The myth that conservative welfare reform worked--Part 2

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Feb 28, 2010 at 18:30


This is Part 2 of a planned 4-part series debunking the myth that conservative welfare reform "worked."  I kicked off the series yesterday with Part 1, which presented some basic evidence that "welfare reform" had virtually no impact on the US after-tax-and-transfer poverty rate, which remained far higher than that of other advanced industrial economies, and I quoted extensively from an account of the political history involved, showing that the process was quite different from the standard telling liberals were committed to defending a dysfunctional system, while conservatives were heroic reformers.  Indeed, it was the serious-minded attention to the complexities involved that made Clinton's task more difficult, and the conservative's disregard of consequences that made their task so relatively simple.

The part contains the first two out of five sections that make up the rest of the series.  Section 1 is a look at the broader rightwing hegemonic framing that allows them to claim that "welfare reform worked" despite not actually doing anything of the sort.  Section two presents a brief example of a very sensible push-back against the myth, which will show just how much overkill I've engaged in.   And so, without further ado, we begin:

Section 1: The Rightwing Hegemonic Framing Of Welfare Reform

The myth that conservative welfare reform "worked" is not a myth that's limited to conservatives.  Indeed, quite the opposite--it's a myth that helps unify Versailles against the left, as for example in this piece by disgraced Iraq War fanboy Peter Beinart, titled tellingly, "Admit It: The Surge Worked", where his primary focus is on another such myth, one that is supposed to make us forget what a clusterfuck the Iraq War was in the first place, and how totally wrong Versailles was about almost every aspect of it.  Along the way, however, Beinart wrote:

Because Bush has been such an unusually bad president, an entire generation of Democrats now takes it for granted that on the big questions, the right is always wrong. Older liberals remember the Persian Gulf War, which most congressional Democrats opposed and most congressional Republicans supported -- and the Republicans were proven right. They also remember the welfare reform debate of the mid-1990s, when prominent liberals predicted disaster, and disaster didn't happen.

But just because large-scale disaster didn't happen--largely because of a booming economy and an expanding earned income tax credit--doesn't mean welfare reform was a success, any more than the Persian Gulf War was, just because we easily re-took Kuwait.  Avoiding immediate disaster is not the same as being right "on the big questions."  The big questions have profound consequences, only some of which are immediately obvious to everyone.  The Gulf War & subsequent basing of US troops in Saudi Arabia helped energize Al Qaeda and direct its wrath toward America, for example.  It also left Bush Jr. and Cheney eager to do it again--and go all the way this time.  Similarly, the surge "worked" primarily because it "worked" for the dominant Shia majority to let it work--and it's given further impetus for trying to do the same in Afghanistan, where the situation is profoundly different.  What Beinart shows, inadvertantly, is just how utterly confused one can get--unable to even grasp what the "big questions" actually are--if one lets the conservatives define the political landscape to suit their own purposes.

Paul Rosenberg :: The myth that conservative welfare reform worked--Part 2
Things are quire different is one is not under a conservative spell.  For example, back in 2006, just after the 10th Anniversary of welfare reform, Brad Plumer wrote a diary, "Was Welfare Reform a Fraud?" which began thus:

While I was moving, the tenth anniversary of welfare reform came and went without too much fanfare. Many observers simply declared that welfare reform had "worked," because caseloads had declined. But what kind of metric is that? The whole point of reform was to push people off welfare. Of course caseloads were going to decline-that's what the law did. We should be asking if families are now better off because of it.

What Plumer wrote was simply common sense.  But it's not Versailles' common sense.  I like to say that hegemony is ideology in drag as common sense.  And the "common sense" of welfare reform is a classic example of what I mean.  For Versailles, reducing caseloads wasn't just the sign of success for welfare reform, however.

The Conservative's Grand Narrative of Reform

The conservative redefinition of social problems as problems with the size of client roles was a broad-based strategy applied to virtually every area of the welfare state, as was documented in depth by noted social historial Michael Katz in his 2001 book, The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State.

