myth of conservative welfare reform

The myth that conservative welfare reform worked--Part 6

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Mar 14, 2010 at 18:30

Where We've Been: This is Part Six--the final part--in my diary series, "The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked".  Part 1 began this project by debunking the conservative narrative that liberals and Democrats were uninterested in reforming welfare, drawing principally on Diana Zuckerman's artlce, "Welfare Reform in America: A Clash of Politics and Research ", published in the Journal of Social Issues, Winter 2000 (pp587-599).  Part 2 began the presentation of a five-section argument with the first two sections, "Section 1: The Rightwing Hegemonic Framing Of Welfare Reform" and "Section 2: A Common-Sense Take-Down of the 'Welfare Reform Worked' Myth".  Part 3 was devoted to a detailed debunking of Charles Murray's Losing Ground.  This part will look at National US data, both long-term trends and a set of snaphsots. Part 4 dealt with national data--both long-term trends and a set of four snapshots--showing that (a) poverty is linked to scarcity of jobs (as represented in the unemployment rate), (b) teen pregnancy and birth rates were declining well before "welfare reform" and continued (but did not accelerate) their decline afterwards, (c) the social safety net was doing an increasingly good job of fighting poverty before "welfare reform", and (d) the adoption of "welfare reform" had significant negative impacts on those in poverty, even though there were off-setting factors that prevented things from getting as bad as they might have.  Part 5 showed that the US does significantly worse than other comparable nations in fighting poverty, and that we do worse in fighting the conservative bugaboo of single motherhood among teenaged girls, even though there's not much difference in teenage sexual behavior.

We now turn to our last topic: the diversity of options and outcomes among US states, even given the constraints that keep us from being like the more successful countries.



Section 5: The Story of State-Level Data

In this section, we complete our debunking of the myth that conservative "welfare reform" was a success by examining poverty rates on a state-level basis.  We've already seen in Part 5 that American anti-poverty policy as a whole is a failure compared to other industrialized countries.  But by looking at state-level data we can gain a better sense of what sorts of policies within the American framework are most promising in at least steering us somewhat towards the direction of more successful policies practiced by other nations.

We begin by simply looking at state-level data on a state-by-state level, informally noting how poverty is highest among certain states by various different measures.  We then turn to looking at systematic groupings of states, following a methodology similar to that employed to analyze groups of nations, first pioneered by  Gosta Epsing-Anerson in his 1990 book, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism and then adapted by a variety others to propose other typologies for various different purposes, both in Europe and in East Asia.

We begin with a series of maps based on census data collected by Annie E. Casey Foundation at the Kids Count Datacenter website.  First is the most basic map of child poverty, showing clearly that the greatest concentration of child poverty is found in the South, with somewhat lower rates along the Eastern Seaboard (except for South Carolina), and additional high poverty in the border states of Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as New Mexico:

This pattern alone should make one thing painfully obvious: the political party (GOP) and movement (movement conservatives) whose power is centered in these states is singularly not to be trusted as experts on how to combat poverty.  Quite the opposite.  The policies they've chosen to implement when they have the power to do so are particularly ineffective and not to be copied elsewhere.  Indeed, they should be eliminated and replaced where they are practiced.  Any sort of fact-based approach to poverty reduction would have to begin by recognizing this as an obvious truth.

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The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked--Part 5

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Mar 13, 2010 at 16:00

Where We've Been: This is Part Five in my diary series, "The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked".  Part 1 began this project by debunking the conservative narrative that liberals and Democrats were uninterested in reforming welfare, drawing principally on Diana Zuckerman's artlce, "Welfare Reform in America: A Clash of Politics and Research ", published in the Journal of Social Issues, Winter 2000 (pp587-599).  Part 2 began the presentation of a five-section argument with the first two sections, "Section 1: The Rightwing Hegemonic Framing Of Welfare Reform" and "Section 2: A Common-Sense Take-Down of the 'Welfare Reform Worked' Myth".  Part 3 was devoted to a detailed debunking of Charles Murray's Losing Ground.  This part will look at National US data, both long-term trends and a set of snaphsots. Part 4 dealt with national data--both long-term trends and a set of four snapshots--showing that (a) poverty is linked to scarcity of jobs (as represented in the unemployment rate), (b) teen pregnancy and birth rates were declining well before "welfare reform" and continued (but did not accelerate) their decline afterwards, (c) the social safety net was doing an increasingly good job of fighting poverty before "welfare reform", and (d) the adoption of "welfare reform" had significant negative impacts on those in poverty, even though there were off-setting factors that prevented things from getting as bad as they might have.

