by Jack Rabbit
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and
statistics." - Attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin
Welfare reform will soon be up for review. There will be
congressional hearing to determine how well or how poorly
the present system has worked. Experts representing either
side will come before Congress and give their arguments supported
by pretty charts and graphs, previous studies and fancy academic
language used to mask the fact that they represent a partisan
point of view and don't really care about America's poor.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation
Act was a product of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America;
it was passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton,
who heralded the act as "the end of welfare as we know it."
It replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children
(AFDC) program by a new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families
(TANF) program. ADFC was a very bad example of a welfare program
and was for thirty years an irresistible target for those
who genuinely had the best interests of the poor at heart
and yuppie fascists, who do not.
In many ways, AFDC was every bit as bad as its critics on
the Right said. It was an inflexible system that discouraged
work (earning income would result in having benefits reduced)
and tore families apart (a single mother was able to draw
more benefits by remaining single and married people separated
to get benefits). However, TANF is really little more than
AFDC with time limits and work requirements. The yuppie fascist
line is that the poor are dependent on welfare and if they
were threatened with being cut off after a time, they will
get off the dole and better themselves.
According to an article in the Washington Post (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35857-2002Feb6.html),
Mr. Bush will propose that states operate welfare programs
with $16.5 billion, the same level of federal finding they
received six years ago, when the welfare reform act was passed
into law. Republicans will also point to plummeting welfare
rolls as a reason for maintaining the funding at such levels.
Democrats will assert that now that the nation is in a recession,
funding should be increased to meet greater need.
The hearings will begin. We will see a parade of witnesses.
Democrats will call witnesses who will assert the program
could do more to fight poverty if the government would pour
more money into programs that do more to prepare the poor
for the workplace. Congressman Benjamin Cardin of Maryland,
the main sponsor of a Democratic bill, believes that at least
an additional $25 million will be needed above what the administration
proposes to make welfare reform work.
Republicans will call a parade of witnesses to say that welfare
reform has worked wonderfully in weaning the poor from federal
dependency on welfare and does what is needed, but more must
be done to get the poor to take personal responsibility for
their lives. Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy Thompson
says that he and Mr. Bush want to "help those families that
have left welfare to climb the job ladder and become more
secure in the workforce." And Mr. Bush has said he want $100
million for experimental programs to encourage welfare mothers
to get married.
Very few of the witnesses will be beneficiaries of aid programs.
It's unfortunate that we won't see many poor people telling
of the advantages and disadvantages of one form of government
as opposed to another or how they have to stretch the rules
of any system of aid in order to pay the rent and feed the
kids. We will not hear - at least not from a low-wage earning
mother - of how the cost of childcare must be computed into
necessary monthly expenses and of how an aid program to help
her pay for childcare might help her keep her job. Nor will
we hear from the poor themselves about how low-wage jobs provide
no medical benefits and how sometimes a child who might benefit
from medical attention gets none.
Instead, most of the witnesses will be "experts." We will
see well-educated men and women in business suits boldly raise
their right hands, promise to tell the truth and sit down,
look directly at the committee chairman with the sharp, confident
glaze of one who has made his way in the world.
However, instead of telling the truth, these experts will
present a display of spin worthy of Ari Fleischer, buttressed
by charts, graphs and fancy terms like "regression analysis"
and "bivariate correlations."
These experts present themselves as social scientists. They
draw their conclusions from data set to a variety of statistical
analysis. Are these experts really scientists? Or are they,
like attorneys in a trial court, in the business of spinning
the facts on behalf of a particular client in order to sell
a particular point of view that might or might not resemble
One of the Republican-friendly witnesses will no doubt be
Robert Rector, an author and a senior research fellow at the
Heritage Foundation (see http://www.heritage.org/staff/rector.htm).
Rector recently said that, in light of the success of welfare
reform and the reduced caseload, the federal government should
reduce the states' block grants by 10 percent and spend $300
million, three times the amount suggested by the administration,
on programs to promote marriage among the poor.
Mr. Rector is no stranger to giving testimony before Congressional
committees about welfare. In September 1999, he testified
before a subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce
Committee on the success of TANF (see http://www.heritage.org/library/testimony/test090999.html).
In his testimony, Rector argued for harsh sanctions against
those beneficiaries who violate welfare rules as a way of
ending welfare dependency. Rector argues that under TANF,
child poverty has been reduced "when the Earned Income Tax
Credit, Food Stamps and other means-tested benefits are counted
Rector explicitly denies that the economic boom had anything
to do with the considerable decline in welfare since the passage
of the 1996 welfare reform. Rather, he goes through statistical
acrobatics to show that harsh sanctions are the cause of the
reduction in caseload, that in states that have harsher sanctions,
the caseload is reduced in spite of the fact that in those
states there were slightly higher unemployment rates.
Rector divides the various states into categories according
to the severity of sanctions dealt to welfare violators vis
a vis the beneficiary's compliance with work requirements.
He put the states in four categories: (1) initial full-check
sanction, in which the beneficiary has his or her TANF aid
cut off at the first violation; (2) delayed full-check sanction,
in which the beneficiary is subjected to increasingly more
severe sanctions upon successive violations; (3) moderate
sanction, in which the state reduces the aid by more than
a third, but not all aid; and (4) weak sanction. Rector also
analyzed the data by the timing of the state's work requirement,
in order to draw a correlation between those states that require
beneficiaries to engage in work sooner than the 24-months
required by federal law.
One should not be surprised that Rector shows that states
with early work requirements and harsher sanctions have a
greater reduction in caseload. Of course, since increased
dependency on welfare is harmful to the poor, because he can
show that having a job is better than being on welfare, that's
a good thing. After all, the beneficiaries loose their benefits
and find real jobs. That just makes sense - at least it does
However, Rector does not cite any data to show that those
beneficiaries who lose their benefits in the states with earlier
work requirements and harsher sanctions move to jobs, or that
the jobs to which they move are of greater benefit to them
than government aid. In fact, something particularly noteworthy
in Rector's testimony is his use of the word "caseload." He
uses it, not counting the bold-type subject division added
by the editors, 50 times. Nowhere in this testimony does Rector
speak of the beneficiary of aid in the active voice. The argument
is always in terms of what the state must do to reduce caseload.
Nowhere does Rector even use a term like "beneficiary" or
"welfare mother" or anything else that might imply that the
reduced caseload is made up of individual human beings, who
are often poor women with children. Whether it was Rector's
intention or not, the word "caseload" dehumanizes the subject
of his testimony - America's poor people - and sweeps them
under a verbal rug.
Since Rector doesn't show that the "reduced caseload" in
states with earlier work requirements and harsher sanctions
found jobs, what is his data really measuring? Only that if
a state demands more of a beneficiary for aid and cuts off
aid to those who do not meet the state's demands to the satisfaction
of the social worker, caseload will be reduced. A real surprise,
that. Indeed, if the caseloads were reduced most in states
with harsher sanctions and higher unemployment, it shouldn't
take an Aristotle to tell Rector that what is happening is
that people are being thrown off welfare and not necessarily
Perhaps we need to remind Rector that a great problem with
the old AFDC system was its inflexibility. Getting off welfare
and going to work was often an all-or-nothing proposition
for the recipient. If the beneficiary was working, then the
beneficiary apparently did not need to draw AFDC. Thus, getting
low-wage job with no fringe benefits like health insurance
probably leaves the AFDC recipient worse off than before.
After all, a full-time worker earning minimum wage with no
benefits is earning only 60 percent of the poverty line.
Which brings up something else missing from Rector's study:
how many of these former aid beneficiaries are better off
in low paying jobs than they were receiving aid? Rector doesn't
tell us how childcare expenses associated with employment,
and not covered by a federal program, affect the income of
those moving from welfare to work. Nor does Rector take into
account that many welfare recipients bent the rules and found
ways of receiving outside income off the books. The fact is
that government aid was insufficient to cover living expenses
and welfare cheating was often a necessity. In short, Rector
takes no account of the increased expenses a former aid recipient
incurs moving from welfare to work.
Of course, Rector didn't say in his 1999 testimony that Food
Stamps are another form of welfare dependency. However, in
June 2001, he did go before a sub-committee of the House Agriculture
Committee to testify: "The current Food Stamp program is a
virtual twin of the failed Aid to Families with Dependent
Children (AFDC) program. Like AFDC, Food Stamps are anti-work,
anti-family and anti-marriage" (see http://www.heritage.org/library/testimony/test062701.html).
