Labels Aren’t Analyses

Not long ago, in response to one of my periodic posts decrying policies that ignore evidence in favor of ideology, I got an email from Peter Germanis, who writes as “Peter the Citizen” and  takes the unusual approach of evaluating policies on the basis of whether they actually work, rather than whether they are labeled conservative or liberal.

Peter attached an exchange from Poverty and Public Policy that reproduced three of his articles on poverty and welfare.

Peter’s background certainly entitles him to his chosen label, which is conservative: between 1986 and 1996, he helped President Reagan develop and implement his welfare reform policies, and he has worked with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, both of which are  very conservative advocacy and research organizations.

Here are some of the things Peter says about TANF, the much-ballyhooed “bipartisan welfare reform” that is considered a great success by Paul Ryan and others intent upon reducing expenditures on social welfare.

  • The suggestion that TANF helps people out of poverty is–by any objective analysis–wrong.
  • TANF is not welfare reform; it is welfare to states, not the needy.
  • TANF is really revenue sharing; states use a considerable share of TANF funds to supplant state expenditures.

Peter points to Texas as an example of how TANF actually works. He notes that in 2014, for every 100 poor families with children, only five received TANF cash assistance, and the state invests little of its TANF block grant to provide education, training or work supports for the working poor. In fiscal year 2014, Texas used just 20% of its TANF funds to provide what Peter designates as “core welfare reform activities”–basic assistance, work activities and child care.”

In the wake of the election, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans plan to apply TANF’s “success” to other social welfare programs, and they have issued a proposal along those lines titled “A Better Way.” As Peter writes,

The Task Force’s Report for reforming the safety net is a seriously flawed document–it would not solve problems, it would add to them…As described above TANF is not “welfare reform”; it is not a “success” it is Truly a National Failure (TANF). The fact that conservatives do not understand this suggests that they do not have “A Better Way”–they have “The Wrong Way.”

Conservatives like Peter the Citizen represent a once-vibrant and now-dwindling strand of intellectually honest conservatism, and the recognition that the labels we employ–liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist–are frequently short-hand for categorizing and discarding (or embracing) policies without bothering to evaluate them. More of his work can be accessed at this link.

Perhaps I am cynical, but I think there is one other difference between the bygone conservatism of people like Peter and what passes for conservatism today. The conservatives who used to be engaged with poverty policy genuinely wanted to help poor people. They might disagree with liberals about the best way to go about it, but the shared goal was to enable impoverished Americans to become self-sufficient. Today’s “conservatives” aren’t simply uninterested in honest analysis; they are uninterested in actually helping poor people. Their idea of “success” is spending less money on social welfare so that they can reduce taxes on the wealthy.

Because after all, poor people don’t vote, don’t contribute and don’t employ lobbyists.


  1. What is truly sad, is that even credentialed people such as this, were they given an audience (Congressional hearing, etc), what they said would not be ‘heard’ by our current policy-makers, because it does not fit their world-view. We are broken, and I am out of ideas.

  2. “Their idea of “success” is spending less money on social welfare so that they can reduce taxes on the wealthy.”

    Sorry, but this is only one goal of the oligarchy’s conservative policy. Another of their goals is to reduce the working masses to a level where mere survival forces workers to fight for jobs, any job, thus keeping wages low. If you eliminate social programs you do not have to pay for the consequences of your greedy economic policies.

    We are living in evil times.

  3. I am reminded of the people who, once they have figured out who to blame, move on as if blaming is solving.


    Being inundated with acronyms in recent years; I have posted my personal one above; probably another example of my lack of knowledge – or poor memory and I have forgotten what TANF stands for.

    I know I am fed up with explaining to my Trump supporting family and friends that drug testing welfare recipients is unnecessary and a waste of tax dollars. I worked in the community services field and in a methadone clinic under Republican administrations who made no connection between poverty ridden families and drug addiction. Today’s GOP and the incoming administration have no concept as to the meaning of the term “conservative” or applying it to humanity. They are comprised primarily of the 1% and have been allowed to take control due to Citizens United. Sheila nailed it in the quote copied and pasted below.

    “Today’s “conservatives” aren’t simply uninterested in honest analysis; they are uninterested in actually helping poor people. Their idea of “success” is spending less money on social welfare so that they can reduce taxes on the wealthy.”

    We are nearing the end of 2016 too fast; bringing us speedily to January 20, 2017, and when we will drop off the edge of the world we know due to the incoming Flat Earth Society of past centuries.

  5. Apparently Paul Ryan has every reason to consider TANF as successful. He favors reducing expenditures on social welfare. Channeling money to TANF assured that it not be spent for social welfare.

  6. We have governors of 33 states (or more) who can hardly wait to get their hands on funds labeled for the poor so that they can divert such funding into programs for the rich via reduction of the latter’s taxes in their respective jurisdictions. Word wizards in Washington are really good at supplying labels for legislation and regulations which describe the exact opposite of what the substance of such legislation and/or regulations provides. “No Child Left Behind” and acts employing the word “Patriot” are examples of this Chanel #5 description of excrement; selling the label is the equivalent of how chefs sell steaks cooked at your table in fancy restaurants. One such chef in an upscale restaurant in Mexico City told me that the idea was to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” I think that an apt description of Ryan’s voucher campaign to buoy local funding at the expense of the poor while labeling the exercise as one helping the poor. It amounts to legislative fraud; one cannot eat sizzle.

  7. “The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program provides temporary financial assistance for pregnant women and families with one or more dependent children. TANF provides financial assistance to help pay for food, shelter, utilities, and expenses other than medical.” Google search
    First they want to be sure that the women stay pregnant, no matter her circumstances or choice, and then they want to be sure that any assistance at all that the state offers will get them political capital. To be sure that the recipients are completely dependent on the state’s supposed largess, no medical expenses are included, so if anyone is sick, go to the feds, not us. Oh, and by the way, our oligarchs consider all those needing that assistance as losers and waste people, so… know. (Sorry to drop into sarcasm. It offers no answers, but offers some short term release.)

