Welfare refers to the assistance a government provides to those who are in need. In most civilized societies there is a recognition that no one should have to live in abject poverty. It is unhealthy for the unfortunate individuals involved and it is unhealthy for society as a whole to allow such conditions to persist. Unfortunately, what passes for a welfare system in the United States has evolved to a state where those who must ask for assistance are assumed to be part of a defective underclass whose very existence is a threat to society. Those who dare apply for welfare are now treated with the same consideration accorded to a suspect in a criminal investigation.
Kaaryn Gustafson, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, published an article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 2009 titled The Criminalization of Poverty. She later expanded that work into a book published under the title Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty. Her early article will be used as a source for this discussion.
Gustafson provides this opening to her paper:
“Lost in these contemporary understandings of welfare is the association of welfare with wellbeing, particularly collective, economic wellbeing. Many of the current welfare policies and practices are far removed from promoting the actual welfare of low-income parents and their children. The public desire to deter and punish welfare cheating has overwhelmed the will to provide economic security to vulnerable members of society. While welfare use has always borne the stigma of poverty, it now also bears the stigma of criminality. This change in perspective has under-examined implications for both welfare law and criminal law.”
There has been a constant theme that has persisted throughout the past century with respect to social legislation: southern politicians have always sought to protect their right to treat blacks differently than whites. This began with the Social Security Act which the South would only vote for if traditionally black occupations such as farm labor and domestic help were excluded from coverage. They also insisted that distributions of welfare benefits were left to states and localities to manage in order to legally impose discriminatory policies. Over time, welfare became almost universally associated with poor black mothers; explicit racial themes were converted to fears about “welfare fraud” and discrimination became open and universal.
Gustafson provides a history of this evolution.
“The criminalization of welfare recipients entails a long historical process of public discourse and welfare policies infused with race, class, and gender bias. State and federal government aid programs developed in the first half of the twentieth century supported white, male workers and the white women and children dependent upon their wages while they excluded a huge segment of poor women of color and their children. The Social Security Act created Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), a program specifically designed for poor mothers and their children and originally intended to support the widows of working men.”
The demographics changed between the end of the war and 1960 as the number of widowed mothers decreased in relative terms and the population of divorced and single mothers became much larger.
“Welfare offices in many states and locales adopted "suitable home and "substitute parent" rules, which were essentially morality standards, and which were arbitrarily and discriminatorily applied, and commonly excluded women of color from the welfare rolls, especially in the South….many welfare offices continued to engage in midnight raids on the homes of ADC recipients in order to police ‘man in the house’ rules. The stated reason for surprise visits was to catch men sleeping in the homes of women receiving welfare. Unmarried women with men in their beds were deemed morally unfit and their households therefore unsuitable for assistance….The unstated but underlying goals of the rules were to police and punish the sexuality of single mothers, to close off the indirect access to government support of able-bodied men, to winnow the welfare rolls, and to reinforce the idea that families receiving aid were entitled to no more than near desperate living standards.”
Note that such midnight raids carried out without a warrant would be unconstitutional if welfare recipients were accorded the rights possessed by normal citizens. There was a time when the courts protected poor people from such activities, but over time it has been clearly stated that welfare investigators have the right to make unannounced searches of residences.
The practice of midnight raids continued through most of the 1960s. By that time welfare was firmly viewed as a “black problem.”
“By the mid-1960s, low-income women of color were being blamed for all sorts of social problems. An oft-cited 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan promoted the idea that the problems of inner cities-poverty, joblessness, and crime—could be traced to a ‘tangle of pathology’ perpetuated by unmarried black mothers….In Moynihan's popular portrayal, low-income African-American mothers were a social threat because they gave birth to and raised sons who became the criminal, urban underclass.”
In the 1970s and beyond the blather from neoliberal economists took hold and the idea of welfare as a social support system transitioned to welfare as wasteful counterproductive program for rewarding those unwilling to work. The real level of support was allowed to fall (along with the minimum wage), and the procedure for obtaining aid became more complex. The poorest and least educated segment of our society was required to keep detailed financial records, fill out complex forms, and navigate a bewildering bureaucracy. The goal was no longer to provide support, but to identify and punish those who might be abusing the system.
“Throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, the value of the welfare grant, adjusted for inflation, declined dramatically. The weighted average maximum benefit per three-person family was $854 in 1969 (in 2001 dollars), but plummeted to $456 by 2001. It became increasingly hard for welfare recipients to cover their most basic expenses-food, clothing, and rent-with their welfare grants. Unable to survive on welfare checks and facing barriers to employment, many welfare recipients turned to other sources of income, whether help from kin or participation in underground labor markets, and attempted to hide those sources from the welfare office for fear of losing the small checks they received.”
“Office caseworkers, hired to replace the social workers, processed the routine paperwork that welfare recipients regularly submitted to the office to document their continuing financial need. In a process known as "churning," the federal government increased the amount of information and paperwork required to determine welfare eligibility, and denied benefits to low-income families who failed to keep up with the paperwork. Income-eligible families were removed from the aid rolls for their failures to provide verification documents in a timely manner.”
Then along came Ronald Reagan who would make a career out of race baiting in an attempt to capture white votes.
“In the 1970s, the image of low-income mothers took a particularly negative turn….California Governor (later President) Ronald Reagan used the symbol of the ‘welfare queen’ to propel his ideas on limited government and increased crime control. Reagan used references to the welfare queen to portray an image of widespread depravity and criminality among low-income women of color. Despite the factual inaccuracies of Reagan's descriptions, the symbol of the welfare queen resonated with the public.”
“….that is not to say that cheating welfare recipients did not exist. But rather than treat a few exceptional instances of criminal activity as the exceptions they were, politicians—and the media and public, as well—adopted these cases as typifying poor, African-American women on welfare. These ‘welfare queens’ were treated not merely as stereotypes of poor black mothers on aid, but as archetypes—perfect examples of what welfare recipients become over the course of years on the dole.”
Reagan claimed to be focusing on reducing waste and fraud in government. However, he went about it in a curious manner One of his first moves after becoming president was to fire all the Inspectors General whose duties consisted of identifying waste and fraud in the various programs. The only program abuses he seemed interested in concerned welfare programs.
“Upon taking office, Reagan abruptly fired all of the Inspectors General. Rather than focusing on waste and fraud throughout federal government, President Reagan focused instead on welfare fraud, particularly on fraud committed by welfare recipients. In Reagan's view, the poor, and not the welfare bureaucracies, were the sources of fraud and waste….Despite the congressional concern about welfare fraud by recipients, the Washington Post reported that an audit of the Department of Health and Human Services (formerly Health, Education and Welfare) released shortly before Reagan fired its Inspector General found that ‘[t]he greatest cheaters ... are not individual welfare or health care recipients, but doctors and pharmacists and other providers of services who overbill the government’.”
Let’s make sure we understand how the system is intended to work. You take money away from those who need it, encouraging them to use unreported means to acquire enough cash to live on; then you use the money they were deprived of to investigate and prosecute those who you catch. Got it?
Then along came Bill Clinton. At this point we will switch to Matt Taibbi’s description of the state of affairs in his book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Taibbi provides a more colorful—and appropriately indignant—assessment of government abuse of welfare programs.
“All of this goes back to Bill Clinton. It is not a coincidence that radical welfare reform took place on the same watch that also saw a radical deregulation of the financial services industry. Clinton was a man born with a keen nose for two things: women with low self-esteem and political opportunity. When he was in the middle of a tough primary fight in 1992 and came out with a speech promising to ‘end welfare as we know it,’ he could immediately smell the political possibilities, and it wasn’t long before this was a major plank in his convention speech (and soon in his first State of the Union address).
“Clinton understood that putting the Democrats back in the business of banging on black dependency would allow his party to re-seize the political middle that Democrats had lost when Lyndon Johnson threw the weight of the White House behind the civil rights effort and the War on Poverty.”
“Bill Clinton’s political formula for seizing the presidency was simple. He made money tight in the ghettos and let it flow free on Wall Street. He showered the projects with cops and bean counters and pulled the cops off the beat in the financial services sector. And in one place he created vast new mountain ranges of paperwork, while in another, paperwork simply vanished.”
