Monday, August 07, 2006

A bizarre editorial on welfare reform and solving unemployment.

This editorial is one of the most schizophrenic pieces of opinion writing I've seen. Here's the basic thesis:
In August 1996, President Clinton signed a bill - passed with Republican support - that was designed, in his grand words, to "end welfare as we know it." Though millions of Americans still need government cash payments, and poverty rates are still too high, Washington and the states did learn valuable lessons from this historic policy shift that can be applied to many federal programs. The main lesson is that it is far easier and far better to nudge employable and healthy people to stay off government assistance than was once believed.
In other words, when Americans need government help, and many are incredibly poor, the solution is to make them even poorer by taking assistance away.
Asking Americans now to retire later and work longer, for instance, could help the finances of Social Security. Asking people to take more responsibility for their health will help reduce the costs of Medicare and Medicaid.
Americans "should" work more than 40 hours a week, and work past 65, because then Social Security won't have to pay them as much. (And, hey, they might die before getting anything!) Similarly, Americans "should" pay for their own healthcare, because then Medicare and Medicaid can operate in the black. Nowhere in this is any suggestion that people who have worked 40 hours a week for forty years of their lives might deserve a break, particularly given that workers who are nearing 65 began work under the presumption that they would be able to retire at 65. In other words, they were promised, tacitly, a pension beginning at 65. Also nowhere is any suggestion that it is better for the government to pay for health insurance, such that workers can take less time off for illness and injury, than to rely on the workers themselves.

Here's how nasty the "welfare reforms" actually were:

The 1996 law, which created a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, restricted recipients to only five years of benefits while setting up better ways for them to find work and offering financial incentives such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care.
If the law really offered "better ways ... to find work" and offering "incentives" including child care, then those are indeed good things. What's not good is the artificial five-year ceiling. What that says, quite clearly, is that anyone who has been unable to find a job within five years is entirely to blame themselves, with no regard for the problems of market forces and failed government employment-related policies.
Welfare rolls have since been reduced by more than half. More single women with only a high school degree or less have found jobs. The law was also a main reason for declines in poverty among blacks and children (although poverty remains high among Hispanic immigrants).
I'm not sure how the claim that the law was responsible for declines in povery among blacks and children can be established. I also note that there's no discussion of which jobs were found, nor whether all those who left welfare actually found work.
Government is seen less as a solver of social problems and more as a source of empowerment. Simply redistributing wealth through taxes becomes less important than innovative programs that create opportunities for jobs and education. An individual needing help is treated with greater respect for his or her abilities to grow and live a sustainable life. Government becomes less of a safety net and more of a springboard.
This is the entirely correct attitude. But it's odd to see how dissonant the notes sounded by this attitude are with the data discussed in the opening of the article. The way governments are "solving social problems" is not by "redistributing wealth" (fine) but also not through "innovative programs", but through taking people off welfare, regardless of need, and dumping responsibility for social harms -- unemployment, ill workers -- on individuals.

The article gets even odder as it goes on.

Despite these reforms, welfare has hardly ended, mainly because of potential barriers to employment for millions.
This is quite true, as I'm sure anyone who has tried to find a job lately knows. But, the examples are weird:
Work is difficult for people who are mentally ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol, disabled, or have disabled family members. Many parents who seek welfare also have a record of being investigated on suspicion of child abuse or neglect.
There's really no recognition of the thousands who cannot find meaningful, fairly-paid work, despite being well-trained, well-educated and willing to work hard. In short, there's no recognition of exactly how difficult it is to find someone to give you a job, even if you're not mentally ill, an addict, or suffer from physical disability.

We get another weird turn back to conservative spin right at the end:

Congress can muster a bipartisan spirit when the right ideas come along. It did so with welfare reform and again in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind act that is holding public schools accountable for the learning achievements of students.
As discussed here, No Child Left Behind was a bad law. It was underfunded, it advocated a "one-size-fits-all" approach to a complex situation, and it punished those who didn't fit the criteria (rather than rewarding those that did).

If the welfare reform and No Child Left Behind bills are shining examples of Congress doing something right, I'd frankly hate to see examples of doing something terrifyingly wrong.

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