Jon Chait tries to contrast cutting food stamps and welfare reform

Jon Chait argues that the SNAP cuts passed by the House are horrible and unlike the 1996 welfare reform.

Is the “work requirement” they plan to impose on food stamps like welfare reform? There are three highly salient differences. Welfare benefits were specifically designed in a way, dating from their origin as a replacement for a male breadwinner, that discouraged work. Second, welfare reform had funds for jobs and training programs. Third, it was passed in a full employment economy.

I comment. Basically, Chait tacitly accepts the praise of welfare reform based on false beliefs about the new TANF based program and the 1996 vintage AFDC program. This demonstrates (again) the total failure of welfare reform as political strategy as explained by Alex Pareene. (do click the link — his post is much better than this one). The post is based largely on the work of Joe Soss and Stanford Schram at U Wisconsin (pdf warning but do click it — the paper seem excellent to me).

In fact, by 1996 AFDC had become, in large part, a workfare program mandating availability for work for unemployed couples (in the 25 states where they could get benefits) and for single mothers with no children under three. The welfare reform debate was affected by the fact that the general public had no idea how small the AFDC program was, how low the benefits were, or how eligibility had been changed by two previous welfare reforms.

We still have reformed welfare (essentially unchanged since 1996). Where is the money for job training ? TANF is a block grant. There was money available for more than just cash transfers in the late 90s, because the economy was booming so the number of people eligible for TANF automatically declined (it also declined more because of the reform). This positive surprise freed up money for job training etc.

Currently the same law implies that extremely poor people aren’t getting TANF benefits, basicaly because state budgets are too tight. It also means that there is very little money for job training of TANF recipients. Significant funding was available only in 2009-10 (as part of the stimulus bill).

I think it is genuinely hard to argue that food stamp cuts are terrible and welfare reform was good. The main difference is that welfare reform was passed when the economy was booming. It was designed to last as it has. It is current policy. If it is bad policy during recessions, then it was bad law. Before welfare reform, the AFDC budget automatically increased in recessions (as the SNAP budget does). This was a a very good thing TANF is unusual in that it was so poorly designed that TANF roles did not increase due to the recession.

This was argued in 1996. You can’t say a bill which is designed to apply in good times and bad is a good bill because times happened to be good when it was passed.

Welfare reform is overwhelmingly popular and indefensible. Politicians have to say they support it, because it is so popular. Independent commetators such as you should face the facts.