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How Reforming Welfare and Gutting Programs for the Poor Became a Bipartisan Platform

The real scandal is that both parties have made kicking the poor a prerequisite to winning office.

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The following article first appeared at Working In These Times , the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times ' weekly updates .

The Romney camp's new attack line on the Obama administration--that he  “gutted” the work requirementsimposed on families receiving public assistance--has been widely debunked as a distortion of a mundane policy memo. But the real scandal here isn’t what Obama did or didn’t do to “workfare”; it’s that both parties have gutted the welfare system as a whole to conduct a cruel social experiment on impoverished families.

As many watchdogs have pointed out, the memo in question from the Department of Health and Human Services basically offers states more flexibility to meet mandatory targets for moving people off of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and into gainful employment. This program, administered jointly through federal and state agencies, is the central plank of  Clinton-era welfare reform, and its principal political aim has always been to reduce the statistical presence of the poor, not alleviating their poverty.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), as welfare reform approaches its Sweet Sixteen, TANF's track record contrasts bitterly with that of its predecessor, AFDC, which Reaganite conservatives had savaged as undeserved entitlement:

Over the last 16 years, the national TANF caseload has declined by 60 percent, even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened. While the official poverty rate among families declined in the early years of welfare reform, when the economy was booming and unemployment was extremely low, it started increasing in 2000 and now exceeds its 1996 level.

These opposing trends — TANF caseloads going down while poverty is going up — mean that a much smaller share of poor families receive cash assistance from TANF than they did prior to welfare reform.

This punitive approach to poverty has driven poor mothers of color further to the margins of the economy, making them even more politically invisible.

As Josh Eidelson  noted at Jacobin, the work requirements are a clandestine release valve for the poor people that politicians want to get rid of, but are too tight-fisted to actually care for. As the welfare system coercively links people's benefits to (government-defined) work activities, participants have been tethered to a world of underpaid labor in which jobless poverty might sometimes  seem preferable to low-paid, demeaning dead-end jobs

And often families fall through the cracks.  According to CBPP, among those who’ve tumbled off the welfare rolls, many are “disconnected from both welfare and work.” The underlying assumption seems to be that the poor will avoid work as long as the nanny state lavishes them with welfare checks. It’s hard not to notice the racist overtones of this canard--the  mythical black welfare queen--unless you fail to notice poverty altogether. And "reform" makes it easier for politicians to wear ignorance of both race and poverty like a badge of honor.

CBPP’s analysis shows that in the long term, although employment rates rose among single mothers when TANF was in its infancy, “as the economy has weakened, a substantial portion of the early gains have been lost.” The employment trendlines indicate that overall, “the economy, rather than policy, is now the main driver of employment among single mothers.” 

If policy alone doesn’t drive the “undeserving poor” into the labor force, it certainly can wreck the lives of families, and the funding crisis keeps worsening as states  tighten their fiscal belts around the necks of struggling moms. The New York Times earlier this year  described the plight of women in Arizona who had been both pummeled by the recession and steamrolled by the state’s attack on cash-assistance programs:

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