There’s something almost eerie about the unwavering nature of the Republican system of belief.
The nationalists who propelled President Trump into office may appear locked in an existential battle with the party’s pro-trade globalists. In truth, the Republican Party is still driven by the two propositions that have guided it for decades: cutting government aid will free poor Americans to shake dependency and get ahead, and cutting taxes on the well-to-do will bring prosperity to all.
In December, Republicans dusted off the old trickle-down slogans to justify a nearly $2 trillion tax cut, blithely ignoring a virtual consensus among economists and glossing over a 40-year body of evidence that the only people who benefit from tax cuts for the rich are, well, the rich.
Now, the party is moving on to the government-aid part of the canon. In January, the Trump administration freed states to demand that Medicaid beneficiaries get a job, a move likely to bump hundreds of thousands of poor Americans off their health insurance.
It was just the beginning. As early as this week, Republicans in the House could vote for a new farm bill that would impose work requirements for recipients of food stamps, dropping maybe two million Americans from the program, according to the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and cutting benefits by $23 billion over 10 years, according to government estimates.
Indeed, the administration’s ultimate goal is to attach work requirements to the entire social safety net. In the words of the president, “We can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.”
History, however, has proved that this doctrine, too, is mostly wrong. We have been here before, more than 20 years ago, when the embattled President Bill Clinton embraced the Republicans’ “welfare to work” strategy and replaced the federal program to aid poor families with children with a rash of state-managed programs that imposed stringent work requirements on beneficiaries.
Work requirements did, of course, encourage the mostly poor single mothers of able body and mind who did not already hold a job to get one. Their earnings from work increased. As they left the welfare rolls, government spending on welfare payments declined.
But what did not happen is perhaps more important: The incomes of all the mothers ostensibly freed from dependence hardly rose at all. The loss of welfare payments pretty much canceled out their earnings from work. With little education and virtually no access to training, they got stuck in the low-wage labor market that has taken over so much of the American economy.
Young children did no worse when their mothers got jobs in terms of either cognitive abilities or socialization skills. But unless the mothers’ incomes rose, they did no better either. Mothers who for some reason could not get a job — or go on disability — got a raw deal.
For his 2004 book “American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare,” my colleague Jason DeParle spoke at length to Angie, a single mother of four living in Milwaukee.
“On welfare, Angie was a low-income single mother, raising her children in a dangerous neighborhood in a household roiled by chaos,” he wrote. “She couldn’t pay the bills. She drank lots of beer. And her kids needed a father. Off welfare, she was a low-income single mother, raising her children in a dangerous neighborhood in a household roiled by chaos. She couldn’t pay the bills. She drank lots of beer. And her kids needed a father.”
There are 41 million poor people in America, according to the Census Bureau, four million more than in 1996. Before welfare reform kicked in, 68 percent of poor families got help from the federal entitlement to the poor. By 2016, its replacement served only 23 percent.
Benefits shriveled over the period: In 35 states, benefits are at least a fifth lower than they were when welfare was overhauled. In most states, they take families less than a third of the way out of poverty.
“What is crucial to understand is what we mean by success,” said Gordon Berlin, who runs the policy analysis firm MDRC. “Is the goal of welfare about reducing poverty or about reducing dependency?”
Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. For all the lofty pronouncements surrounding the 1996 welfare reform, Mr. Clinton’s goals were political: “to remove welfare from national political attention so that it would no longer cost the Democrats votes,” as Christopher Jencks of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government noted.
Republicans were motivated, of course, by doctrine. “Much of the Republican welfare reform policy was based on values,” wrote Ron Haskins, one of the top architects of the Republican welfare strategy that Mr. Clinton signed into law, in his insider tell-all “Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law.”
Research into the potential effects of ending welfare as America then knew it seems to have played only a bit role.
What motivates Republicans today? Raw dogma? They cannot be hoping to pay for their tax cuts by cutting nutrition benefits. Other than Medicare and Social Security, there is no program in the meager social safety net with enough money to pay for those.
I have suggested that Mr. Trump’s approach to welfare might be calibrated to appeal to the white blue-collar voters in his base who feel that anti-poverty programs amount to using their taxes to help undeserving black and Hispanic recipients.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the president and congressional Republicans honestly want to tweak welfare to improve the lot of poor Americans; to build a safety net that revolves around work but also provides help when work can’t be had.
There is, in fact, a lot of research on what works and what doesn’t. Much of it was carried out by MDRC, which starting in the late 1980s conducted more than a dozen experiments in cities around the country to explore the consequences of different paths from welfare to work.
Here are some thoughts: Rather than threatening workers to get them to join the work force, offer carrots instead. The earned-income tax credit, for instance, which increases the incomes of workers on low wages, has done a great job not only in drawing single mothers into the work force but in improving their incomes as well, delivering additional benefits for their children.
MDRC also identified a series of programs to “make work pay.” Spending real money on training has been found to help workers escape dead-end jobs at low wages. I am not optimistic that these ideas will find their way into the policy mix, however. They just don’t fit in the Republican system of belief.
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