Take 2: Another Look at Bernie Sanders, Welfare Reform, and Deep Poverty

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


A couple of days ago, in a post showing the growth of social welfare spending over the past few decades, I noted that the passage of the 1996 welfare reform act didn’t even show up as a blip. In terms of money spent, it’s turned out to be a non-issue.

This was not meant to be a defense of welfare reform. Believe it or not, I really do try not to write authoritatively about subjects I know little about, and welfare reform is a complicated topic that I’m only glancingly familiar with. I don’t really have either the chops or the desire to relitigate it right now.

However, that post prompted a response that’s probably worth dealing with at least briefly: namely that even if the dollar amount was relatively small, welfare reform did hurt the very poorest. This is a live topic right now because of the recent publication of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer. Among other things, Edin and Shaefer focus on the effects of cash, and they note that welfare reform eliminated cash payments to the very poorest, who generally don’t have jobs. This was deliberate: the whole point of welfare reform was to link public assistance to jobs as a way of motivating the poor to find work.

There remains plenty of disagreement about whether this was a good idea. For now, though, I just want to present Edin and Shaefer’s own data about extreme poverty. Here it is:

The green line is the one to pay attention to if you want to know the comprehensive effect of all changes to the social welfare system over the past couple of decades. And what it shows is that the percentage of households with children in extreme poverty increased from about 1 percent to 1.5 percent. That represents an increase of fewer than 500,000 households.

In other words, if we simply handed over $10,000 to every household with children in extreme poverty, it would cost only about $15 billion. Given that we spend about $1 trillion annually on social welfare benefits, this is peanuts. It’s not money that prevents us from addressing deep poverty, it’s political preference. Welfare reform was very deliberately crafted to reduce payments to people who don’t work, and one of the effects of that is a small increase in extreme poverty.

If you want Bernie Sanders to publicly denounce this state of affairs, this is the issue you need to address. To what extent should our welfare system hand out cash to nonworking adults? For how long? With what strings attached? My guess is that Sanders doesn’t really want to dive into this because he knows it’s a big hot button and he doesn’t want to get bogged down in something that takes the spotlight away from his larger economic message. But that’s just my guess.

If you want to read more about this, there’s plenty available. We’ve written about it several times at Mother Jones, including here, here, here, and here. Over at Brookings, Ron Haskins critiques Edin and Shaefer here. They respond here.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate