Thursday, February 25, 2016

Let's Talk About Welfare Reform

Bernie Sanders has finally done what some of his supporters have been suggesting he should do for a while: challenge Hillary Clinton about her support of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, i.e., welfare reform.
"I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable," Sanders said Wednesday. "Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform. [She] strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage."
This could be an important discussion for Democrats to have. But that will only be possible if we are prepared to take an honest look at the issue rather than simply assume that we can cast the two candidates into a good/bad position based on what happened 20 years ago.

The first thing we need to do is dump the Republican talking points about welfare. Here are the facts: even under AFDC (pre-reform), most recipients did not depend on it long term. The following is from testimony by the Urban League in 1996 prior to the passage of welfare reform:
The majority of families who leave the welfare system do so after a relatively short period of time -- about half leave within a year; 70 percent within two years and almost 90 percent within five years.
So before welfare officially became "temporary" (it is now named Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), most women turned to it as a transition due to job loss, divorce, domestic violence, or the death of their spouse. In that sense, the time limits of welfare reform (limiting recipients to 5 years) didn't affect their lives. But as Elaine Kamarck pointed out in an article at the Washington Monthly back in September 2011, other parts of the social safety net - like the Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Social Security Disability and SCHIP - are critical.

The women who depend on welfare for longer periods of time are those we sometimes describe as living in "deep poverty" that often combines economic struggles with those of generational poverty, mental health/drug addiction issues, lack of education and trauma. This is where some data from Kevin Drum is helpful.

The green line is the one to pay attention to if you want to know the comprehensive effect of all changes to the social welfare system over the past couple of decades. And what it shows is that the percentage of households with children in extreme [ie, deep] poverty increased from about 1 percent to 1.5 percent. That represents an increase of fewer than 500,000 households.
Understanding all of that, we can then talk about what an effective anti-poverty agenda should actually look like. Rather than assume that it means going back to the old AFDC model, it would include two things:

1. Protecting and expanding the current safety net programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Social Security, etc.

2. Developing case management and other services designed to address the needs of women living in deep poverty.

On that latter point, my home state of Minnesota was one of the first to discover a program embedded in Medicaid that is invaluable in working with families living in deep poverty. It is called Child Welfare - Targeted Case Management.
Child Welfare Targeted Case Management (CW-TCM) activities coordinate social and other services designed to help the child under 21 and the child's family gain access to needed social services, mental health services, habilitative services, educational services, health services, vocational services, recreational services, and related services including, but not limited to, volunteer services, advocacy, transportation, and legal services.
Via this program, Medicaid picks up half the costs of the case managers and the local unit of government pays the other half. As an example, due to funding from CW-TCM, I witnessed an opium-addicted mother of several children get sober, re-enter the workforce, and watch her son be the first in his family to graduate from high school and go on to college...priceless.

Another alternative is exemplified by an organization run by a friend of mine, which began in Minnesota and has now expanded to other states, the Jeremiah Program. Women are provided with housing, child care and social services while they are involved in educational programs to advance their job skills.

Presidential candidates and other politicians can chose whether to use welfare reform as an attempt to discredit their opponent, or as a way to advance this kind of conversation on how we address the issue of poverty in this country. I certainly hope that they chose the latter.

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