Section 4: The US In International Comparison

In this section, we examine the international data, comparing the US to other countries.  We examine both the economic data and the data related to fertility, particular for teenagers.  In both cases, we find that the US is an outlier for advanced industrial nations, indicating that rather than taking conservative precriptions that would make us even less like other countries, we should take more liberal prescriptions that would make us more like others.

Economic Data

Our economic data comes from a number of studies--known as "working papers" based on the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) database. First is Working Paper # 379, "Welfare State Expenditures and the Distribution of Child Opportunities", by Irwin Garfinkel, Lee Rainwater and Timothy Smeeding, which provides series data that allows us to compare trends of a period of years.

The first chart compares the US and Mexico (a developing nation) to the averages of four groups of nations: Anglo nations, Scandanavian nations, Northern European nations, and Central/Southern European nations.  The nations in each group are listed in the text below the chart area. As can be seen, the US is far below the average of all the other groups, and indeed is closer to Mexico than it is to any of the other developed nation groups:

The Anglo nations are generally the lest generous, and culturally the most similar to the US.  It's therefore instructive to compare the US to the other Anglo nations. As can be seen, the US only exceeded Australia briefly at the beggining of the period studied.  After that, it was significantly below the rest, particularly after about 1990, when the spending levels in all other countries began rising far more significantly than in the US.  (Recall from Part 4 that the US social safety net was significantly strongly during the early 1990 recession than it had been 10 years earlier.  But the increase is quite minor compared to the increases in other Anglo countries.)

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The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked--Part 4

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Mar 07, 2010 at 18:45

This is Part Four in my diary series, "The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked".  Part 1 began this project by debunking the conservative narrative that liberals and Democrats were uninterested in reforming welfare, drawing principally on Diana Zuckerman's artlce, "Welfare Reform in America: A Clash of Politics and Research ", published in the Journal of Social Issues, Winter 2000 (pp587-599).  Part 2 began the presentation of a five-section argument with the first two sections, "Section 1: The Rightwing Hegemonic Framing Of Welfare Reform" and "Section 2: A Common-Sense Take-Down of the 'Welfare Reform Worked' Myth".  Part 3 was devoted to a detailed debunking of Charles Murray's Losing Ground.  This part will look at National US data, both long-term trends and a set of snaphsots.

Section 3B: The Story of National Data--Long-Term Trends And Significant Snapshots

We begin this diary by looking at long-term trends, which provide us with the big-picture story.  We then examine a few significant shorter time-frames to see what was going on a crucial periods of time, taking a closer look at how different factors interacted.

Long-Term Poverty Rate Trends--Two Warning Shots

First we look at two trend graphs.  The first tracks deep poverty--below 50% of the poverty line.  It clearly shows that deep poverty grew dramatically in the late 1970s, and through the beginning of the Reagan years:

The late 90s did show a significant imporovement, but it began before "welfare reform" and did not come close to returning us to the pre-Reagan levels of relative success.

The second shows that poverty began dropping well before "welfare reform" was implemented, and that there was no appreciable change in the declining trend when "welfare reform" was instituted:

Thus, there is no empirical foundation for any claim that "welfare reform" was "a success".

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The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked--Part 3

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Mar 06, 2010 at 16:00

This is Part Three in my diary series, "The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked".  Part 1 began this project by debunking the conservative narrative that liberals and Democrats were uninterested in reforming welfare, drawing principally on Diana Zuckerman's artlce, "Welfare Reform in America: A Clash of Politics and Research ", published in the Journal of Social Issues, Winter 2000 (pp587-599).  Part 2 began the presentation of a five-section argument with the first two sections, "Section 1: The Rightwing Hegemonic Framing Of Welfare Reform" and "Section 2: A Common-Sense Take-Down of the 'Welfare Reform Worked' Myth".

In the interests of digestibility, I've decided to split both the diaries planned for this weekend into two parts each, running a two-part diary on national data this weekend (splitting Section 3 into two sub-sections) , and two separate diaries on international comparisons (Section 4) and state-level comparisons (Section 5) next weekend.  In this diary, I will look at national data that helps explain the main false assumptions used in the conservative anti-welfare arguments made popular by Charles Murray in his 1985 book, Losing Ground.  In the next diary, I will concentrate on data that illustrates what the real problems actually were, and how welfare reform failed to perform as promised.

