Think Tanks? Or Propaganda Mills?

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.


Listen To Peter

A former member of the Reagan administration issues occasional broadsides about social welfare policies, using the pseudonym “Peter the Citizen.” I almost always agree with his positions, which are deeply informed and far from the dismissive and inhumane proclamations of too many of today’s Republicans.

Recently, he sent comments on an exchange about “The Dignity of Work.”

He began by examining an assertion by Matt Weidinger of the American Enterprise Institute, to the effect that “FDR’s vision promoting the dignity of work is under assault by Democrats providing relief to able-bodied adults.” Weidinger was taking issue with the (widely lauded) expanded child tax credit, arguing that

These “child allowances” replace a program that today provides tax relief and associated assistance only to parents who work, amplifying the new program’s embrace of relief over work.

As Peter points out, many of Weidinger’s arguments about the “success” of welfare reform and the potential negative effects of a child allowance are misleading when they aren’t simply wrong. They certainly don’t reflect the mainstream view of researchers and experts who study anti-poverty programs.

Indeed, they also seem to be out-of-step with his one-time colleague, Ron Haskins, who is considered by many to be the “architect” of welfare reform.

Peter quotes from Haskins–another conservative, albeit one who seems much more knowledgable about the history and current status of welfare reform– on several points, and I encourage readers to click through for a broader, more in-depth analysis, but I was particularly struck by the back-and-forth on restricting child support to children whose parents work. As Peter writes, Weidinger is simply wrong to suggest that supporters of a child allowance are rejecting “work in favor of relief.”

Haskins served as a member of the Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children in Poverty by Half in 10 Years. That committee produced a report that recommended a child allowance.

In testimony summarizing the findings, conclusions, and recommendations from the Committee’s report, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, Haskins describes the possible pro-work effect of a child allowance: Because child allowance benefits are not reduced as earnings increase (at least not until incomes reach 300 percent of the poverty line in Policy, they provide a more secure floor than means-tested benefits, one that does not penalize intermittent work.

At least 17 developed nations have some form of a child allowance. The U.S. federal tax system’s current $2,000 child tax credit is akin to a once-a-year child allowance. Many families with children benefit from its $2,000 per child reduction in taxes. However, currently, these benefits are not universal: families with no or very low incomes (and the very rich) are not eligible. Haskins also explains the importance of extending aid to poor children living in “families with no or very low incomes,” citing the possible long-term employment (and other) benefits for children themselves. Child poverty compromises the health, learning and development of our children and their future employment opportunities and well-being. …

I would file this last observation under “duh.” An enormous amount of data demonstrates that children raised in poverty are stunted in later life–they are less productive, and less likely to be steadily employed. But even if that were not the case, what sort of person says “if your parent doesn’t have acceptable employment, kid, we’re taking it out on you”?

Weidinger echoes GOP talking points to the effect that welfare checks under AFDC “flowed mostly to households in which no one worked and many remained on benefits and in poverty for years.” As Peter notes in response,  AFDC checks “flowed mostly to households” without earners because it was targeted to very poor families.

In most states, a job would make a family ineligible for assistance because the income eligibility limits in all states were very low and recipients faced a high marginal tax rate when they went to work (100 percent for AFDC after four months of work).  Notably, the expanded child tax credit will be very different than AFDC, because checks will “flow mostly to households” with earnings.

The Weidingers of this world act on the longstanding and pernicious American premise that being poor equates to being morally defective–and evidently, they don’t want to feed poor children if that will help their morally-defective parents.

I understand arguments that focus on the best way to deliver social benefits. I will never understand the argument that we shouldn’t feed and clothe children if we disapprove of their parents.


Watch Your Language

I think it was Tallyrand who said “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” Political spinmeisters, advertising executives and faux scholars are proving him prescient; they have perfected the use of language to label and deceive, rather than communicate.

The following paragraph is typical (no link, as I have forgotten where I got it):

The Sanders-led progressive movement has successfully tugged the party to the left, bringing ideas that seemed fringe in 2016 to the center of the mainstream Democratic agenda. Many of the party’s presidential hopefuls now embrace some of the biggest planks of the Sanders platform, from Medicare for All to legalizing marijuana to rejecting corporate donations.

A genuine Leftist–vanishingly rare in the U.S.–would laugh at the suggestion that universal health care (once proposed by Richard Nixon), sane drug policies based upon sound medical research, and campaign finance reform (championed by John McCain) are somehow “far Left.” But that’s the state of political discourse in America these days, where ideology and animus trump both evidence and the careful use of language.

Peter the Citizen, an expert on social welfare programs to whom I’ve previously cited, recently sent me a good example of the way it works. (Peter is hardly a bleeding heart liberal–he worked in the Reagan White House. He just believes that research projects should be designed to find answers to questions, not manipulated in order to confirm pre-existing biases.) The issue was whether recipients of certain social programs should be required to work in order to qualify for benefits.

He wrote:”I believe work requirements can be a useful policy tool, but they must be reasonable, realistic, and based on sound evidence.  Too much of the debate today ignores these factors and is based on misreading the credible evidence that exists (i.e., the random assignment experiments of welfare-to-work programs) or, even worse, relies on studies with fundamentally flawed methods.

“How effective are work requirements?,” a paper by Angela Rachidi and Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, came in for special scorn. The authors purport to find evidence that “largely supports” extending work requirements to non-cash programs like SNAP  and Medicaid, and they argue that critics of work requirements have “misread” and “misrepresented” this research.

As Peter notes,

It turns out that it is Angela and Robert who have misread the evidence.  They mischaracterize the arguments of “critics” of work requirements, misinterpret the results of random assignment experiments, and then over-generalize from a limited number of demonstration projects to make claims about work requirement proposals that would operate on a much larger scale, for different programs and populations, and with different levels of funding.

Peter’s paper critiquing this “research,” can be found here.

Peter also referenced an article titled “They’re the think tank pushing for welfare work requirements. Republicans say they’re experts. Economists call it ‘junk science,’” by Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. In the article, Dewey described the newfound influence of a think-tank named Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) (given the name–the label– I assume its an offshoot of that well-known organization “Grandmas and Kittens for Good Government.”)

But hey–they are saying what Paul Ryan and the Koch Brothers want to hear, so they must be legit, right?

House Republicans – including [Speaker] Ryan, who was introduced to the group in 2016 through Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback – have repeatedly proffered the FGA’s analysis as proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment.

While the FGA’s “studies” have support among some politicians, their work is not seen as credible by serious observers.  To understand why, it is informative to compare their methodological approach for making claims about the impacts of work requirements (and other welfare reform policies) with generally accepted criteria for assessing the soundness of an evaluation.

In 1997, Peter co-authored a monograph with Doug Besharov and Peter Rossi – Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Guide for Scholars and Practitioners – which described and explained those “generally accepted criteria.”  Peter applied the criteria the to the FGA’s “research,”  and developed the following “report card”: “How Do the Foundation for Government Accountability’s Evaluations of Welfare Reform Measure Up? A Report Card (Hint: The FGA Fails)”:

In 1984, Orwell introduced the concept of “Newspeak,” language imposed by the governing Party. The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits “proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, (the Party ruling Oceana)”– and simultaneously to make all other modes of thought impossible.

The “alternative facts,” of Trumpworld, politicians’ increasing use of language to obfuscate and label rather than inform, and the bastardized “research” of zealots and ideologues are creating an environment in which their version of Newspeak displaces actual conversation and distorts reality.

We. need to watch our language.


Polling The Uninformed

Polling isn’t the same thing as survey research. The latter relies on field-tested questions and careful selection of a quantity of respondents sufficient to provide a statistically-valid result. Very few polls meet those standards.

Within the category of opinion polling, there are large discrepancies in the reliability of the information gathered. (Just ask Harry Truman or Hillary Clinton.) Some of those discrepancies occur despite good-faith but flawed efforts of pollsters; some occur because limited resources required methodological shortcuts. Too many are just garbage, generated by “pollsters” trying to peddle snake-oil of one sort or another.

My virtual friend Peter the Citizen recently shared a glaring example of snake-oil polling.

Readers may recall my previous references to Peter; he was an official in the Reagan administration–and remains an example of the intellectually-honest conservatives we’ve mostly lost. His area of expertise (back when government work demanded actual knowledge of what the hell you were doing) was welfare policy. He has consistently  debunked the assertion that TANF, the so-called “welfare reform” constantly touted by Paul Ryan and others, was a success. As he points out,

TANF is not “welfare reform” at all, but a flexible funding stream that has failed to provide an adequate safety net or an effective welfare-to-work program. In many states, it has become a slush fund used to supplant state spending and fill budget holes.

As GOP lawmakers seek to impose draconian work requirements on recipients of various social welfare programs, Peter reminds us that TANF’s work requirements are a” notable example of misguided policymaking– unreasonable, dysfunctional, and not about work.”

The real target of this particular paper, however, is the GOP’s reliance on polling to “prove” that work requirements are favored by the majority of Americans, including those on welfare–to buttress their argument that “work-capable” adults should be required to work in return for benefits. As one conservative proponent put it,

Voters are demanding that policymakers pursue welfare reforms that can move millions of able-bodied adults from welfare to work.”

As Peter notes, even people who support reasonable work requirements–and he counts himself as one of them– have balked at the recent attempts to add punitive provisions to SNAP and other programs. Some of the “pesky details” that pollsters don’t bother to provide to respondents are: who is to be considered “able-bodied?” Are jobs available? Is transportation? What about recipients with small children at home, or those acting as caretakers for disabled relatives?

And what about the cost of creating and monitoring this new set of rules? As Peter points out, passage of these requirements would force states to create new bureaucracies to monitor the millions of SNAP recipients to determine whether they are subject to the requirements and, if so, whether they satisfy them–but the proposal doesn’t provide any funding to support those new bureaucrats.

In the absence of context–the absence of information about these and similar “details”– responses to such polls are meaningless.

The poll questions reported verbatim in the linked paper reminded me vividly of a meeting I attended many years ago, where a state legislator from northeast Indiana shared the results of a “poll” he’d taken, the results of which “proved” that his constituents were firmly against abortion. The question–and I am not making this up–was “do you approve of killing babies?”

I bet I know what the poll results would be if we asked Americans “Do you approve of giving new tax breaks to rich people who are already being taxed at a lower marginal rate than Warren Buffet’s secretary?” How about “Should we let children starve if their parents don’t satisfy SNAP work requirements?”

The only thing such poll questions prove is the truth of something I learned in law school: he who frames the question wins the debate.

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.