TULSA, Okla. — IN 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a
controversial compromise bill for welfare reform, promising to “end welfare as
we know it.”
I was sympathetic to that goal at the time, but I’ve decided that I was wrong.
What I’ve found in my reporting over the years is that welfare “reform” is a
misnomer and that cash welfare is essentially dead, leaving some families with
children utterly destitute.
Every year I hold a “win a trip” contest to choose a university student to
accompany me on a reporting trip to cover global poverty in places like Congo or
Myanmar. This year we decided to journey as well to Tulsa, in the heartland of
America, because the embarrassing truth is that welfare reform has resulted in a
layer of destitution that echoes poverty in countries like Bangladesh.
Recent research finds that because of welfare reform, roughly three million
American children live in households with incomes of less than $2 per person per
day, a global metric of extreme poverty. That’s one American child in 25. They
would be counted as extremely poor if they lived in Africa, and they are our
neighbors in the most powerful nation in the world.
So my win-a-trip winner, Cassidy McDonald, an aspiring journalist from the
University of Notre Dame, and I interviewed families in Tulsa. Extreme poverty
is not the same in the U.S. as in Africa, for America has better safety nets
from the government and from churches and charities. But it’s still staggering,
and instead of mitigating the problem, “welfare reform” has exacerbated it.
One of the people I met was Hailey, a toddler with blond hair, a winning smile
and worrying prospects. She was born with drugs in her system to a young woman
addicted to opioids, the family says, so she is cared for by her grandmother,
Bobbie Ingraham, 47. Ingraham is clearly devoted to the girl, but she is
Ingraham acknowledges that for most of her life she battled drug addictions and
committed crimes (mostly writing fake prescriptions for pain pills), and married
a man who beat her and is now in prison. Ingraham recounts a litany of health
issues — she spent eight days in the hospital this spring — that make it
difficult for her to find a job.
She receives food stamps, and she has a home that she inherited from her
grandmother. But she has zero cash income from work or benefits — zero! — so she
can’t make utility payments, and her electricity, gas and water have been cut
These days, Ingraham says, she’s avoiding drugs and crime — she says she has
been “clean” for 13 months — and she cried as she spoke of trying to raise a
toddler on nothing more than food stamps and church clothing donations. “I just
love this baby so much,” she says.
I supported welfare reform because initially it seemed to be working. Liberal
predictions of children sleeping on grates did not come to pass, and on the
contrary, there was a burst of employment for low-income single mothers as
people moved from welfare to work.
But the employment bump stalled, and the replacement program for welfare, called
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, has pretty much collapsed,
especially in Republican states like Oklahoma. There are now more postage stamp
collectors in America than there are families collecting cash welfare, and so
kids like Hailey grow up in chaotic households in which there is simply no
“Welfare is dead,” declares an important book, “$2 a Day,” an exposé of extreme
poverty by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. It is their research that finds
that roughly three million American children live in households earning less
than $2 per person per day.
Yet it’s also true that the old welfare system was a wreck, creating dependency
and cycles of poverty, as the real experts on poverty sometimes acknowledge.
“I think welfare reform was good,” Ashley Hene, 29, told me, even though she has
run into the replacement program’s time limits. “Everybody was taking advantage
Stephanie Johnson, 35, who is raising four children through odd jobs, agreed.
“If it was readily available, I’d abuse it; I’d say they’re giving me free
money,” she said. “People use these systems as a crutch more than a
So here’s where I come down. Welfare reform has failed, but the solution is not
a reversion to the old program. Rather, let’s build new programs targeting
children in particular and drawing from the growing base of evidence of what
That starts with free long-acting birth control for young women who want it (70
percent of pregnancies among young single women are unplanned). Follow that with
high-quality early-childhood programs and prekindergarten, drug treatment,
parenting coaching and financial literacy training, and a much greater emphasis
on jobs programs to usher the poor into the labor force and bring them income.
President Franklin Roosevelt relied on aggressive jobs programs in the 1930s.
Let’s turn to them again for people who can’t find work in the private sector.
These measures won’t solve America’s poverty problem, but at least they’ll give
Hailey a fighting chance.
Ross Douthat is off this month.
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 19, 2016,
on page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline:
Why I Was Wrong About Welfare Reform.
chancellor wants to set their own budget after an election. But George Osborne
isn’t a new chancellor. He inherits his own 2015-16 plan, and yet last night he
told the Confederation of British Industry he will reopen it to cut more,
tearing up every departmental and agency budget after contracts are signed
halfway through the year.
A question: what is there in his spending plans that he dared not announce to
voters before the election? It was already a piece of remarkable democratic
arrogance that David Cameron and Osborne refused to say where the £12bn of
benefit cuts would fall – and dereliction on the part of all the broadcasting
interviewers not to hammer hard enough on this one point with every minister in
their studios so as to force them to reply. But we shall see now, too late,
exactly where the axe is falling on all the unprotected departments.
