When President Trump started going on about “welfare reform,” I wasn’t immediately sure what he was talking about (neither was he, I’m sure). For wonks who have been around for a few years, “welfare reform” was a Bill Clinton era initiative that turned the old Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program into a block-granted funding stream featuring time limits and work requirements under the title of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. “Welfare” used to mean AFDC, or cash benefits to poor families.
Since then, we’ve had robust debates about the efficacy of the 1996 “reform,” but that’s not my topic today (interested parties should see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ work on the predictable loss of TANF’s anti-poverty effectiveness; see also the work of Peter Germanis).
But Trump wasn’t referring to TANF. Yes, he was using the phony “reform” language for cuts to safety-net and social insurance programs. He was also blowing a racist dog whistle with the term welfare.
In his insightful book on dog-whistle politics, Ian Haney Lopez describes such tactics as “coded racial appeals that carefully manipulate hostility toward nonwhites.” In my lifetime, this tactic dates back to Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign, when he introduced and railed against the “welfare queen.”
“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
Did such a person even exist? Sort of, though she wasn’t black, and her real story is far more horrific than Reagan’s caricature.
But like “reforms,” “fixes” and “overhauls,” this racially coded language was never about the facts. It was and is about convincing a group of voters that, while you’re working hard to make ends meet, somebody’s making a bundle ripping off the system. And that somebody is an “other,” a minority or an immigrant.
What are the relevant facts? Though minorities are often disproportionately represented, most recipients of anti-poverty support are white. Most adult, able-bodied poor people work or look for work, as you can’t begin to support a family on safety-net programs. SNAP (nutritional support) pays $1.40 per meal! Medicaid provides health coverage, not income with which you can pay rent or child care. More than half of households with a non-disabled, working-age adult receiving food support work in the paid labor market; 82 percent worked in the year before or will do so in the year after getting SNAP; 87 percent for families with kids. And, for the record, we shouldn’t be surprised to see unemployed people on SNAP or Medicaid. That’s what the safety net is supposed to be there for — to catch economically vulnerable people amid market failures.
But surely these low-income programs are an increasing source of our fiscal stress? Not so. Outside of health care, which has its own set of problems, spending on low-income programs is at its historical level of just above 2 percent of GDP, and it’s slated to soon fall below that average. Health spending changes the picture, but that’s because of our pervasive problem of fast-rising health costs that have outpaced growth for decades. That’s occurred as much in the private sector as in the public. In fact, over the past decade, per-beneficiary costs have risen more slowly in Medicaid than in the private sector.
I’m not trying to play word cop, but to those who are writing about this, please recognize that “cuts in welfare” sounds much worse to a lot of people than “cuts in safety net programs” or “cuts in anti-poverty programs” or “cuts in programs to help people cope in places with too few jobs.”
More broadly, it is not the scope or depth of the safety net that’s troubling the nation. In fact, such social protections are much slimmer here than in other advanced nations. It’s not SNAP, Medicaid, immigration or low-income minorities taking things away from low-income whites that’s holding back America.
It’s the ignoring of facts like those noted above, it’s the lies of the president, it’s that horrifying interview I just heard with CNN’s Jake Tapper and White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, it’s the faux populist forgetter-in-chief phonily going on about the “forgotten men and women,” it’s the least representative Congress of my lifetime (and I’m old). Everything else is dangling the keys, and I, for one, will not be distracted.