One of the biggest problems in talking about welfare, entitlements, and a welfare state, is the general ignorance among both conservatives and liberals about what actually constitutes public welfare. As some readers may be aware, I am a social worker; in previous years, our graduate focus was described as a master’s of social welfare (the research track post-graduate degree is still referred to thusly). Both educationally and professionally, I have had to learn a great deal about how welfare works in this country. (Full disclosure: the agency I work for is provided as an entitlement to California’s developmentally disabled population and is funded solely by public funds.)
The best way to describe welfare is “public expenditures for public good.” Tax moneys are collected and redistributed. For example, the state of Texas, via water-redistribution contracts with neighboring states (New Mexico, for example, sends far more water than it can afford to its neighbor), reserves far, far more public welfare than one might view at first glance. Roads, public parks, public safety departments, these are all welfare. We are, every last one of us, a welfare queen.
When DBB refers to “taxing” and “redistributing,” he is referring to so-called income transfer welfare, which conjures the erroneous picture of lazy black women sitting on front stoops squatting out children in order to stay on the dole. His colorful description of anti-poverty programs bears very little resemblance to reality. Most people opposed to social welfare hold that opinion on one of two grounds: either “redistribution” is unfair or that it creates dependency on federal and state handouts.
Nothing could be further from the truth in either respect. Throughout the history of anti-poverty measures put in place by the federal government (Johnson’s War on Poverty, for example), the average duration of a stay on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was about five to seven years, with only some five percent of recipients cyclically returning. Before Johnson’s War on Poverty, federal anti-poverty measures were targeted at war widows with children.
In 1975, the Earned Income Tax Credit came into being; Ronald Reagan would later refer to it during his administration as "the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress." During the Clinton Administration, the Republican Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which Clinton signed into law. As part of that law, AFDC became Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, setting a cap of five years over one’s lifetime that they may receive TANF; in addition, one could claim no more than three children for benefits while on TANF. TANF additionally requires that one be actively attending work-education classes and be seeking a job or working at one. The Republicans shortened the time limits Clinton wanted, as well as eliminating childcare subsidies. They would later relent and increase the asset-possession limit to allow for recipients to own a cheap car in order to get to work (which was nice, since they didn’t include transportation benefits to go along with the work requirement). TANF works exactly as DBB wants welfare to work.
Most liberals (and conservatives) are not aware that the nation’s largest welfare program is not TANF, but the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was expanded during the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. EITC is a refundable tax credit based on a percentage of one’s income, which has the effect of making low-paying jobs pay more, and therefore be more attractive to people “on the dole,” moving them out of poverty (and into “near-poverty,” which is a whole ‘nother post). And, indeed, the last thirty-two years have shown that the EITC increases employment, decreases welfare receipts, and lowers poverty.
The only welfare programs that allow for “sitting on one’s ass” are disability-related. Worker’s compensation and short-term disability (SSDI) are typically due to injuries received on the job. SSI is for long-term disability, either through traumatic injury, debilitative disease, or developmental disability (autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, etc…). Both programs require continual (typically annually, sometimes earlier) verifications of eligibility.
America largely has three broad classes: the poor, who receive TANF or the EITC, the middle class, who pay the payroll tax and are not eligible for most tax-credits, and the affluent, who pay payroll and income tax but receive all the tax-credits (and also typically receive huge breaks on investment income). If one wishes to discuss “fairness,” it should be to ask how 60% of working Americans are not eligible for tax credits, including mortgage deductions and the child tax credit – because they pay no income tax (no income tax liability, no credit). This is why payroll taxes now make up 40% of federal revenues.
My favorite definition of “fairness” comes from an instructional video on teaching learning-disabled children called “The F.A.T. Method.” In it, the instructor states that “fairness isn’t about an equal share; it’s about everyone getting what they need.” Fairness relates directly back to Larry’s earlier question about whether or not it is immoral to enjoy luxury while others languish in poverty. I answered “no” because inherent inequality isn’t necessarily a bad thing: what is immoral is having the ability to provide for everyone’s basic needs – adequate shelter, nutrition, health care, and education – when such can be done without appreciable cost to anyone’s current standard of living.
We all receive welfare in one form or another: We drive on public roads and freeways which also serve as vital service delivery and economic arteries; we take our children, dogs, and spouses to the park; we use water to keep our lawns green, eat the food it grows, and to stay healthy; we call the police when we feel unsafe, are taken to the hospital by ambulances when we injure ourselves, and call upon fire departments in emergencies; public health and vector control departments protect us from outbreaks of diseases. Every last one of us receives public welfare. We live in a welfare state for a very, very good reason: if we did not, we would find our lives grinding to a halt as we struggled to meet necessities we take for granted.