I've bolded the key passage of the review from Publishers Weekly (which I wrote):

Arguably the leading historian of American social welfare, Katz (In the Shadow of the Poorhouse; The Undeserving Poor; etc.) has written a defining history of post-Nixon transformations of America's welfare state, including its nonprofit and private sectors (private pensions, health insurance, etc.). Three forces drive the welfare revolutions, he says a savage, selective war on dependence, a push for devolution of power from the federal level to the states and an often naive, ill-conceived use of market models shaping a "master narrative of policy reform" involving "the discovery of a crisis of numbers and costs (rising rolls); the assignment of blame to morally suspect persons (the undeserving); the reduction of program size through controlling eligibility more than reducing benefits (reform); the measurement of achievement by fewer beneficiaries (success); and the failure to track the fate of those denied help (willful ignorance)." Katz's clear articulation of underlying forces and patterns never overwhelms the rich, compelling detail of specific histories involving workers' compensation, disability insurance, unemployment, medical care, food security, urban policy, urban housing, homelessness, Social Security and welfare. Highlights of earlier history serve to dispel common myths (there was no golden age of faith-based private charity), explain the genesis of modern policies (always products of conflict and compromise) and provide perspective for current proposals (which often echo past mistakes). Katz quotes and refers to a wide range of experts as well as political actors, producing a vivid sense of immediacy matched with keen reflection. Without preaching, Katz meticulously reveals the folly of emulating disintegrative forces rather than balancing them. This is a masterpiece of contemporary history.

At the time Katz wrote, "welfare reform" had yet to come up for re-authorization.  But the pattern he identified for all other programs--including the total disinterest in tracking potentially embarrassing results--has held true for it as well, as Plumer noted.  It has largely been left to liberal advocacy groups and think tanks to track the actual results of "welfare reform", and those results have been largely irrelevant to further policy deliberations.  They certainly made no impact whatsoever on a high-profile Versailles liberal like Beinart.

America's welfare state is significantly smaller than that of other nations.  The gap is somewhat filled by private benefits, either won by unions or granted to workers in order to stave off unionization. But the recent breaking of GM's benefit contracts shows just how ephemeral the world of private benefits can be.  Furthermore, that world includes very little provision for children, which is one area where the social welfare gap between the US and other nations is particularly sharp-as we shall see next weekend  in Section 4.

So long as the American people regarded the welfare state favorably, anti-government conservatives had little chance politically. Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964 signaled the fate that inevitably awaited them.  But the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act the next year, changed everything, as Southern racists in particular reacted angrily, expanding on the base of support that Goldwater had established by voting against the Civil Rights Act.  Within a generation, overt racism became a political taboo at the national level, but at the same time racial animus driven underground served to significantly undermine support for social welfare programs of all kinds.

At the policy level, the master narrative Katz identified played a key role.  People remained reluctant to cut the welfare state-to this day, even a majority of self-identified conservatives routinely says that most welfare state programs should continue to be funded at or above current levels.  But if one remains focused on (implicitly racially-driven) questions of who is deserving, the narrative can be completely changed, so that support for welfare state programs themselves is never the issue, and hard-core conservative ideologues never suffer for their ultimate desire to completely eliminate them--something that less than 1% of the American people support.

Three Disconnects From Reality

Of course, this requires a complete disengagement from reality on three counts.  First, blacks are greater consumers of welfare state benefits because of profound historical injustices perpetrated against them, the consequences of which remain alive to this day. Even now, for example, blacks with a bachelors degree or better have a slightly higher unemployment rate than whites with only a two-year degree.  The fact of this ongoing injustice makes whites feel guilty, angry, resentful, and confused, and sustains a politics of denial and other related defense mechanisms, especially projection, in which white fears of their own insecurity and unworthiness are projected onto the "undeserving" poor, who are implicitly black-or possibly brown.

This first source of disconnect from reality is in turn feed by a second--a systematic discounting of actual empirical evidence, particularly the example of other nations, whose far more generous welfare states are far more effective in combating poverty.

The myth of an undeserving power has ancient roots, much older than anti-black racism, which only developed as the need for and access to African slaves emerged in the 16th Century.  But racism infused that myth with a virulent power that helps sustain a staunch refusal to face empirical facts that dominates American politics down to this day.  If one did face those facts, one would find that welfare generally reduces poverty, just about any way you slice it.

It's not that welfare can't induce dependency, or that some people won't game the system.  It's that such effects are relatively minor, and should not be used to punish the vast majority of those who are already being ill-served by our economic system... which brings us to our third disconnect, an unwillingness or inability to critically examine our economic system as a whole, and seek to make it more just for everyone.  Blaming the "undeserving" poor and refusing to even think about criticizing the system go hand-in-hand with one another as principle tenets of conservative ideology.  Measuring "success" by reducing the number of poor clients represents the perfect expression of this ideology, and the establishment of its position of hegemonic dominance. Self-styled Versailles "liberals" who embrace this hegemony, and bash those who question it-as Benart does-are as much a part of the problem as the conservatives who originally promulgate the ideology in its purest form.

