food stamps, which is astonishing, since food stamps by themselves provide help at a level that is just 37 percent of the poverty line. Not surprisingly, extreme poverty–having an income below half the poverty line, below $9,100 in 2009 terms–had already skyrocketed before the recession, from 12.6 million people in 2000 to 15.6 million in 2007, well over 40 percent of the poor and more than 5 percent of the entire population. In 2008, with the recession beginning to bite, the number swelled to 17.1 million.

Clearly, we need a strategy to address the crisis of the poor in this recession. We might begin by extending the emergency TANF fund created by the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus bill, which is about to expire. This would stave off benefit cuts in many states and allow continuance of the modest transitional jobs programs that some states have been able to undertake.

But the recession should also prompt a deeper look at TANF, which is up for reconsideration as soon as President Obama and Congress can get around to it. We have to make it do what a policy of cash assistance for families (mainly those headed by single mothers) should do: help adults get and keep jobs, and help them get the education and training they need to make full use of their talents and the childcare they need to be able to stay employed. But jobs are not always available, and TANF should also provide a decent safety net for families who have no other source of income, including those of legal immigrants.

What is done to improve TANF, of course, is only a small piece of a larger antipoverty strategy to increase income from work, attend to all pieces of the safety net, enact healthcare for all, deal with the crisis in low-income housing, invest in our children and attack geographic concentrations of poverty both urban and rural. But improving TANF is especially relevant to the shocking number of women and children who live in extreme poverty. If ever there was a time for a serious "conspiracy" on behalf of the poor, this is it.


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