For the past couple of years, I’ve had occasional exchanges of emails with a former government official who has gone by the name of Peter the Citizen, in order to protect his identity.I don’t know why he considered that necessary, but since his most recent transmittal–with his name– is available on the internet, I assume I can link to it.
It is worth noting that Peter is a self-described conservative who has worked on welfare issues for the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the White House under both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. He’s not a bleeding heart liberal; he is a policy person who takes evidence and honesty seriously.
Peter has shared his frustration with the ideologues who twist evidence in order to justify the punitive policies they favor. Most recently, he has shared inaccurate claims made by think tanks and Kevin McCarthy in support of imposing additional work requirements on the needy American beneficiaries of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. He especially zeros in on misinformation currently being produced by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
In seventeen pages of text (followed by two pages of footnotes), Peter responds to what AEI researchers present as summaries of the existing research on work requirements. One example:
AEI: “Higher labor-force participation translates to less poverty, and employment correlates to many other nonfinancial benefits, such as better physical and mental health. Encouraging work among benefit recipients gives them an opportunity to escape poverty and achieve upward mobility without depending on government assistance.”
Peter: To support the claim that “more work leads to less poverty,” Weidinger and Rachidi cite a recent study by Child Trends. This is hardly a surprising conclusion. The real question is, do work requirements lead to more work? Notably, Weidinger and Rachidi leave out the following statement from that same report:
We did see an increase in single mothers’ labor force participation in the 1990s. Yet, evidence from early-1990s welfare-to-work experiments and more recent research consistently indicate that, while work requirements can boost short-term employment and earnings, they do not have their intended effect of getting people into stable jobs that sustainably lift them out of poverty with their incomes. For example, previous research found that welfare reform accounted for only a small amount of the increase in single mothers’ employment rates in the mid-1990s….
In short, Weidinger and Rachidi celebrate a relatively small increase in employment (relative to the caseload decline), but ignore the fact that far more families are made worse off with detrimental consequences for children.
I chose the above example because it is one of the least technical (the paper’s language is nothing if not densely academic.) Suffice it to say that all seventeen pages follow the same trajectory: the argument put forward by the AEI researchers is followed by analysis and data showing that AEI has cited to studies which have been refuted, or has omitted language limiting the applicability of the portion they quote. In a couple of cases, AEI presents “facts” that aren’t: for example, the paper claims that the “pro-work TANF provisions in this proposal” are the same as those in the 2018 House Ways and Means legislation– the JOBS for Success Act.” Peter offers evidence showing that this assertion is factually inaccurate.
I am sharing this “in the weeds” effort by a Rightwing think-tank to justify reintroducing a policy that has proven to have substantial negative unintended consequences because –thanks to Kevin McCarthy and the mis-named “Freedom Caucus”– these proposals are part of the GOP’s debt ceiling legislation. Proponents argue that work requirements will grow the economy by helping more low-income adults enter the workforce and obtain higher earnings–addressing current labor shortages along the way.
There are two major problems with that argument for “reviving these proposals.”
One is that–as Peter points out– policymakers are not knowledgeable about work requirements or the evidence about their effectiveness. “Instead, they are swayed by the misinformation provided by conservative think tanks and other politicians who simply repeat uninformed talking points.”
The other, of course, is both more obvious and more infuriating: the debt ceiling fight is not an appropriate venue for any policy argument. Raising the debt ceiling allows the government to pay bills it has already incurred. Using a refusal to raise it as a weapon is despicable and deeply disturbing–a threat by blackmailers to upend the global economy if they don’t get their way.
One thing does come through loud and clear from reading that 17-page analysis; if sane Americans ever get control of our government, we really do need to strengthen and simplify our complicated and unwieldy social safety net.