What was accomplished under Clinton was the obliteration of the notion that people of very low income have a right to income assistance. Income assistance is now available at the discretion of the government. And the government in control is not the federal government, it is the state government. There are therefore 50 arbitrary ways in which poor people can be helped or hurt by states according to their whims; centuries of discrimination were thus blessed by federal legislation. States were encouraged to vigorously prosecute welfare fraud. Situations that once would have merely required repayment of excess funds received, can now lead to criminal charges and felony convictions. Funds that could have been used to assist needy people are now being diverted to law enforcement. Social workers are being replaced by fraud investigators.
Gustafson provides details.
“Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. The legislation eliminated the broad, federally-governed AFDC program and ended cash aid as a federal entitlement to all income-qualified families. Replacing AFDC entitlements, the federal government distributed state block grants through a federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The new welfare policies threatened that those who failed to play by the rules-by meeting mandatory work requirements, by abiding by behavior reforms, and by reporting all details of income and household composition-would be harshly punished with new penalties. In addition, states were allowed to place their own conditions upon receipt of welfare and could establish time limits even shorter than the federal ones. Those welfare recipients who failed to meet their obligations under the new system would be excluded from benefits and have the safety net pulled out from under them—in some cases permanently.”
Being caught and punished for some violation of the rules (the most common of which seems to be missing a mandatory meeting at the welfare office) is referred to as sanctioning. States have the discretion of punishing an individual by limiting his or her access to funds or they can choose to punish an entire family for one member’s sins with a full-family sanction.
“Sanctions are a routine occurrence. Researchers estimate that between 33% and 52% of TANF recipients have been sanctioned.”
“….a study conducted by Yeheskel Hasenfeld found that approximately half of the sanctioned adults surveyed did not know they had been sanctioned. For these families, the welfare system may seem so complex, arbitrary, and mystifying that they cannot determine why their benefits are fluctuating. This suggests that rather than creating a set of incentives that will ‘make work pay,’ the current welfare system is simply punishing people who cannot figure out how the system works.”
Researchers have also determined some of the issues associated with state determination of policies.
“Schram has shown that those states that have instituted the punitive full-family sanctions are those with the largest populations of African Americans. Other researchers examining TANF sanctions found that ‘limited education and being African American predict sanctioning when [one] control[s] for a wide range of other personal and demographic characteristics.’ In short, it appears the ‘carrot and stick’ approach is overwhelmingly being used as a stick against some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations—women of color and their children.”
Welfare caseloads are falling. Does that mean the program is a success?
“While many people assume that transitions from welfare to work account for dramatic decreases in welfare caseloads, a number of studies indicate that sanctions actually account for much of the decline.”
The decision to provide block funding to the states has also created some perverse incentives as caseloads have fallen.
“If that money is not spent, the states and counties lose it; rather than laying off government employees and losing the stream of federal funding, many counties are transferring former welfare caseworkers and civil fraud investigators into positions as deputized welfare fraud investigators.”
“Second, the welfare fraud investigators are gaining political leverage. Welfare fraud investigators are unionizing. In many states they have formed associations and even hired lobbyists. These associations urge legislators to step-up efforts to investigate and prosecute welfare fraud and to move investigations from the civil to the criminal arena.”
Welcome to the real United States of America.
Let us return to Matt Taibbi for an appropriate final comment. He refers often to the fact that the San Diego region is home to the most aggressive welfare enforcement tactics in the US, while at the same time having served as ground zero for the explosive mortgage fraud that nearly drove the world economy over the cliff.
“Now the political momentum in both parties traveled in the same direction. Both parties wanted to merge the social welfare system with law enforcement, creating a world that for the poor would be peopled everywhere by cops and bureaucrats and inane, humiliating rules. They wanted to put all the sharp edges of American life in that one arena, and they succeeded.”
“And on the other hand, both parties wanted the financial services sector to become an endless naked pillow fight, fueled by increasingly limitless amounts of cheap cash from the Federal Reserve (literally free cash, eventually). If they turned life in the projects into a police state, they turned life on Wall Street into its opposite. One lie in San Diego is a crime. But a million lies? That’s just good business.”