Ryan Budget Is Not the New “Welfare Reform”

It is entirely unsurprising that Paul Ryan and his many supporters have been advertising the massive safety net cuts and wholesale abandonments of the poor that make the bulk of the spending “savings” in his budget proposal as the greatest thing since the Clinton-era welfare reform legislation. What is surprising is that some progressives seem to be going along with the characterization in order to grind some old axes about the 1996 act.

There was a big Sunday New York Times piece by Jason DeParle conflating the plight of “the poor” with those of the single unwed mothers affected by state-level reductions in cash assistance under the TANF program (the post-1996 name for the old Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, a.k.a. “welfare”). DeParle does indeed document some dreadful state practices (notably in Arizona), even as he acknowledges that despite the recession more single unwed mothers are able to work than before 1996, and have lower poverty rates. But by overstating the importance of TANF in the post-reform safety net scheme, and giving critics of the original law a new soapbox for claiming vindication, DeParle’s piece is not only misleading, but understates the potential damage Ryan’s proposal could inflict.

Indeed, the biggest problem with the “welfare reform has failed” narrative, and with treating the Ryan budget as a logical extension of welfare reform, is that it ignores one of the main purposes of the 1996 act was to make other elements of the safety net, some work-conditional and others simply much better targeted, more central, even as they were significantly strengthened. As Elaine Kamarck explained at Ten Miles Square back in September of 2011:

[T]he intent of welfare reform was to move as many Americans as possible off the welfare rolls, which, by supporting mothers only if they weren’t working and weren’t married, created lamentable behavioral incentives. The goal was to see them then move into either the work world or the arms of other government programs that offer more targeted forms of assistance. In both respects, the law has been a success. No doubt the safety net needs shoring up. But even in these tough economic times, it is providing much more of a cushion for the kinds of families that once relied on welfare than its critics seem to realize.

In today’s WaPo, Ezra Klein takes a different tack in suggesting that welfare reform’s record is an accurate yardstick for how the Ryan budget might work out: since Ryan (and for that matter, in his own proposal, Mitt Romney) wants to turn Medicaid, food stamps and other safety-net programs into state-run block grants, it’s important to look at how states have cut TANF to see how they might handle these other programs.

Ezra’s right about that, but like Paul Ryan, he’s mixing apples and oranges: TANF costs and caseloads were intended to go down in no small part because the other safety net programs, along with the extremely important earned income tax credit (EITC) were intended to pick up the slack. And that’s why the GOP proposals are so devastating: they knock the very props from beneath the effort to “make work pay” that was more important than state generosity in TANF rules or funding in making welfare reform work as well as it has. Beyond anything to do with welfare, of course, Medicaid is an extremely important source of health care coverage not only for the unemployed and the working poor, but for low-income elderly as well. Dumping this responsibility on the states is a very bad idea. Doing so with radically reduced federal funding is worse.

In any event, whether you agree with Elaine Kamarck and other defenders of the 1996 law, or with its past and present critics, it’s important to keep in mind why Ryan and company are linking their proposals to welfare reform. As Ezra notes, one motive is to disguise what are basically just deep benefit cuts as “reforms.” (Beyond the devastating treatment of Medicaid, food stamps, and other items on the spending side of the ledger, I’d bet the farm if I had one that the EITC wll be slashed if and when Ryan gets around to identifying his “tax reform” proposals). But worse yet, they understand that welfare reform was and remains very popular–perhaps not with progressive wonks or activists, but with the general public. So marketing their safety net proposals as “welfare reform, part two” is highly deceptive but smart.

Progressives would be well advised to put aside ex post facto wrangling over what happened in 1996 and make it abundantly clear that whether you think welfare reform was good, bad, or a mixed bag, what’s underway right now is very different and unambiguously a travesty.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.