Tuesday, March 07, 2006

How Not to Help the Poor, or, Why Bob Casey Matters

Recently, in discussing politics with some committed progressives, I've been wondering about certain latent strains of myopia. I'm in the staging area for one of this year's top political attractions, Rick Santorum vs. Bob Casey for U.S. Senate - an iron cage match, no holds barred. The latter, although he's been endorsed by gay rights groups and is no cartoonish troglodyte, is nevertheless a committed Catholic, and opposes gay rights and abortion, and well as gun control. Whether in spite of that or because of that, he's the Democratic leadership's chosen candidate. On Tapped, one commenter to this post, responding to the view that support for Casey demonstrates merely that Democrats 'want to win', expressed a common sentiment:
I guess my thought always is, "...want to win what?" Our anti-civil-rights stands are decorated more tastefully than the Republicans'? We'll throw women's rights over the side, but some of us will feel bad about it? Oh, I'm sorry, women should just "get over it."
I had a longer response to that comment, but I want to focus on one aspect of it here. There's not much debate that there were, and are, no Pennsylvania Democrats likely to defeat Santorum who are social liberals. The pertinent question is, whether progressives should care enough about electing Casey that they devote time, money, and energy to the cause, or whether they should sit back and refuse to cooperate with the DSCC leadership that 'shoved Casey down our throats.'

So, is Casey worth it? If his position on abortion is close to Santorum's, does it matter if we work to get him elected? Here's one item for people to consider - an item which primarily affects vulnerable women: recently, the Senate passed, by a single vote, a budget bill that substantially alters national welfare policy. Casey would have opposed it; Santorum strongly supported it. It is already forcing changes, for the worse, for the least well-off in our society.

The GOP, which passed a welfare repeal bill in 1996 on the theory that the federal government should let the states innovate and send them block grant money without top-down interference, has now decided, after welfare rolls have plummeted, that what's needed is a whole lot more top-down interference. In particular, they've determined, states haven't been putting enough people to work - too many enrollees aren't doing work activities. Thus, the percentage of people receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families who must work to keep getting their check has been jacked up, and the definitions of what constitutes work have been narrowed.

As Congress well knows, millions of people have left welfare in the past ten years. They were, by and large, those most able to work and support themselves on their own. The easy welfare-to-work cases, in other words, are already off the rolls. In Pennsylvania, enrollment is down by about 50%. The rolls mostly fell in the late nineties, during the Clinton boom years (and, in fact, largely before Pennsylvania's work requirement and welfare time limits were phased in in 1999); of those who remained, a substantial portion continued to work or attend job training.

To the credit of the state, and of the welfare department appointees under Republican governor Tom Ridge, Pennsylvania began planning initiatives to meet the needs of those who would be left behind on the rolls but still had problems working. In particular, the state developed the Maximizing Participation Program, which was carefully designed to conduct individual assessments for people who had problems meeting the work requirement, determine what barriers they faced, and then address them through counseling and treatment. MPP discovered countless TANF parents who had never been officially considered disabled, but who upon closer examination were so limited and disabled that they were eligible for permanent federal disability benefits. Many others, whose disabilities were less severe, received personal attention and helpful direction. Good idea, right? Just how we'd like welfare agencies to address people trapped in deep poverty, you'd think?

Well, too bad. The state will almost certainly have to end MPP now, because too many people aren't doing the work that Congress demands right now, and the state has to direct all of its resources to getting people into jobs. Rick Santorum was explicitly told that the Republican TANF bill would likely mean the end of MPP - but by Jove he supported the bill with enthusiasm. He wasn't even deterred when reminded that the bill fell billions short of the child care funding that independent, nonpartisan observers like the CBO and GAO had said would be necessary to allow welfare recipients to attend the jobs that the bill pushed them into in the first place.

With Little Ricky's bill now the law, Pennsylvania has already announced that it's eliminating one aspect of the effort to try to see what barriers are preventing poor mothers from working:
Effective March 01, 2006, CAOs will no longer be able to make new referrals to the Assessment Project (AS). TANF Reauthorization requires states to meet Employment and Training participation rates through specific activities. The Assessment Project has no activities which are countable toward this goal and therefore will be terminated as a stand-alone project. CIS Bulletin Board - Daily Status - Non-Financial D2299 [from interal Office of Income Maintenance website 2/28/06]
In addition, the state plans to push more people to take a job, any job at all; discourage them from education, training, counseling, or anything that might improve their long-term prospects but doesn't look like a job; and sanction anyone who doesn't comply.

In a subscription-only article at The American Prospect Online, straight-shooter sociologist Christopher Jencks and two colleagues describe the problem nicely: "
States can meet [the new work] requirement either by putting recipients to work or pushing them off the rolls entirely. Since today’s TANF recipients are mostly hard to employ, putting them to work will be difficult and expensive. Pushing them off the rolls will be cheaper and easier.
State officials’ temptation to choose the cheap alternative will be exacerbated if Congress adopts the administration’s recent budget proposals for the next five years... given all the competing claims on states’ resources, the new federal work requirements for single mothers may well bring about the hardships that liberals have been predicting since 1996....
[S]ingle mothers with incomes less than 70 percent of the poverty line [are in] a condition we call “severe” poverty... between 1996 and 2003, severe poverty rose slightly... While most single mothers have more money today than their counterparts had in 1996, the poorest mothers do not. Tighter work requirements will make this problem even worse if states meet the new federal requirements by pushing families off the welfare rolls entirely....
The main reason welfare reform has hurt so few families is that the combination of rising wages and work supports like the EITC and child-care subsidies made work an economically viable option for single mothers who could hold a job. But the damage was also limited by the fact that states had enough flexibility to shelter mothers they judged incapable of working. That flexibility is now being reduced dramatically. The economic fate of single mothers is now tied to the business cycle in the same way as that of other working-age parents. Welfare is no longer the poverty trap that it was, but it is also less of a safety net. As other federal funds aimed at the poor are cut, the safety net will become even more threadbare."
If that's not enough for you, there's a sweetener: in the same bill, Congress cut Medicaid funding by $10 billion, and eliminated any restrictions on co-pays and premiums for the poor. A disabled Pennsylvania resident living on $205 per month now pays as much as $12 per prescription; under the new law, that co-pay could rise indefinitely - infinitely. Any states with hearts softer than steel won't want to charge outrageous premiums and co-pays to the poorest of the poor - but the feds are cutting out $10 billion of support for the program, so the states' options are pretty limited. Again, for those not clear: Santorum: provided crucial vote to pass these changes. Casey: would have opposed these changes. Food for thought.

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