Who Will Speak of the Poor?

The Silence at the Center of Our Politics

The plight of the middle class is shaping up to be a focus of the 2012 presidential campaign. This is as it should be, given the struggles of working families during the Great Recession, with its continuing high unemployment rates and depressed housing market. There is also likely to be some attention on the very rich, and especially on the question of whether they pay their fair share of taxes. This welcome development is partly the result of the Occupy movement’s campaign against the appalling growth in inequality over the past two decades. Interestingly, it is also partly the result of allegations of “vulture capitalism” made against Republican presidential hopefuls by other Republican presidential hopefuls.

But there has been little talk about the plight of the poor, candidate Romney’s momentarily infamous “I’m not concerned about the very poor” remark notwithstanding. (His intent was to highlight his concern for the middle class.) And pretty much the only talk about safety nets for the poor has been to decry them as budget-busters and character-destroyers.

Frankly, this seems to me unconscionable. In 2010 the number of Americans in poverty was higher than it had ever been before, and the poverty rate, at 15 percent, was higher than it had been in thirty years. One can argue about the ways we define and count the poor, but behind the government statistics are tens of millions of Americans doing without the basic material goods that are the foundation of decent and productive lives. Serious deprivations are especially prevalent among children, who are surely blameless regarding their fate and surely crucial to our future. Poverty greatly impedes their ability to acquire the education and skills necessary to achieve a decent standard of living.

Addressing the plight of the middle class has the potential, of course, to help the poor as well. The best solution to poverty is a good economy; the best way to improve the lives of the poor is through jobs; the best preventers of poverty are investments in education, health, and the infrastructure of economic and social life. In conjunction with improved employment opportunities, our institutions must emphasize the importance of staying in school, working, and accepting family responsibility. Moral and social pressure can help break the vicious cycle of self-destructive behaviors that afflict poor communities and reinforce the barriers to economic opportunities.

These are sensible policy proposals directed, to use the cliché, at teaching people to fish and opening up access to fishing rods and bait. We can all agree, at least in the abstract, that it is better to teach a person to fish than to give her a fish. But the poor sometimes desperately need those fish. If our nation is to meet the basic test of humaneness in caring for its vulnerable members, we must mend our safety nets. However much we laud the extraordinary work of churches and other voluntary organizations, private charity cannot by itself meet the needs of the poor.

The welfare reforms of the mid-1990s, in which I participated as assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services (and to which I objected at the time), brought about a dramatic transformation in the system of public supports for the poor. The reforms focused on requiring and supporting work. The old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program became Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with time limits and work requirements. TANF gave near complete flexibility to the states to structure programs best suited to local needs and conditions. The Earned Income Tax Credit was expanded with the goal of ensuring that “if you work you shouldn’t be poor.” Incremental expansions of Medicaid were also aimed at supporting low-wage working families.

Up until a few years ago, it appeared that welfare reform had been a great success. Welfare caseloads fell far more dramatically than I or anyone else had predicted—by almost 70 percent between 1994 and 2008. Over the same period, employment rates went up among female-headed families, the group historically most likely to receive welfare. Poverty rates for those families went down, not dramatically, but certainly down rather than up as those of us who opposed welfare reform had feared. Even during the mild recession of 2001–02, it did not appear that welfare reform had increased the vulnerability and suffering of the poor.

This recession, however, has been different. The number of recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) almost doubled between 2007 and 2011, as one would expect given the depth of the recession. But the number of recipients of cash assistance under TANF went up by less than half a million, while the number of poor children was rising by more than 3 million. In 2010, 16.4 million children were in families with incomes below the poverty line; only 3.2 million of them received benefits under our alleged program of support for needy families.

TANF’s meager cash assistance to poor families during a deep recession is easy to explain. The 1996 welfare reform turned a federal entitlement into a block grant to the states. The states used the money for a variety of programs, many of them, like increased child care, quite praiseworthy. But during the good economic times of the 1990s, the states did not sock away a portion of their TANF money in anticipation of bad times in the future. Bad times came, and the states had no ability to respond to the increased needs of the poor. Indeed, states were forced to cut budgets, some of them quite dramatically. Their TANF programs suffered, as did many other crucial state activities. And poor families suffered even more.

We should not return to the old welfare system’s bewildering mix of minute federal regulations and wildly varying state benefit levels. Nor should we return to that system’s undermining of work, savings, and family stability, all of which are crucial if families are going to escape poverty. Even so, it is implausible to say that the current high poverty levels were directly caused by the meager welfare system that has been in place for almost twenty years.

The recession has revealed the holes in the safety net in other indicators of how families are struggling to get by, like the increases in food pantry use and in disability claims, and in the psychological damage and destructive behaviors that come with prolonged insecurity and lack of work. The country needs to think hard about how to mend the welfare system in ways that support and reward work while at the same time protecting our most vulnerable citizens, especially children. That will not happen unless it is more widely acknowledged that deficit spending by the federal government during an economic crisis is necessary both to help the economy recover and to provide vital support and services to the unemployed and the working poor. Only the federal government can do this because state governments must balance their budgets every year.

I do not expect to hear talk on the campaign trail about safety-net policies—like an expanded unemployment insurance program or a cash-for-work job-creation program—that would meaningfully address the current plight of the poor. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky if the candidates refrain from demonizing the programs that remain robust, like Food Stamps. But I continue to believe that the moral measure of a society is the way it cares for its poor and vulnerable. By that measure, we should all be ashamed.


For more of Commonweal's election-year coverage, click here.

Published in the 2012-03-23 issue: 

Mary Jo Bane is the Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she has been on the faculty since 1981. From 1993 to 1996 she was assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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