New York Times welfare reporter Jason DeParle clearly considers his previous doomsaying reporting on welfare reform vindicated in his latest 2,700-word lead story Sunday, "Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift As Recession Hit – The Struggle To Get By – An Acclaimed Overhaul Under Clinton Meant Rolls Barely Grew."
In 1996 DeParle predicted poor mothers would "turn to prostitution or the drug trade. Or cling to abusive boyfriends. Or have more abortions. Or abandon their children. Or camp out on the streets and beg." None of which came to pass, until now (or so his new anecdotes suggest).
Perhaps no law in the past generation has drawn more praise than the drive to “end welfare as we know it,” which joined the late-’90s economic boom to send caseloads plunging, employment rates rising and officials of both parties hailing the virtues of tough love.
But the distress of the last four years has added a cautionary postscript: much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared. Despite the worst economy in decades, the cash welfare rolls have barely budged.
Faced with flat federal financing and rising need, Arizona is one of 16 states that have cut their welfare caseloads further since the start of the recession -- in its case, by half. Even as it turned away the needy, Arizona spent most of its federal welfare dollars on other programs, using permissive rules to plug state budget gaps.
The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners -- all with children in tow.
After three anecdotes, DeParle concluded:
Critics of the stringent system say stories like these vindicate warnings they made in 1996 when President Bill Clinton fulfilled his pledge to “end welfare as we know it”: the revamped law encourages states to withhold aid, especially when the economy turns bad.
Though he doesn't admit it, DeParle was among the fiercest of those critics, from his perch as an "objective" journalist for the New York Times. In a July 28, 1996 story "Get a Job -- The New Contract With America's Poor," DeParle warned:
Having sought office with the aim of a redefined social contract -- health care for every American -- he will be seeking re-election with a bill that begrudges poor infants their Pampers....No doubt the harsh reality of an empty stomach will cause some people to do better. Some may indeed get jobs and marry, as [Fla. Rep. Clay] Shaw predicts. Others may turn to prostitution or the drug trade. Or cling to abusive boyfriends. Or have more abortions. Or abandon their children. Or camp out on the streets and beg.
DeParle relayed milder criticism on Sunday while noting the "apocalyptic warnings" of 1996. (The paragraph above would certainly qualify.)
The old program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, dates from the New Deal; it gave states unlimited matching funds and offered poor families extensive rights, with few requirements and no time limits. The new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, created time limits and work rules, capped federal spending and allowed states to turn poor families away.
“My take on it was the states would push people off and not let them back on, and that’s just what they did,” said Peter B. Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University who resigned from the Clinton administration to protest the law. “It’s been even worse than I thought it would be.
Even in the 1996 program’s early days, when jobs were plentiful, a subset of families appeared disconnected -- left with neither welfare nor work. Their numbers were growing before the recession and seem to have surged since then.
While data on the very poor is limited and subject to challenge, recent studies have found that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid -- roughly four million women and children. Many of the mothers have problems like addiction or depression, which can make assisting them politically unpopular, and they have received little attention in a downturn that has produced an outpouring of concern for the middle class.
The welfare program was born amid apocalyptic warnings and was instantly proclaimed a success, at times with a measure of “I told you so” glee from its supporters. Liberal critics had warned that its mix of time limits and work rules would create mass destitution -- “children sleeping on the grates,” in the words of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who died in 2003.
But the economy boomed, employment soared, poverty fell and caseloads plunged. Thirty-two states reduced their caseloads by two-thirds or more, as officials issued press releases and jostled for bragging rights. The tough law played a large role, but so did expansions of child care and tax credits that raised take-home pay.
DeParle insisted welfare reform was not the success everyone admitted it was:
And despite widespread hopes that working mothers might serve as role models, studies found few social or educational benefits for their children. (They measured things like children’s aspirations, self-esteem, grades, drug use and arrests.) Nonmarital births continued to rise.
But the image of success formed early and stayed frozen in time.
DeParle eventually unearthed conservative rebuttal points, while chalking up to poverty problems of basic morality and criminal behavior:
Some researchers say the studies exaggerate poverty by inadequately accounting for undisclosed income, like help from boyfriends or under-the-table jobs. They note that asking poor people about their consumption, rather than their income, suggests that even the poorest single mothers have improved their standard of living since 1996....Asked how they survived without cash aid, virtually all of the women interviewed here said they had sold food stamps, getting 50 cents for every dollar of groceries they let others buy with their benefit cards. Many turned to food banks and churches. Nationally, roughly a quarter have subsidized housing, with rents as low as $50 a month....Several women acknowledged that they had resorted to shoplifting, including one who took orders for brand-name clothes and sold them for half-price. Asked how she got cash, one woman said flatly, “We rob wetbacks” -- illegal immigrants, who tend to carry cash and avoid the police. At least nine times, she said, she has flirted with men and led them toward her home, where accomplices robbed them.
It will take more than tweaking government programs to stop such criminal behavior.