Section 3A: The Story of National Data-Debunking The Conservative Frame

In this part, we examine national level data showing that conservative welfare reform was not a success as it widely believed in Versailles.  To do this properly, however, we must take account of the arguments advanced to make the contrary point-no matter how misleading, and yes, downright dishonest they may be.  Thus, before any number-crunching can begin, we need to discuss how conservatives portrayed welfare as a failure in need of reform. At the end of 1970s, no one would claim that America's social welfare policies were a roaring success, but liberals would point to two major factors-first, a relative lack of effort compared to Europe, and second, the abysmal economic performance of the 1970s, which had stalled economic progress even for the middle class, much less for the poor. An obvious solution would be to take lessons from Europe-but that would be too logical. Instead, conservatives came up with a facade of research to "prove" their charge that not only had Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs failed to reduce poverty, it had made things worse.

This was logic of Charles Murray's 1985 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (whose very subtitle was a lie--see below), and it was reflected in Ronald Reagan's claim in his 1988 State of the Union that "some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won." But this had not always been the conservative position.  Indeed, in late December 1980, Martin Anderson, an Ayn Rand acolyte and a researcher at the Hoover Institute, had just been announced as Reagan's first chief domestic policy adviser, and an AP story quoted from his writings:

The 'dismal failure' of welfare is a myth.  There may be great inefficiencies in our welfare programs, the level of fraud my be very high, the quality of management may be terrible, the programs may overlap, inequities may abound and the financial incentive to work may be virtually nonexistence.

But if we step back and judge the vast array of welfare programs, on which we spend billions of dollars every year, by two basic criteria--the completeness of coverage for those who really need help, and the adequacy of help they do receive--the picture changes dramaticll.  Judged by these standards our welfare system has been a brilliant success.  The war on poverty is over for all practical purposes.

This was, of course, delusional.  But it was a very different delusion than the one the right would later embrace.

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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.

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The myth that conservative welfare reform worked--Part 1

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Feb 27, 2010 at 13:30

[Note]: I learned my lesson two weeks ago.  This multi-part diary will run over two consecutive weekends.

In my recent 6-part take-down of Gerard Alexander's Washington Post commissioned op-ed,"Why are liberals so condescending", I dispensed with his somewhat opaque invocation of conservative welfare reform as a success with a simple observation:

Alexander is under the deluded impression that abolishing AFDC eliminated poverty.  He is wrong.

Indeed, the poverty rate was already declining before welfare reform was passed, and continued for some time afterwards, until the Clinton expansion ran into Bushonomics:

These reductions still left the US poverty rate (after taxes and transfers) well above the level of comparable Western European countries:

Although readily refuted by the relevant data, the myth that conservative welfare reform was a success remains a powerful Versailles shibboleth that deserves a full-dress take all its own, which is why I decided to write this multi-part diary.   Alexander's claim is actually quite vague.  In fact, he never really comes out and says, "conservative welfare reform worked." Rather his argument is that liberals were wrong not to listen to conservatives--without ever offering any actual proof that liberals weren't listening, as opposed to simply disagreeing:

Long-standing conservative concerns over the perils of long-term welfare dependency were similarly villainized as insincere and mean-spirited -- until public opinion insisted they be addressed by a Democratic president and a Republican Congress in the 1996 welfare reform law. But in the meantime, welfare policies that discouraged work, marriage and the development of skills remained in place, with devastating effects.

This narrative is fundamental untrue.  To pick the low-hanging fruit first, conservatives were insincere and mean-spirited, most obviously because at that time they were still vigorously pushing the notion that women not on welfare should stop working, go home, and care for their kids... conveniently overlooking the fact that if they did so, millions of them would inevitably become dependent on welfare as a direct result, along with the kids they were caring for.  Still, conservatives might have been right on the merits, despite their questionable motives... if only they'd been relying on actual data, instead of made-up racist anecdotes like Reagan's infamous "welfare queen," or Charles Murray's outright lying with his data in Losing Ground, which was mercilessly exposed by Robert Greenstein in his March 25, 1985, New Republic article, "Losing Faith in 'Losing Ground,'" unfortunately no longer available online that I could find.

Because more and more women were working outside the home, there was a broad shift in attitudes toward welfare, but this included liberal ideas about how to ensure that work would lead to a way out of poverty as well as conservative ideas about character, dependency, etc. that were ultimately utterly indifferent to poverty reduction.  The myth of conservative welfare reform's "success" servers to utterly obliterate the existence of alternative, reality-based liberal approaches--some of which managed to find their ways into practice despite the core provisions of conservative welfare reform.

Real history is never as neat and simple as the myths made up to hide it, but Diana Zuckerman's artlce, "Welfare Reform in America: A Clash of Politics and Research ", published in the Journal of Social Issues, Winter 2000 (pp587-599) provides a concise recounting that amply refutes the myth as Alexander repeats it. To begin with, Clinton had been deeply involved in earlier welfare reform efforts, both as a sitting governor and as an official in the National Governors Association--efforts that resulted in legislation that could not be adequately implemented because of the souring economy as the 80s ended:

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