Ducey’s cruel move on welfare continues the legacy of “reform”

20 May 2015 06:04 am
Posted by: Donna

New Republic welfare cover
This was seriously on the cover of the New Republic in 1996.

Gotta love this headline and lede:

Facing $1 billion deficit, Arizona sharply limits welfare

PHOENIX (AP) — Facing a $1 billion budget deficit, Arizona’s Republican-led Legislature has reduced the lifetime limit for welfare recipients to the shortest window in the nation.

Low-income families on welfare will now have their benefits cut off after just 12 months.

Oh, yes, it’s all about the deficit. Sure it is.

The cuts of at least $4 million reflect a prevailing mood among the lawmakers in control in Arizona that welfare, Medicaid and other public assistance programs are crutches that keep the poor from getting back on their feet and achieving their potential.

“I tell my kids all the time that the decisions we make have rewards or consequences, and if I don’t ever let them face those consequences, they can’t get back on the path to rewards,” Republican Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said during debate on the budget. “As a society, we are encouraging people at times to make poor decisions and then we reward them.”

I saw several people on social media wondering how Arizona could enact such limits to TANF when these are federal dollars in question. Understanding that requires historical context that the AP report touches on briefly in the very last paragraph:

Former President Bill Clinton signed the block grant law in 1997, making good on a campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” The federal government still requires states to make sure recipients have a job, are looking for work, going to school or trying to go to school, but states retain broad discretion in imposing restrictions.

The Welfare Reform Act was considered (by some) to be a signature accomplishment of the Clinton administration. It was supposed to end generations of poverty and dependence while (according to Democratic leaders) depriving the GOP of a powerful attack on Democrats in perpetuity. But Peter Edelman, who resigned from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services over it, warned that the law Clinton ultimately signed would fundamentally change the mission of welfare and plunge millions into poverty.

…In 1994 [President Clinton] proposed legislation that required everyone to be working by the time he or she had been on the rolls for two years. But it also said, more or less in the fine print, that people who played by the rules and couldn’t find work could continue to get benefits within the same federal-state framework that had existed since 1935. The President didn’t say so, but he was building — quite incrementally and on the whole responsibly — on the framework of the Family Support Act. On the other hand, candidate Clinton had let his listeners infer that he intended radical reform with real fall-off-the-cliff time limits. He never said so explicitly, though, so his liberal flank had nothing definitive to criticize. President Clinton’s actual 1994 proposal was based on a responsible interpretation of what candidate Clinton had said.

Candidate Clinton, however, had let a powerful genie out of the bottle. During his first two years it mattered only insofar as his rhetoric promised far more than his legislative proposal actually offered. When the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, the bumper-sticker rhetoric began to matter. So you want time limits? the Republicans said in 1995. Good idea. We’ll give you some serious time limits. We now propose an absolute lifetime limit of five years, cumulatively, that a family can be on welfare. End welfare as we know it? You bet. From now on we will have block grants. And what does that mean? First, that there will be no federal definition of who is eligible and therefore no guarantee of assistance to anyone; each state can decide whom to exclude in any way it wants, as long as it doesn’t violate the Constitution (not much of a limitation when one reads the Supreme Court decisions on this subject). And second, that each state will get a fixed sum of federal money each year, even if a recession or a local calamity causes a state to run out of federal funds before the end of the year.

This was a truly radical proposal. For sixty years Aid to Families with Dependent Children had been premised on the idea of entitlement. “Entitlement” has become a dirty word, but it is actually a term of art. It meant two things in the AFDC program: a federally defined guarantee of assistance to families with children who met the statutory definition of need and complied with the other conditions of the law; and a federal guarantee to the states of a matching share of the money needed to help everyone in the state who qualified for help. (AFDC was never a guarantor of income at any particular level. States chose their own benefit levels, and no state’s AFDC benefits, even when coupled with food stamps, currently lift families out of poverty.) The block grants will end the entitlement in both respects, and in addition the time limits say that federally supported help will end even if a family has done everything that was asked of it and even if it is still needy.

There were other terrible things in welfare reform, such as throwing immigrants off of many forms of public assistance, cutting food stamps to a large number of households, and tightening the eligibility of children with disabilities for Social Security benefits (SSI). These cuts went well beyond (pay attention here, conservatives) the stated goal of encouraging work as they penalized many families headed by people who worked.

But getting back to Governor Ducey, the change from welfare as a federal entitlement to a block grant to states is why he (with the GOP-led Legislature’s help) was able to unilaterally impose a lifetime limit on TANF benefits even more draconian than the federal one. So now you know.

The practical effect of states having this level of control over federal TANF dollars has put the lie to any claim that cuts are done with deficit reduction in mind. When the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities examined how states were using their block grants they found that many are simply back-filling other cuts to general fund revenues.

States use a large and growing share of the state and federal TANF funds that formerly were used to help poor families meet their basic needs for other state services. In some cases, states have used TANF and MOE funds to expand programs, such as state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) or pre-K, or to cover the growing costs of existing services, such as child welfare. In other cases, they have used TANF/MOE funds to replace existing state funds, thereby freeing those state funds for purposes unrelated to providing a safety net or work opportunities for low-income families.

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention to the nasty inclinations of the Right toward poor people (and the disingenuousness of deficit wankery in general) is well aware that none of this is done for the purpose of balancing the budget. (As Edelman put it in the 1997 Atlantic piece, “Many of them are just mean, with no good policy justification.”) Cuts to public assistance are often counterproductive anyway, budget-wise. When Republicans took over Congress in 2011 one of the first things they did was pass a bill to cut Planned Parenthood, which some members justified under the ludicrous claim that it was a deficit reduction measure. Every dollar spent on family planning saves the government several more.

The thing is, it’s pretty obvious at this point what anti-choicers are after. They’d bankrupt the state if it meant they got a free hand to punish sexually active women and force them to have babies! That’s why even the most generous accounts of their attacks on abortion and contraception don’t give any weight to deficit reduction claims. Cuts to welfare are similar in that it’s likely that cutting desperately poor families off from the pittance they get from TANF will lead to higher costs for taxpayers down the line (health care, criminal justice, child protective, etc.) but that seems to be a harder sell to the media, hence credulous news reports like the AP one. Wake up! Conservatives are not cutting welfare because of the budget. They are cutting it because they are reactionary anti-egalitarian authoritarians and, luckily for them, they operate in a larger culture of blame and disdain toward poor people. Which, sadly and shamefully, has included Democrats at times.

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