Ending welfare by ending welfare
In the mid-1990s, I was working on a welfare reform research project while a student at Fresno State. For me, it was an early lesson in how divorced political discussions are in Washington from what experts in a field are saying.
While doing this research, part of my job was to work on a literature review — essentially gathering information on what kinds of things worked and what didn’t in addressing poverty and welfare. At the same time, politicians in Washington were considering what they called welfare reform. This eventually would become the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996.
Our literature review and our own research findings — some of which we published in the Journal of Poverty in 1999 — found that, contrary to popular belief, many welfare recipients were working and of those who were unable to work, the primary causes were things like a lack of available jobs, physical disability, the need for child care, education, or a lack of transportation. A very small minority of welfare recipients preferred welfare over work.
But, among politicians the cause couldn’t be simpler. We just needed more personal responsibility and less “dependence.”
So, the Personal Responsibility Act was passed, placing further limits on who could get welfare, and for how long. One of the distressing aspects to us as researchers was that no funds were allocated, within the act or elsewhere, to research the impact of the law and whether it had had the intended effect.
Clearly, it did because almost immediately, the PRA was declared a success. Pundits looked at the numbers and said, “See, the number of people on welfare has decreased. This worked.”
Of course, if reducing the number of people on welfare was the goal, that’s pretty easy: Just kick people off of welfare. That’s pretty much what the PRA did.
For many of us, the larger goal was reducing poverty. That, to policymakers, was apparently no longer relevant. The poor will always be with us, so why bother?
Lately, politicians have found a new way to kick people off welfare: drug testing. Exploiting popular stereotypes, they claim many welfare recipients are on illegal drugs, something the public shouldn’t subsidize.
In Indiana last year, a bill was drafted to require welfare applicants to be tested for drugs. The bill stalled, withdrawn by its sponsor, when an amendment was introduced including lawmakers in the testing. What’s good for the goose is apparently a privacy violation for the gander.
Florida implemented drug testing for welfare recipients in 2011, though it was later blocked by the courts. In the brief time the program was in place, a very small number of applicants tested positive (2.6 percent), a rate far lower than drug use in the general population (8.13 percent of all Floridians). In fact, the state spent more than twice as much on the program than it saved in benefits for those rejected for drug use.
To anyone who gives it much thought, this shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is there no evidence that welfare recipients use illegal drugs at a higher rate than anyone else, there’s an obvious reason why they likely would not: They’re broke! Generally speaking, people without money cannot afford luxury items, including illegal ones, a category for which drugs clearly apply.
In North Dakota, this was recently taken a step further. A recent bill, for now defeated, would not only have required drug testing of welfare applicants, it would have made them pay for the testing, adding insult to injury for those who are already struggling to meet the basic needs of their families.
Bills to require drug testing of welfare recipients have been introduced in at least half of the 50 states. You might wonder, given their dubious constitutionality, and the fact that they cost rather than save money, why politicians would think this is a good idea.
It goes back to the same mind-set behind the Personal Responsibility Act. You reduce welfare by reducing welfare. Poverty isn’t the issue. They want to simply make it as hard as possible to get welfare benefits just as a way to reduce the rolls. The more barriers you throw up, the more people who will give up without even applying.
If we really wanted to reduce poverty, the research is clear, as is the example of many other countries: Focus on creating jobs, improving pay (including the minimum wage), education, child care, transportation and aid for those who need it.
For those who do have problems with drug addiction, whether poor or not, treatment is far cheaper than punishment.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.