Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The End of Welfare Reform as We Knew It
I really am going to write about the NYC transit strike soon. My problem has been that, as when one watches a Cowboys-Redskins football game or a Marlins-Braves diamond contest, I want both sides to lose; and while the strike has been a terrible imposition on millions of my fellow New Yorkers (including my wife, who needed two hours to get from Prospect Heights in Brooklyn to the Columbia campus today), for me it's meant the cancellation of meetings and a chance to watch Battlestar Galactica all day on Sci-Fi yesterday, with probably a matinee of the Harry Potter flick this afternoon... but I do think the strike brings into focus some very important issues about both the changing nature of employment and the profoundly fucked up budgeting/policymaking process on the state and federal level which has led the TWU and the MTA to fight over a pie that should be much bigger than it is.

Which brings me to today's subject: how right-wing Senate Republicans ended the welfare reform debate today with a Trojan-Horse provision to a budget bill. Big Swinging Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote this morning on a measure that, per the Times, "imposes the first restraints in nearly a decade in federal benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and student loans." But it also rewrites the country's public assistance policy, which has been stalemated in debate over the long-pending reauthorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. (I referenced this the other day in my discussion of the Patriot Act.) New Donkey explains:

[W]ith relatively little notice, our Republican buddies have also sought to pull off a back-door maneuver that could unravel the consensus supporting welfare reform... there's been a deadlock in the Senate over the administration's demand that work requirements for welfare recipients be increased without additional money for child care assistance, and the Democratic position (most notably promoted by Sens. Evan Bayh and Tom Carper) that the tighter work requirements will fail without the child care resources that make it possible for single mothers to go to work (a smaller group of Democrats oppose increased work requirements altogether),

So now the GOPers are using the budget bill, which can't be filibustered, to simply impose their position on welfare on the Congress and the country, even though some of these provisions were not in either the House or Senate version of the bill.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an outstanding social policy research organization, has the gory details. Essentially, this action does the following:

  • Forces states to herd more public assistance recipients into work, while extending only $1 billion in new assistance for childcare. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that to meet the much higher work participation requirements the law imposes, states would need $12 billion in new childcare funding. Already in New York--one of the most generous states in the country for providing supports to low-income working mothers--we've got several hundred thousand kids in need of child care going without it.

  • Imposes crippling unfunded mandates on the states. Long gone, evidently, are the days when Newt Gingrich's newly empowered Republican majority pledged not to pass legislation driving state expenditures without allocating federal resources to help pay the freight. This was, in my opinion, the single best thing the Republicans in Congress did in their now 11 years in the majority; it's been under assault for awhile in measures like homeland security and No Child Left Behind, but this seems to render it an utterly dead letter.

  • Standardizes and nationalizes policy that states previously had been largely free to set in response to local conditions. Federalism--the idea that policymakers "closest to the ground" know better what best suits their communities than their counterparts in Washington--seems to be another one of those principles that Republicans once honored but have discarded when they didn't get the results they sought. Under welfare reform as passed in 1996, states had tremendous flexibility to set policies in response to local needs and conditions. Some states, like New York, went out of their way to support low-income working families, figuring that their commitment didn't end when the individual left the welfare rolls. Others (not New York, especially) were more lenient in setting what activities counted as "work-related," which made things easier on disabled aid recipients and afforded greater access to the education and training activities that gave participants their best shot to permanently emerge from poverty. That's gone now. Given the nature of the mandates, states that don't focus on "maximum engagement" are assured of losing federal programs dollars.

There's so much wrong here, I'm having trouble writing about this coherently. And that's even before getting to the fact that these cuts are designed in part to defray the cost of yet more tax breaks for the super-rich investor class.

But, as usual for me, this really comes down to both values and investment strategy. These changes represent a kick in the teeth to families trying to lift themselves out of dependency. Since 1996, welfare reform has done two things above all else: it shifted millions of Americans from public assistance to the low-wage workforce, and it concentrated the truly unable to work on what was left of the rolls. The latter group are essentially society's dependents--the mentally ill, the disabled and infirm. While it's important to keep engaging with them, trying to migrate as many of them as possible into the workforce, they shouldn't be the focus of policy.

The first, much larger group--those now working but still very much on the economic margin--should be our focus. How can we stabilize their finances? How can we help them build assets--savings, education, home ownership? What tools can we give them to advance in their careers, earn more money, pay more taxes, more fully integrate into our economy and society? While I don't think any state, or any think tank or advocacy group, would claim to have the answers to these questions, we've made some progress, and improved a lot of lives. We've substantially been able to make policy that reinforces shared values: the Earned Income Tax Credit, a bipartisan favorite, rewards work. Individual Development Accounts provide public or private matches to the savings of low-wage workers. Programs like New York's Wheels for Work directly put public resources behind the efforts of low-wage workers to stay on the job.

All that is now imperiled, because Senate Republicans used procedural chicanery to end an argument they couldn't win on the merits. Merry Christmas, working poor America.

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