The Food Stamp program was more broadly based than AFDC. Although
long associated in the minds of many with welfare, the Food
Stamp program has been a traditional benefit to the working
poor as well. It is a well-known fact that even military families
receive Food Stamps (see http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/time/2000/05/01/food.stamp.html).
While the old AFDC program was often derided as a handout
to people who refuse to work (ignoring the fact that AFDC
imposed penalties on benefits for income earned), the Food
Stamp program is a supplement to the income of low-wage families.
However, this doesn't stop Mr. Rector from characterizing
Food Stamps in terms of AFDC. In his 2001 testimony, Rector
called the 1996 welfare reform legislation "a tremendous success
leading to the dramatic drops in dependence in child poverty,
increases in employment and slow down in the growth of out-of-wedlock
child bearing." Rector further says:
"The current Food Stamp program is a fossil embodying all
the errors of the old War on Poverty. It provides one way
handouts, rewards non-work and idleness, fosters long-term
dependence, rewards and promotes out of wedlock childbearing.
As such, the Food Stamp program actively harms children and
increases poverty in the nation."
Rector recommends for fixing the Food Stamp program essentially
the same principles that distinguish TANF from AFDC: work
requirements. Rector would deny aid to able-bodied, non-elderly
adults who either do not have a job or refuse to perform community
service work. Rector cites statistics to show that dependency
of Food Stamps is often long term. Nearly 41% of all Food
Stamp recipients have been receiving Food Stamps for over
ten years, and another 29% receive aid for between five and
Rector also argues that Food Stamps, like AFDC, "erodes the
work ethic and the growth in dependence, in turn, has profound
negative effects on the welfare of children." Rector cites
studies to show that poor boys are less productive adults.
He cites statistics to show that the determining factor in
the boy's eventual earning capacity is welfare received during
childhood, "holding constant race, parental education, family
structure and a range of other social variables." Rector even
tries to get around the obvious objection, that it is not
welfare but poverty that is the determining factor.
In citing the study supporting his contention that growing
up in an environment of welfare is the cause of reduced earning
capability later in life, Rector omits to explain a great
deal about the study. In the footnotes, we find that the study
was published in 1992; the welfare of which Rector speaks,
then, is AFDC. However, no one is arguing with Rector that
AFDC was a bad program. The question is: has TANF made significant
improvements in the lives of the poor?
After only six years, it really isn't possible to determine
the long-term implications of being raised on TANF as opposed
to AFDC or with parents who try to make ends meet on low-wage
income unsupported by public aid. Besides, Rector is arguing
against Food Stamps in his testimony, not AFDC. Rector simply
began his testimony asserting that Food Stamps were like AFDC.
He then follows through with this assertion, without proving
it in any convincing way, to equate the evils of AFDC with
those of Food Stamps. Moreover, 1992 was in a recession. Could
this have had an effect on the earnings of the subjects in
the study? Rector doesn't suggest that it does?
Finally, Rector argues that Food Stamps and other means-tested
aid programs penalize marriage. This encourages illegitimacy,
which he claims causes poverty. "Children born out-of-wedlock
to never married women are poor fifty percent of the time,"
Rector points out. "By contrast, children born within a marriage
that remains in tact are poor 7 percent of the time."
There is no mention of children of divorce. Children can
be raised in a single parent family without being illegitimate.
Of course, Rector tells of the evil consequences of being
born to an unwed mother, citing yet another study that shows
that young black men raised in single-parent families were
twice as likely to engage in criminal activities as those
growing up in intact families.
It is noteworthy that in his 2001 testimony about Food Stamps,
Mr. Rector has a great deal to say about the effects of aid
programs on children and how aid programs discourage marriage
and promote out-of-wedlock childbirth. One might expect to
hear much of this from Rector and others such experts as they
testify in the coming weeks. It does, after all, support Mr.
Bush's plan to promote marriage as a poverty-fighting program.
It might be noted that in all of Mr. Rector's citing of statistics,
data and graphs to illustrate his point, he seldom reveals
anything else about the studies which he cites. Were these
randomly chosen cases? What was the sample size in these studies?
