Jared Bernstein wrote a very good article over at The Atlantic, America’s Poorest Are Getting Virtually No Assistance. It’s not a new story to me — or many of my readers — but it is one that we as society have not reckoned with. In 1996, Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it.” Most people are still confused about this. When I talk to people of all political stripes — but especially conservatives — they mostly think that people get on welfare out of high school and die on it. At the very least, they think single mothers without jobs get it. That just isn’t true.
With “welfare reform” came this idea that people should work if they want to get off welfare and climb the economic ladder. That’s actually true. But as Bernstein noted, there was a major problem: “the new welfare law assumed the jobs would be there.” No one really thought about that side of the equation. They seemed to be trapped in the Say’s Law fallacy: supply creates its own demand. So by this way of thinking, if these people went out looking for jobs, the jobs would suddenly appear. It sounds ridiculous when it is put so bluntly, but that is exactly what they were assuming.
But they — Bill Clinton most of all — lucked out. Welfare reform came along at exactly the same time as a huge economic boom — and stock market bubble. So there really were jobs available. Massive numbers of people who had been stuck on welfare suddenly found themselves with jobs. Hooray! Welfare reform worked! But of course it didn’t. Without welfare reform, it is certain that a comparable number of people who had been on welfare would have gotten jobs. As Bernstein noted of the poorest of the poor, “They want decent, steady jobs, and not just because they recognize work as an economic necessity but because of the dignity they believe it will bring to their lives as people and as parents.” Trust me on this: “dignity” is the key word there.
But now we are stuck with this narrative: we forced people on welfare to get jobs and it worked! Tough love rules the day! I don’t think that liberals are quite so sanguine about this anymore. But conservatives are convinced because it is what they want to believe anyway. And this is what gives us people like Paul Ryan saying that the safety net is a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.” Poor people don’t have it great in America — regardless of whether or not they are on welfare. The very notion is silly.
I have an even more fundamental problem with this kind of thinking. I don’t understand why it is that we think mothers should have to work outside the home. Certainly it wasn’t traditionally like that. And every time some rich woman decides to stay home and raise the kids, we as a nation stand and applaud her noble act. But poor women need the “dignity of work,” because raising children isn’t a dignified occupation — when you are poor. So I think we as a society need to give this some thought. And we also need to think about the effect an insecure, nomadic lifestyle has on the life prospects of children.
As a society, we should be ashamed of how we treat the poor. They need a helping hand — and very often a hand out. I don’t know when they ever need a kick in the pants.