The True Nature of America’s Welfare State

The New York Review of Books has an excellent article on poverty in America. It was written by a Princeton sociology professor. The subtitle is “The American government gives the most help to those who need it least. This is the true nature of our welfare state”. Here’s a summary:

  • The federal government did a great job reducing poverty during the pandemic. Child poverty was cut in half. But that assistance was mainly temporary.
  • The usual critics complained that the extra financial assistance made people not want to work.
  • We’ve been trained since the earliest days of capitalism to see the poor as idle and unmotivated.
  • Most welfare recipients are white and don’t live in big cities.
  • Researchers have concluded that welfare doesn’t create dependency so much as it helps deal with temporary misfortune.
  • The biggest beneficiaries of federal aid are the affluent who take advantage of tax breaks, not the poor or unemployed. Tax breaks amount to twice the military budget.
  • We have chosen to subsidize affluence rather than alleviate poverty. We make up stories about poor people’s dependence on the government, while wrongly claiming it would cost too much to deal with the problem.

Who Would Ever Use Food Stamps?

Funding for food stamps (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) was increased a few years ago as part of the federal stimulus package. Unlike temporary tax cuts and business subsidies, which tend to last forever, the temporary increase in SNAP funding ended November 1st. 

The average monthly benefit per household two years ago was $293. Now it will be about $278, down 5%.There is an article here with more information, including an interactive map that allows you to see the numbers for your state. In Arizona, for example, 1.1 million people are covered by SNAP, including 538,000 children. 

It’s easy to demonize people you don’t know. Who are these slackers and scam artists who use food stamps anyway?

Sometimes they’re people you know or even people just like you. One of them writes:

People tend to think of food stamp recipients as poor, unfortunate, lazy, things along those lines. Be aware that recipients are also people trying to better themselves, simply needing some assistance to do so. Case in point: There was a time in the past when I was studying towards a graduate degree on a scholarship. The scholarship wasn’t nearly enough to live on. I did odd jobs for faculty to earn some money to help with my cash flow situation, but I also qualified for food stamps. With my level of income, I was eligible to be subsidized at 50%. That is, I could buy $1 of food stamps for 50 cents, up to a certain total amount of stamps every week, essentially doubling the amount of food I could buy and allowing me to devote more time studying towards a degree.

At the food stamp office, there were some other younger folks like myself, but most people were clearly much more desperate: people weak and elderly, women tending to babies and young children, disabled people. Standing on line waiting your turn, you could hear the transactions at the counter ahead of you, and could hear that many of these people were subsidized at 100%. I can guarantee you it has never occurred to me they should not have received this assistance. Today, to hear people say that citizens in need should be denied this kind of support, which simply enables them to buy enough food, well, I can’t decide if it makes me sad, angry, disgusted, depressed or all of those things.

It’s all of those things.

Meanwhile, You Don’t Want To Be Poor In America

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, has issued a report relating to “welfare reform”, the law that Congress passed and President Clinton signed 17 years ago.

Federal funding for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (what used to be called “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” or “welfare”), hasn’t increased since 1996, so inflation has eaten away at the program’s benefits:

Because TANF benefits have declined substantially in value, they do much less to help families escape deep poverty than they did in 1996.  With the exception of Maryland and Wyoming, a poor family relying solely on TANF to provide the basics for its children (such as during a period of joblessness, illness, or disability) in every state is further below the poverty line today than in 1996.

In fact, the inflation-adjusted value of benefits has decreased by more than 20% in 14 states and by more than 30% in 26 states.

Believe it or not, the monthly cash payment to an unemployed woman with two children in Mississippi is $170. Where I live, in one of the highest income states in the country, it’s $424 for a family of three, exactly what it was in 1996 (that’s a 32% decrease in real value).

Of course, there are other Federal programs for poor people, whether they have jobs or not, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”). But you can’t pay the rent or buy shoes with food stamps. Next week, by the way, people receiving food stamps will start getting less. A family of four, other things being equal, will receive $36 less per month.

The CPBP report (with charts):

The food stamp news: