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.


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.

Those Pesky Facts

One of my earliest research projects when I entered academia focused on an element of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,”  (PRWORA) aka welfare reform. I looked at the consequences of the measure’s invitation to (undefined) Faith-Based Organizations to help government agencies provide welfare services.

Needless to say, the “armies of compassion” envisioned by George W. Bush failed to materialize, since the invitation was based largely on fanciful–indeed, “faith-based”–beliefs about the capacities of the invitees.

I mention this in order to explain my heightened interest in a recent “spat” between Peter the Citizen and Arthur Brooks.

In “The Dignity Deficit: Reclaiming Americans’ Sense of Purpose,” Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), emphasizes the importance of work requirements for welfare programs and suggests that the 1996 welfare reform law provides a model for other safety net programs:

Putting more people to work must also become an explicit aim of the social safety net. Arguably, the greatest innovation in social policy in recent history was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The PRWORA, which became synonymous with the phrase “welfare reform,” made several major changes to federal policy. It devolved greater flexibility to the states but established new constraints, such as a limit on how long someone could receive federal welfare benefits and a work requirement for most able-bodied adults.

As Peter points out, PRWORA changed a number of programs, but what Brooks is lauding is TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Peter, like Brooks, is a political conservative; he was a  former member of the Reagan Administration whose “portfolio” was welfare programs.
And he begs to differ.

For the past two years, I have been writing papers as a citizen to highlight TANF’s many problems. My hope is that conservatives will adopt more “rigor” in their assessment of the 1996 law and use evidence rather than ideology in developing reform proposals.

Brooks claims that TANF reduced poverty, and that its “lessons” about “the dignity of work” should be extended to other poverty programs. Peter convincingly demolishes the first assertion, and provides copious data to prove his point. Although he clearly agrees that there are “lessons” to be learned,  the content of those lessons differs significantly from what Brooks suggests.  I really encourage readers to click through and read the entire paper. The exchange illustrates the difference between ideology and intellectual integrity–between seeing what you want to see and seeing what the evidence shows.

What really caught my eye, however, were the following observations (emphasis mine):

TANF’s block grant structure creates a situation in which states don’t have the resources to run meaningful welfare-to-work programs, as the amount is not adjusted for inflation or demographic changes. This problem is exacerbated when state politicians divert scarce funds to plug budget holes….

In fiscal year (FY) 2015, just 25 percent of TANF funds were used to provide basic cash assistance and just 7 percent were for work-related activities, despite the fact that the number of poor families with children was higher in 2015 than in 1996. In many states, TANF has become a slush fund used to supplant state spending and fill budget holes…

Since TANF’s inception, states have used tens of billions of federal TANF dollars to simply replace existing state spending. For example, Jon Peacock of the Wisconsin Budget Project explains how “a significant portion of the federal funding for … assistance is being siphoned off for use elsewhere in the budget, to the detriment of the Wisconsin Works (W-2) program and child care subsidies for low-income working families.” It would be one thing if poverty had declined in Wisconsin since TANF’s enactment, but the poverty rate for children in Wisconsin grew from 14.3 percent in 1997 to 18.4 percent in 2011. If the supplanted funds were used to fund other programs for poor families, the practice would be less harmful, but that doesn’t seem to be what happens in Wisconsin. According to Peacock, “That shell game uses TANF funds to free up state funds [general purpose revenue] (GPR) to use for other purposes, such as the proposed income tax cuts.”

Trump’s budget–which combines utter fantasy with gratuitous cruelty (eliminating Meals on Wheels!?)– contains deep cuts to Medicaid and proposes to  fund what’s left through block grants, facilitating–and probably ensuring– precisely the sort of “shell game” that the states have played with TANF.

Anyone who thinks that the monies sent to the states via Medicaid block grants would all be applied to the costs of providing medical care for poor people is smoking something, and it’s hallucinogenic.


Peter the Citizen and “Less Appealing” Indiana

On Wednesday, I shared portions of an analysis of TANF–welfare after “reform”–from Peter the Citizen, a conservative policy analyst who has deep experience with social welfare policies.

Among the many papers he has written on the subject is one I found particularly interesting, because it references poverty and welfare policy in my home state of Indiana–and because Peter’s analysis is consistent with my own understanding of conditions in the Hoosier state.

In this particular paper, Peter was responding to an article attributing the “success” of welfare reform to the fact that such reforms have made welfare “less appealing.” (I suspect that many recipients would be shocked to discover they were accepting help because they found it “appealing.”) His rejoinder is worth reproducing at some length.

TANF is best viewed on a state-by- state basis and digging deeper suggests that there are limits to Winship’s argument about making welfare “less appealing.” Some states have tried to focus on real “welfare reform” (to the extent they can given the limitations of TANF’s block grant structure and dysfunctional federal requirements), while others use it primarily as a slush fund and have adopted very harsh policies to push families off the welfare rolls. Using a simplistic pre-post approach, one can easily compare states over time based on the harshness of their policies. (Note: This is not the evaluation approach I prefer, but it seems to resonate with conservatives.)

Robert Doar, now at the American Enterprise Institute, says he ran a “model” TANF program in New York – both at the state level and in New York City. (Doar’s bio states: “Before joining the Bloomberg administration, he was commissioner of social services for the state of New York, where he helped to make the state a model for the implementation of welfare reform.”) Doar is proud of New York City’s track record in reducing poverty:

In America’s biggest cities, more and more Americans are now living in poverty. From 2000 to 2013, the poverty rate in America’s 20 largest cities grew by 36 percent, to an average of 22.7 percent. Nationally, the poverty rate has risen too, from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 14.8 percent in 2014.

But there’s one stand-out exception to this phenomenon: New York City.

Over the last decade, New York City’s poverty rate has defied national trends by declining. While New York once suffered one of the highest poverty rates among the country’s large cities, today it boasts one of the lowest…

Indeed, Doar presents data to show that between 2000 and 2013, the percent change in poverty in New York City was minus 0.9 percent – the lowest in the nation among major cities, followed by Los Angeles and San Diego (plus 3.6 and plus 7.5 percent, respectively). At the opposite end of the spectrum, with the largest increases, were Indianapolis (81.5 percent), Charlotte (67 percent), and Detroit (57.9 percent).

Notably, both New York and California (the states with the top three cities) have much more appealing TANF programs than Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan (the states with the bottom three cities) and they have become relatively more appealing over time. New York and California didn’t eliminate the entitlement (an important component of “welfare reform” for conservatives), they don’t impose full family sanctions or enforce the federal 5-year time limit (California removes the adult’s needs after 48 months but children continue to receive benefits; New York simply continues assistance with state funds.) Both states have among the most generous benefits, paying over $700 a month for a family of three. In contrast, the states with the cities in the bottom three have lower benefits ($272 to $492 a month for a family of three), do impose full-family sanctions and do enforce the federal 5-year limit and two have shorter time limits (24 months in Indiana – for adults – and 48 months in Michigan – for the entire family).

While Indiana, North Carolina and Michigan were “less appealing” in 1996 (and 2000) than both California and New York, they have become much, much less appealing over time. For example, between 1996 and 2014, the TANF-to-poverty ratio (the ratio of families receiving cash assistance per 100 poor families with children) fell from 101 to 65 in California and from 79 to 40 in New York. The declines were much larger in Indiana (61 to 8), North Carolina (74 to 8), and Michigan (88 to 18).15 The maximum benefit for a family of three fell 23 percent in real terms in California and 10 percent in New York; compare that to Indiana (-34 percent), North Carolina (-34 percent), and Michigan (-30 percent). TANF is failing as a safety net everywhere, but much more so in some states than others.

I’ve written before about the United Way of Indiana’s description of ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and the huge gap between what those families need simply in order to survive and the public and private resources available to them.

There’s a lot of faux concern about “welfare dependency” expressed by people who are quite comfortable themselves. What those people worry about is “takers” getting too comfortable with those appealing “handouts”.

Peter the Citizen uses the term properly, to describe people who depend upon social welfare programs in order to survive.

There are many things policymakers could do to decrease that real-world dependency: raise the minimum wage, reinstitute Reagan-era tax brackets, eliminate the ACA in favor of “Medicare for All”…and jettison a self-satisfied ideology that equates poverty with a lack of moral fiber and “middle-class values.”


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.