None of this alters the fact that welfare actually works to alleviate poverty, as well as the broader facts that (a) the mixed-economy welfare state out-performs the free market in "promoting the general welfare" as called for in our Constitution, and (b) conservative intransigence in rejecting facts they don't like is a broad characteristic of conservative thought generally that renders it consistently inferior and unreliable, and in the long run, dangerous to the future of the republic-as well as the broader future of humanity.

Section 2: A Common-Sense Take-Down of the "Welfare Reform Worked" Myth

We now return to Brad Plumer's diary, "Was Welfare Reform a Fraud?"  After the passage quoted above, it continued with a summary overview of the results.  The following represents roughly half of the whole diary:

Nation-wide, welfare caseloads declined from 4.4 million families in 1996 to about 2 million families today, as states began kicking people off the rolls. So what happened to all of those families? The Urban Institute conducted a massive survey on this, and found that in 2002, of those who left welfare:
  • 57 percent were working (about 40 percent full-time)
  • 26 percent had returned to welfare
  • 14 percent had "no employment income, no working spouse, and no cash welfare or public disability benefits." (Presumably some of these families receive other benefits from America's stingy safety net, such as housing assistance, food stamps, or WIC grants.)

Welfare "reform" has obviously failed the last group, people who by and large are in poor physical and mental health and unable to work. That's about 300,000 families so far, and the number has grown since 2000. Many more families who still receive assistance will likely face a similar situation once they run up against the five-year time limit and get kicked off welfare. That's especially true if Republicans in Congress get their way and pass rules that would make it harder for states to evade these time limits.

Now consider the first group, those who went back to work. Their median hourly wage was about $8 per hour in 2002, or about $16,000 per year. Many families do better, many do worse. For a single mother, though, that's not enough to raise children on-it's hardly a wonder that the poverty rate among single working mothers increased slightly during the "booming" economy in the late 1990s, as women were pushed off welfare to find jobs that paid little. And those jobs are often precarious; an illness or a broken car can easily mean getting fired, with only a shredded safety net to fall back on.

Skipping down a bit, there was also this:

And what about poverty reduction? In 1999, after welfare reform plus a roaring economy plus new work-support programs like the EITC, the poverty rate was 11.8 percent, which was... the exact same rate as in 1979, under the "bad old welfare" system. (1979, note, was only two years before the Reagan administration started slashing AFDC benefits). Moreover, the black poverty rate--which "reform" was supposed to help reduce--declined faster in the three years before 1996 than it did in the three years after.

At the time, Brad DeLong linked to this diary, quoting it at length, then added:

One of the few things Brad misses is that TANF froze federal welfare spending at its 1995 level. Under the old system, federal welfare spending would have fallen sharply in the late 1990s as the economy strengthened. Thus by 2000 TANF was, in aggregate, a lot more generous than AFDC would have been.

In short, there's virtually nothing to the "welfare reform worked" myth other than the political theatrics, and the reinforcement of the "reform" master narrative identified by Katz, with its multiple disconnects from reality.


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Thanks for this important series, debunking the real welfare "fraud." (4.00 / 3)
I always believed that welfare reform was just part of the Nixon-Reagan southern strategy to scapegoat Black people (mothers) and other minorities for their dependence on the dole. It was a hoax then and it is a hoax now.

Motherhood and parenting of course is not a job anyway, so why support laziness. Get a real job, mom.


Read Berkowitz. I heartily concur. (0.00 / 0)
Reagan's accomplishments in welfare reform were part myth and part fraud. No enduring value, other than creating more pain in poverty, & setting back Progressivism and social decency by thirty years.

Edward D. Berkowitz: Welfare Reform as History  
Edward D. Berkowitz & Joel F. Handler: The Poverty of Welfare Reform.  

They only call it class war when we fight back.


Where you goin' with this? (0.00 / 0)
On the one hand, good, very good that you're documenting the failures of triangulation (or whatever brand it is you're documenting that has failed--they all have). On the other, so what?

I once challenged a transrational organization (that hides out in Colorado) to set up operations in Tennessee. They declined without comment.

The problem is clear. The analysis is definitive. When do we go to Tennessee, or Utah, or Mississippi and question them there where they live?

When we're ready, though by then it may be too late? Or now?


Welfare can look good only because the poor are invisible (4.00 / 3)
we need the studies to show them because none of "us" ever have to see them.  The tumbleweeds are still blowing through the inner city, here.  Are we close to an explosion?  I wonder.  One of the reasons I am so interested in finding someway to engage in mass organizing is because a coherent response would be better than an explosion (or maybe, some coherent responses along with some explosions to make the coherent ones look moderate .  . .)

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

Given That The Middle Class Is Invisible In Versailles (4.00 / 1)
The poor don't even exist in theory.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

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