Friday, March 03, 2006

Let There Be More Darkness
In the not quite six years I've been researching and writing on social policy issues, the most difficult but also most rewarding thing I've done was the Working Poor Families Project. Toward the end of 2004, CUF and our partners at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy released a report titled "Between Hope and Hard Times," about low-income working families in New York State and how government policies in a number of areas, from post-secondary financial aid to economic development investments to income supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Unemployment Insurance, helped or hindered them in their efforts to get ahead. The basic premise of the project, which was supported by three major national philanthropic foundations, struck me then and now as deeply resonant with the whole American idea: that families who work hard and live right should enjoy a measure of economic security.

We found that despite the general prosperity of the last decade-plus and some highly laudable programs at the state and local levels, the numbers of low-income working families in the state have increased. (A forthcoming update brief, to be released later this month, shows that this trend unfortunately has accelerated in the 18 months since we issued the full report.) The question we couldn't answer to my satisfaction, though, was this: are today's working poor substantially the same people who had jobs but struggled to make ends meet five, ten, twenty years ago? The problem, in other words, isn't necessarily poverty: it's opportunity and mobility. One state agency we engaged with in the course of researching the report presented us with a Census study from the late 1990s indicating that economic mobility remains high; we also found a study by two Federal Reserve economists that strongly suggested that mobility had sharply declined since the 1970s. In the report, we wrote that "for the state to truly gauge how its anti-poverty policies are performing, we must have better information."

So it comes as a disappointment, but not a huge surprise, that the Bush administration proposes to do away with one of the federal government's more effective programs that provide *any* information on this subject: the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation. Ironically, the study that suggested the enduring strength of economic mobility was a product of SIPP data. Follows here a little description, of both the program itself and how its demise has been presented:

The SIPP is the only major longitudinal survey that tracks the same families over time. While it has a representative sample that allows it to be used to examine issues affecting the whole population, it over samples low income households, which makes it especially useful for examining the impact of TANF, Medicaid, and other anti-poverty programs. Ostensibly, the reason for eliminating the SIPP is to save the $40 million annual cost of fielding the survey (@ 6 hours of the Iraq war).

Usually, plans to alter or eliminate major surveys are floated well in advance in order to get input from the community of researchers, policy makers, and advocates that rely on the survey. This plan was crafted in the dark of night and kept secret until the 2007 budget was released. Perhaps the secrecy was needed to keep us safe from the terrorists, but this does not seem like best path for producing reliable data.

To put it mildly, $40 million is not a lot of money in a multi-trillion dollar federal budget. It's the dime you find in the couch cushion, if that. For that matter, it's a pretty miniscule fraction of the money we spend on the programs SIPP helps us understand better: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the federal welfare program that was recently stealth-reauthorized when the Republicans inserted it within a budget reconciliation bill (a DeLay special: enact something that could never pass on its merits by tying it to a measure necessary to keep government functioning), has been flat-funded since Clinton first signed it in 1996, and we still spend something like $16 billion on it, plus state matching funds. Medicaid, the growth of which is squeezing state budgets from coast to coast, consumes a much bigger share of the federal budget.

A reflexive right-wing response to this whole problem might just be, "Fuck it--we should eliminate all those programs anyway." (In fact, I think one of our visiting trolls pretty much wrote that a few weeks ago.) Putting aside the human consequences of such a switch, the truth is that it's not happening: not now, not ever. Even the most rabid Republican governor would foul his wool britches without the billions in federal aid to fund income support and social safety net programs; they want more, not less. For that matter, consider poor Wal-Mart; without Medicaid, they'd be unable to sustain a workforce. The point is that these programs aren't just handouts; they're pivotal to the functioning of the U.S. economy. (Also keep in mind that majorities of the poor and near-poor work; this isn't your grandpa's Cadillac welfare queen, not that she ever really existed as much more than a trope for haters.)

So we're going to have these programs, and we're going to spend billions of dollars on them. The question is whether we want to keep the tools to evaluate them, see where they're helping and where they can be stretched farther and where they're being wasted--or whether we'd just prefer to remain in blissful ignorance, out of some notion that the less we know about those on the economic margin, the less we have to worry about them.

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