  8. JD; thank you for the definition of TANF and pointing out the incongruity of the governmental prevention of access to birth control. As for your “drop into sarcasm”; if you know of a “warm and fuzzy” way to refer to this situation,the GOP could use the help.

  9. The incoming administration, with Paul Ryan’s push, plans to dismantle the ACA and award block grants to states to allow each state to decide how best to use their award money. The same thing will happen – most of that money will go into the general funds to be spent on anything but health insurance.

    I believe that the average Republican really doesn’t know the damage that their politicians have done to society. All they hear is that lazy poor people are a drag on society and cost the “hard working” taxpayers too much in taxes. This has been drilled into their heads for decades. They have no clue that the true welfare queens are corporations.

    More importantly, I believe that Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans absolutely DO know and are very aware that their “solutions” for helping the poor are a farce and they know that they are sending extra money to the states under the disguise of assisting the poor, all in an effort to make themselves appear to care about the poor, when in reality they don’t care at all. Fool the voters to stay in power!

  10. Loved Sheila’s column and it reminded me of my old Vanderbilt days. Lamar Alexander was my fraternity big brother, now he’s a 2+ term US Senator from TN. Also a former 2 term TN Governor, & Prez of U. Tenn and SecEduc under Poppy Bush. After running the Dept of Educ for 4 yrs he wrote a column which said we should swap two agencies with the states. Abolish the Dept Educ and let each state have their own DeptEduc. And we should take Medicaid out of the state’s hands and move it to Washington combining it with its cousin, Medicare. I almost never vote Republican since Nixon was run out of office, but I do send Lamar a check for his re-elections.
    My own goofy Governor like many GOPer Guvs refused to implement Obamacare or accept the new Medicaid which is free to Mississippi for three years and then 90% free for us.

  11. You can bet that Ryan is already word-smithing his position statement and practicing so he can deliver it without laughing out loud. I still say the democrats need to start the campaign against him now and do everything possible to defeat him in the next election….what ever it takes.

  12. An unstated goal of today’s Ryanesque radical conservatives, and an inevitable by-product of the rush to reduce taxation of the wealthy by reducing services, is, in the immortal words of Scrooge, “to decrease the surplus population.” The already disproportionate mortality rates of the poor will soar due to the implementation of this strategy. Let the War on the Poor begin!

  13. The solution for poverty is employment. The driver of employment is not wealthier wealthy people as neoliberals believe but innovation.

    The most reliable driver of innovation, especially in today’s technological wonderland is education.

    To whatever degree we fail at education, and we are very good at failing it, the necessary backstop is welfare.

  14. As today’s topic rightly suggests, labels aren’t analyses, albeit many of us are loath to admit such. As one poster wrote earlier today, “I am reminded of the people who, once they have figured out who to blame, move on as if blaming is solving.”

    Another self-aware poster closed with, “Sorry to drop into sarcasm. It offers no answers but offers some short term release.”

    When discussing welfare programs consider that labels indeed are fairly useless. We have today’s TANF issues from Republicans just as we had welfare reform issues, at odds with FDR’s New Deal, from former Pres Bill Clinton. Attaching goodness or lack of goodness to any idea based only on ‘who said it’ stifles all problem solving.

    Eric Berne, MD — called the father of transactional analysis by some — wrote about us in the classic “Games People Play: The Handbook of Basic Transactional Analysis”. Two favored adult games, relatively harmless when played sparingly, are “Ain’t It Awful” and “Why Don’t You–Yes But”. In 2010, the Huffington Post recognized this growing occurrence among adult groups who are gifted with skillful banter but not so gifted in solving real problems.

  15. BSH, good huff post article.

    In my experience this culture whines unceasingly about little stuff, what the pros label “breaking news”, but seems oblivious to big stuff like Don the con and his Con-way with the big red button. I think that we are so used to being comfortable that we can no longer imagine anything beyond uncomfortable. The pea under the mattress is a tragedy please pass the potatoes.

    I watched a PBS Frontline documentary last night about the mass migration of people just like us on the move from war and tyranny, who left everything because there was zero future for them where they had the bad luck to be born and set out walking towards any hope at all.

    It was like my grandparents biography of leaving war torn Europe as young teens when the absolute best that their family could do for them was a one way ticket to anywhere else.

    I’ve been fortunate beyond belief and find myself unable to whine about anything in my life but I’m worried to death that I’ve been part of a massive failure to deprive my progeny of all that my ancestors gave me.

    Sweat the big stuff and laugh the small stuff off.

  16. Pete,

    Our ancestors, whether grandparents or great-grandparents, are special people who complained little.

    In 1870, my late husband’s great-grandfather, Thomas Hansen, left a small Danish fishing village on the coast of the North Sea all alone at age 17, made his way south to the Port of Hamburg where he boarded a ship to the US, a country where he knew absolutely no one. Upon his arrival at Ellis Island, he listed his trade as carpentry (dubious at best according to family history) and he then was ‘placed’ on the Scandanavian immigrant train to Kenosha, Wisconsin where his can-do attitude and entrepreneurial spirit blossomed in short order.

    His business continues to operate, and I’ve no doubt he’d be pleased knowing the current Staff Director, another immigrant, is a man named Aziz Al-Sager. Do we live in a great country or what?

  17. Great story BSH and there are so many of them from that generation. The Frontline story that I described earlier today showed that there are many such stories today too but not many are Americans.

    We’ve become too used to comfort to take on the heavy lifting of defending democracy.

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