When welfare reform was implemented back in the nineties, the idea was that if people on welfare are incentivized to work, they can be slowly moved into the workforce and off the government rolls. Liberals liked it because it seemed like a technocratic, free-markety way to get people out of poverty, and conservatives liked it because they think everyone on welfare are dependent parasites who just don’t know the value of a hard day’s work and don’t deserve any government money. (Traditionally, this is loaded with a lot of race-baiting about “welfare queens,” “strapping young bucks,” etc.)

For awhile in those high-velocity times, it seemed to work. Welfare rolls plunged, and the unemployment rate crept lower and lower. Hooray, bipartisan success.

Left unsaid in the whole formulation for welfare reform is that it is utterly dependent on full employment to have even a chance to work. That is, it has to be the case that (roughly speaking) everyone who makes an honest effort to find a job can get hired. But there are times when that isn’t the case: depressions, when there are way more job-seekers than jobs for a prolonged period. That ratio has been over 4.3 for 29 consecutive months.

Welfare recipients, in general, are at the back of the employment line. If there are four people apiece ahead of them after four years, it is mechanically impossible they’ll be employed in significant numbers. All the incentives in the world are only going to result in people rooting through the trash for recycling, selling their blood plasma, and their children starving.

True to form, conservatives are uninterested in the actual outcomes of any policy. Instead, they remain fixated on government policy making the correct moral gesture. Welfare recipients, they say, though welfare rolls have plummeted even in the midst of a depression, are even lazier than ever. Romney’s new ad is a lying, Nixonian, race-baiting throwback darkly insinuating about how those people are getting free money from the government. (It would be nice, by the way, if Obama would stop embracing the conservative frame on this.)

If I had my druthers I’d pick full employment before fixing welfare, because it would help the poor and everyone else at once. But since we’ve picked depression, it is monstrous to have children growing up hungry and stunted in the richest country on earth.

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Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.