The big question is why? Politically, the promise of a rapid deficit abolition,
returning to surplus by April 2018, was a sharp challenge to Labour: beat that!
Labour wouldn’t and didn’t because it’s brutal, needless and economically
dangerous. Now that Osborne has won, he doesn’t need to do it either. Last time,
he missed his target by half. He let the stock of debt rise far higher than it
ever was under Labour. And he lost the AAA credit rating without which he said
we’d become Greece – but the sky didn’t fall in. Markets would have slaughtered
a Labour government for that, but markets forgive Conservatives almost anything.
They would worry not one iota if Osborne again decided to slow down. A promise
to keep the deficit falling would be ample.
The only reason Osborne is putting his foot on the accelerator is because he
wants to and because he can. Who’s going to stop him now? This is a dash to
shrink the state, squeeze everything, contract out what can’t be cut and return,
as his own Office for Budget Responsibility said, to a prewar, pre-welfare
state, bare-bones government. These children of Thatcher are ideologues to the
core, often without even knowing it. They have breathed in from infancy a
“common sense” assumption that the state is always wasteful, private and market
always good, the collective worse than the individualist. As Thatcher said, you
will always spend the pound in your pocket better than any government will. Now
he tests that – possibly to destruction. All but the NHS, overseas aid and
schools will be cut by a third, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Whitehall itself could lose 100,000 staff. Expect more of the west coast
mainline contracting-type fiascos as capability is lost just when civil servants
need to be canny enough to outwit the gigantic corporations contracting so much.
Politically, within the government, this won’t all be easy either. Such deep
cuts suggest state-shrinkers should be amalgamating departments – the Department
for Business and Department for Culture, Media & Sport have long been under
threat – for example by reuniting the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. But
Cameron needs the jobs: patronage is key to keeping his tiny majority happy. How
will his party handle deep cuts to defence, already below the 2% of GDP Nato
demands? How will Michael Gove and Theresa May cut prisons and police again, as
court delays lengthen and prisons burst at the seams? This time, permanent
secretaries may be less acquiescent: many should say no, minister to cuts beyond
what’s safe or sane. New ministers arriving full of bright ideas will find
nothing happens and no one is there when they pull on levers to build the new
infrastructure Osborne promises: create new apprenticeships, fix broadband and
so on. His northern powerhouse councils may wake up to find that all they have
had devolved to them is the axe and the blame – not just for social care but now
for the NHS too. This government’s record for competence is slender. Gove’s
record in education suggests there is a rhinoceros in a china shop at justice.
A government that has won an unexpected majority, casting its opposition into a
state of existential crisis, can do whatever it damn well pleases. Five years is
longer ahead than anyone can imagine. Last time, Osborne’s 2010 austerity budget
stifled over 1% of growth at a stroke: expect similar results as the same
experiment is repeated. Last time one reckless bungle followed another,
including the omnishambles budget, forcing U-turns and embarrassments: expect
many more in this triumphally reckless mood. Cameron’s government has nothing to
fear – except its own errors.
Largely missing from the discussion about the faltering economy is the
recession’s impact on the 37 million Americans who are already living at or
below the poverty line — and the millions more who will inevitably join their
ranks as the downturn worsens.
Poverty and joblessness go hand in hand. If unemployment rises in the coming
year from today’s 6.5 percent to 9 percent, as some analysts predict, another
7.5 million to 10.3 million people could become poor, according to a new study
by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The prospect of nearly 50 million Americans in poverty is even more daunting
when one considers the holes that have been punched in the safety net over the
last quarter-century. Since the Reagan administration, the federal government
has steadily reduced its role in curtailing poverty, or even in coordinating
state and local efforts to help alleviate it.
Meanwhile, most states reduced or eliminated cash assistance for single poor
adults and limited access to food stamps. Stricter eligibility requirements keep
thousands of people from collecting jobless benefits. Facing budget deficits,
cash-strapped states will be tempted to cut social programs even more. The
experience of being poor in America, never easy, will soon become even more
difficult for more people — unless Congress boosts food stamps, modernizes the
unemployment compensation system and takes other steps to strengthen the ability
of the federal and state governments to help the millions who will need
This is all the more important since the current poverty statistics
significantly understate reality. The federal yardstick used to gauge poverty is
severely outdated, giving too much weight to some factors in a typical family
budget, like the cost of food, and not counting others, like the cost of child
care and out-of-pocket medical costs. It also doesn’t consider regional
differences in the cost of living and doesn’t include the cost of child care,
taxes or the value of noncash benefits such as food stamps or tax credits.
The National Academy of Sciences years ago recommended a new measure of poverty
that takes such variables into account. But the revised framework has never been
adopted because, among other reasons, it would add several million more people
to the ranks of the poor.
If there was ever a time for more precise measurements, it is now. Better
numbers will produce a better understanding of poverty, and will enhance
Washington’s ability to respond in the difficult days ahead.