President Clinton ended the welfare program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996. Since then, caseloads in the main federal welfare program, now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), have fallen to less than half their previous levels. Clinton reminds us of this at every opportunity, as well he should. His major political achievement has been cleansing the Democrats of their previous, not-unjustified image as the pro-dole party.
So could Clinton now really be pushing people back onto the dole? In a small but significant way, the answer is yes. The announcement was buried in the president’s weekly radio address of Dec. 4. After boasting, “We’ve changed the culture of welfare from one that fostered dependence to one that honors and rewards work,” Clinton unveiled three new “high-performance bonuses”–extra money that will be used as a carrot to induce states to do certain things. One will reward states that get more poor children into two-parent families. (No problem there.) One will reward states that enroll more poor children in Medicaid. (Good idea!) But a third will reward states that show the biggest “improvement in the percentage of low income families eligible for Food Stamps who get them.”*
That one seems like a really bad idea.
Why? Clinton’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which proposed the regulations implementing the new food-stamp bonuses, says they will promote the goal of “ending the dependence of needy parents on government benefits.” But wait a minute. The proposed bonus tries to get states to go out and sign more people up for government benefits–namely food stamps.
And food stamps are a peculiar benefit, in that, if you have children, you can get them whether or not you work. Indeed, you can make no attempt to even find a job or support your family, and you’ll still qualify for $230 a month in food stamps (for a two-person family) or $329 (for a three-person family) or $419 (for four). In southern states, this food-stamp benefit typically exceeds the regular monthly TANF benefit. Food stamps are also fungible–although the stamps can be used only to buy food, they work just like cash. You buy food with them as if they were cash; they are traded informally as if they were cash.
There is a word for cashlike benefits you can get whether you work or not. The word is welfare. Pushing food stamps on poor people is unlikely to move people off of welfare because food stamps are welfare. As a veteran liberal welfare expert told me, upon hearing of the new bonus, it’s “perverse to say we want you to move people to self-sufficiency and then say we want you to sign them up for more welfare.”
Because food stamps are a form of welfare, they–like AFDC and TANF benefits–have traditionally been stigmatized, even among those who are eligible to get them. This stigma is the natural flip side of the work ethic: If you “honor and support work,” in Clinton’s phrase, then you are at least slightly dishonored and ashamed to get a handout that goes to people who don’t work a lick. Low-income workers, especially, have been reluctant to sign up for the benefits to which they are legally entitled. As noted by HHS, “only 39 percent of individuals with earnings who are eligible for food stamps benefits participate in the Food Stamp Program, compared to a participation rate of 71 percent overall.” Some of those who don’t claim their benefits may be less-poor workers whose small food-stamp allotment isn’t worth the hassle of applying. But many are undoubtedly people who are simply proud that they don’t depend on a handout. It’s hard to deny that this pride is, in some sense, a good thing.
Clinton’s new plan in effect dismisses the food-stamp stigma as an archaic relic. This represents a small but telling victory for those Democrats–I call them Money Liberals–for whom getting cash to the poor, not upholding the work ethic, is the most important thing. Since the 1996 reform, their central strategy–promoted, most importantly, by Wendell Primus and Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities–has been to destigmatize old welfare programs such as food stamps by repackaging them as “work supports” that can boost the incomes of the millions leaving welfare for low-paying jobs.
Sure enough, Clinton declared food stamps “critical supports,” and vowed to “hold states accountable and make sure families get the benefits they need.” To qualify for a bonus under his new regulations, states would be required not just to make it easy for families who leave welfare (TANF) to keep getting food stamps, but to actively “encourage food stamp applications even if the TANF application halts.” In effect, states would be saying, “Sign up! It’s good to get food stamps.” Stigma, schmigma!
