The Despised and Abandoned

Speaking of resurgent conservative hostility to “the welfare,” Tom Edsall has an important brief article out today reminding us that the non-working, unmarried poor have been massively undercut by recent social policy. For all the anachronistic talk we hear of too-generous public assistance thwarting the family development essential to long-term independence among low-income Americans, current policies actually provide strong incentives to both marriage and work, at the expense of those who cannot secure either.

Over the past three decades, Congress has conducted a major experiment in anti-poverty policy. Legislators have restructured benefits and tax breaks intended for the poor so that they penalize unmarried, unemployed parents — the modern day version of the “undeserving poor.” At the same time, working parents, the aged and the disabled are getting larger benefits.

As Edsall notes, eligibility for cash assistance was time-limited and work-conditioned–and significantly reduced–by the famous 1996 welfare reform legislation. At the same time, serial expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Tax Credit have provided a real bonus to the working poor, particularly those who are married.

“There has been a redistribution away from single parent families and to married parent families,” Robert A. Moffitt, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, declared in May in his presidential address to the Population Association of America, the text of which he provided to The Times. In addition, Moffitt told the group, “there has been a redistribution from those at the bottom of the private income distribution to those above it, including those up to 200 percent of the poverty line, which has led to greater inequality of government support within the low income population.”

For the poorest of the poor, the results have been devastating: in 1983, 56 percent of total government transfers going to the poor and near-poor went to those on the bottom, those making 50 percent or less of the federal poverty level income. By 2004, that number had fallen to 32 percent, Moffitt found.

It’s interesting in this context that two of the remaining props for poor unmarried people with no children, the SNAP program and the proposed ACA Medicaid expansion, have drawn so much conservative ire. These people are already despised, and they are in the process of being abandoned.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.