Anyone who has studied statistics knows that a larger sample
will better reflect the universe that the data purports to
represent. Finally, who performed that study? Was it an independent
group of social scientists? Or was it a group who made an
assertion about welfare being evil and went looking for facts
to fit the pre-ordained conclusion? One would have to spend
a great deal of time researching that; that's time most us
These questions might not arise if the Heritage Foundation
were not so predictable. The Heritage Foundation is a conservative
research and educational institute - in other words, a think
tank with a partisan mission. Their mission statement makes
clear that they are formulating and promoting "conservative
public policies based on the principles of free enterprise,
limited government, individual freedom, traditional American
values, and a strong national defense" (see http://www.heritage.org/whoweare/).
Given this, should we even expect intellectual objectivity
from the Heritage Foundation? Or should we just expect them
to formulate talking points for right-wing politicians?
Overall, Mr. Rector makes many specious arguments. In his
1999 testimony, he argued that Food Stamps counted as income
in offsetting child poverty in an attempt to invalidate arguments
that welfare reform had hurt the poor; however, in 2001, without
stating that this was no longer the case, Rector attacked
Food Stamps as part of a network of welfare that he blames
for continued poverty. Is Rector saying that if aid offsets
poverty, then it contributes to poverty? That seems to be
the right-wing argument. In fact, Rector seems to be setting
up the idea that all means-tested aid to the poor saps their
ambition. His argument about welfare causing illegitimacy
and in turn causing crime is almost laughable. While he has
some reason to suggest that the old welfare rules discouraged
beneficiaries from getting married, to turn around to say
that illegitimacy causes crime is dreadful. How many of those
illegitimate criminals were born to comfortably middle-class
women with a future? Would Rector seriously argue that the
child of an unmarried professional who chose to remain single
is just as likely to turn to a life of crime as the child
of a poor, inner-city teenager?
Mr. Rector avoids stating the obvious truth: that AFDC was
at worst a bad solution to poverty and not a cause of poverty
itself. Poverty causes crime, not welfare or illegitimacy.
His little tricks of correlating welfare and illegitimacy
with crime only work insofar as both can be correlated with
poverty. The poor have been stealing bread and trafficking
on the black market in order to survive since the beginning
However, if he said that, that would fly in the face of the
Heritage Foundation's mission of formulating and promoting
conservative policies. Therefore, Rector must state that his
charts and graphs and data analysis "prove" that reducing
government aid to the poor actually makes their lives better.
He cannot say that simply adjusting rules and requirements
to make aid programs more flexible is a better idea. That
is not the Republican line.
Rector's 1999 testimony shows that welfare reform as enacted
in 1996 is about "reducing caseload" and not fighting poverty.
Using the term "caseload" covers the fact that behind each
individual case is a human being, often a single woman with
children. The thesis he promotes is that poor are dependent
on walfare and removing welfare will make them productive
and happy people; that welfare makes the poor lazy and stupid.
Yet the very struggle in which each individual poor person
engages, even when this includes criminal acts ranging from
armed robbery to violating welfare rules, shows that poor
people are not lazy or stupid. They are very intelligent people.
They can manipulate their environment as well as most congressmen
and corporate executives manipulate theirs. Of course, such
acts may be deemed dishonest. Yet they are no worse than the
acts of the corporate fathers at Enron.
It is Robert Rector and many people like him who will testify
before Congress about welfare reform. Some will support Rector's
position and some will oppose it. They will be heard, and
the poor people who receive these benefits will have to settle
for people such as they - educated, self-sufficient and well
paid - to speak on their behalf. Will any of the poor testify
themselves? All of those experts who do speak will talk of
their concern for the poor and use fancy language and attractive
charts to mask the fact that they are there because they are
supporting the nominally opposing positions of upper- and
In the end, the side with the most votes will win. Since
the Republicans control the House and can count on a few blue-dog
Democrats to join them on this issue, Mr. Bush and Mr. Thompson
can expect to see most of their proposals emerge from the
congressional floor fights as law. Those who must deal with
poverty as a direct experience don't need Robert Rector's
fancy charts, regression analysis or his fallacious arguments
to tell them of its harmful effects on poor adults and even
more on poor children. Bush will win, and they will lose;
but perhaps they don't stand a chance in the first place.