Maybe I’m overreacting, but I think Clinton is courting disaster here. While food stamps might help support some welfare mothers during a transitional period between TANF and pure self-sufficiency, removing the food-stamp stigma risks encouraging a far greater number to become dependent in the first place. Suppose you’re a single mom working at the Gap. You’re proud not to be on welfare. You don’t even know where the welfare office is. Then you hear a “public-service announcement” of the sort the new HHS regulations encourage. It tells you that food stamps are respectable, that you’re a fool not to go down and claim what you’re entitled to. So you find out where the welfare office is, and there you also learn that if you quit your job you can qualify for two years of TANF welfare. If you go on TANF, and then later go back to work at the Gap, you get to keep not only food stamps but a bit of your welfare check too. Hmmm. Sounds appealing.
Or worse, you’re a young girl who’s just graduated from high school. You’ve never had a job. Why not have a kid out of wedlock, collect your $230 a month in stamps, live with your mom and worry about going to work later? Food stamps are OK! They’re good! The government says so.
True, the Clinton administration is trying to say that food stamps are really good only if you’re also working at least part-time, but that’s kind of a complicated message to get across. One deterrent to food-stamp use, remember, is the Checkout-Line Factor–people tend to look at you funny when you whip out your food-stamp card to buy your groceries. If food stamps are destigmatized, though, nobody will look at you funny–even if you really aren’t working at all. The sales pitch designed to “support” workers will also protect shirkers. In practice, how could the government hope to destigmatize food stamps for the former group but not for the latter group (who are, under law, also entitled to them)?
How did the welfare culture grow in the first place? It happened in the late 1960s, when state and local officials embarked on a campaign to encourage welfare and food-stamp use–to remove stigma and boost “participation rates.” The result? A tripling of the welfare rolls. This “welfare explosion” wasn’t undone until the 1996 reform sent the opposite message. Now Clinton risks reversing, at least partially, the actual, practical process that brought him the caseload declines he’s crowing about today. Will he be happy when the rolls for food stamps and TANF start to rise again?
The arguments the administration now makes about food stamps, of course, can easily be made about basic welfare–TANF–too. Can’t it, too, provide a “critical support” for those who’ve just gone to work but don’t earn enough to make it all the way out of poverty? Shouldn’t we encourage those people to stay on welfare, albeit at a lower benefit level, rather than make a harsh, clean break? Don’t they “need” an ongoing TANF check to “complete the transition to self-sufficiency,” as HHS puts it? You say food stamps are different because they are “nutritional”? Don’t babies need clothes as well as food?
In fact, these arguments are already being made by Money Liberals around the country. The next campaign, once TANF and food stamps have been redefined as respectable “work supports,” will be to make those benefits more generous. But in a welfare program, the same benefit levels apply to workers and non-workers alike. If benefits are raised, it will be increasingly possible for at least some part of the population to piece together enough “work supports” to live on the supports without the work. Not to live well, of course, but the problem of dependency has never been about people living well.
Clinton seems to be ignoring one of the hard-won lessons of liberalism’s collapse, which is that programs to help poor workers should actually be restricted to workers. These “work-tested” programs make society’s values (i.e., the work ethic) unmistakably clear. Not coincidentally, these programs–including unemployment compensation, Social Security, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), all of which you have to work to get–have been politically unassailable, while welfare programs are either unpopular or actively despised. And when a benefit is restricted to workers, Congress can make it more generous without the risk of creating a culture of dependency.
If the administration wants to get more money to the working poor–as it should–why not do it through measures restricted to the working poor, like an expanded EITC and a higher minimum wage, rather than through food stamps? Until then, if working-poor people think they need food stamps and want to claim them, fine–the states shouldn’t make that difficult (as some, allegedly, have done). But if a working-poor American sees food stamps as an undignified handout, that judgment, too, deserves respect. The government shouldn’t make it a goal to push benefits onto people who think food stamps are welfare by another name. They’re right, after all.
* If you read the fine print, the “bonus,” which amounts to $20 million, is to go to the states that show the greatest “improvement” in the percent of low-income working families receiving food stamps. That restriction doesn’t save the plan, however. The working poor are the group of eligible recipients who are most likely to stigmatize the receipt of welfare. They are a key group we don’t want to slip into dependence. And removing the stigma for them is likely to remove it for everyone, including the non-workers who remain eligible for food stamps.
To read the HHS regulations on the new food stamp bonus, click here.