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A conservative tries in vain to show his 'compassion' for poor kids

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A conservative tries to defend his 'compassion' for poor kids, but fails
These conservative nostrums for child disability hurt more than they help

In his continuing effort to prove that cutting government benefit programs such as disability is actually good for beneficiaries, such as the disabled -- after all, that's what "compassionate conservatism" is all about -- Scott Winship responds to my earlier post describing the underlying theme of his program as "contempt for the underprivileged."

Winship's program is part of a "reform" conservative manifesto entitled "Room to Grow." The entire tract can be downloaded here; Winship's contribution, which deals with "safety-net reforms," is Chapter 7.

A fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Winship says his proposals are based on "solid evidence," as opposed to what he characterizes as my "righteous indignation." But in reality, his response underscores that his overarching theme is that the government programs fail because they assist people who don't need or deserve their help. You might recognize this as a resurrection of the old conservative myth of the "undeserving poor." 

Let's see how it works. 

We'll begin with Winship's claim to have based his analysis on "solid evidence." He writes that in discussing the rise in the Supplemental Security Income program's caseload of disabled children under 18, he "actually cite[s] some research," specifically "The Declining Work and Welfare of People with Disabilities," a 2011 book by Richard V. Burkhauser and March C. Daly. He cites the book in his original chapter as the source for his assertion that "increasingly," families obtain disability status for children with "comparatively minor (and often dubious)" mental and physical conditions.

I originally pointed out that nowhere in their book do Burkhauser and Daly characterize the conditions of child-disability benefits that way. Winship now acknowledges that he put those words in his sources' mouths. "Of course, those words are mine, not the book’s," he admits. But he asserts that that's what his sources mean anyway, and invites me to call Burkhauser to confirm.

Yet regardless of what Burkhauser might tell me in person, in his book he doesn't assert that disability rolls have risen because of "minor" or "dubious" conditions. What he and his coauthor do say is that definitions of disability, and their interpretation by program officials, have expanded over the years, and consequently the caseload has increased.

But it doesn't follow that today's disabled children are less deserving of government assistance simply because yesterday's program designers, for whatever reason, drafted and implemented a definition of "disabled" limited largely to the mentally challenged and physically immobile. By that reasoning, domestic and farm workers, who were excluded from Social Security in 1935, shouldn't be permitted to participate in Social Security today.

Burkhauser and Daly report that today's definitions are more subjective than yesterday's, but the value judgments about the qualifications of today's recipients are Winship's, and he was wrong to cite their work as his source for them.

Winship's analysis boils down to his desire to supplant today's standards, subjective or not, with his own subjective judgments. "I prefer keeping SSI a program for families whose disabled children require intense demands on their time and create large expenses." All right, Scott: Now define "intense" and "large," and be prepared to back up your definitions with empirical data.

Winship further tries to make his point about the proliferation of undeserving child-disability recipients by comparing their number with that of children benefiting from the government welfare program known as TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. TANF was sharply cut back during the Clinton years in comparison with its predecessor relief program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Among other changes, a work requirement for parents and a limit of five years of assistance were imposed. 

Winship observes that since that time, the ratio of children on SSI disability versus those on TANF has increased sharply. He shows this via the graph on the left in the accompanying illustration.

But this doesn't show that the disability rolls are overrun by undeserving children. When you compare one trend with another, a change in the ratio can result from a change in one, a change in the other, or a change in both. Sure enough, if we separate the two trends, as I did using Winship's source data to produce the chart on the right, we see what's happened: Disability rolls have increased, while TANF rolls have plummeted. No surprise there -- the explicit goal of the Clinton era reforms was to cut TANF enrollment. 

But to use this as proof that disability claims are excessive, one would have to assume that the TANF guidelines are rock-solid perfect -- that the program is serving exactly the right number of families, no more, no less. That's implausible, to say the least. In fact, the evidence is on the other side. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has documented, the number of families on TANF as a percentage of those in poverty has fallen from 68% in 1996, when the program was enacted, to 27% in 2010. Is that progress? You be the judge.

Finally, Winship repeats an assertion from his book chapter that "poverty rates among children have declined ... despite the fact that the AFDC/TANF rolls declined much more than the SSI rolls increased."

A few things about this claim, for which Winship cites a study from Columbia University as his source. Once again, his source doesn't say what he implies.

What the study measures is the effect of a large number of government anti-poverty programs -- not only TANF and SSI, but food stamps, the earned income tax credit, post-2008 stimulus funds, housing and energy assistance, school lunches and more. What it shows is that these programs do indeed reduce the child poverty rate under normal economic conditions; but even their combined effects don't keep the rate from rising during severe downturns -- in fact, the rate rose during the Great Recession under both the Columbia measure and the standard U.S. census measure, as is shown in the graphic at the top of this column. 

What Winship doesn't ask, but we should, is what would happen to child poverty if all those programs were eliminated or cut back -- say by replacing them with a "voucher" system allowing parents to "fund ... investments in their human capital," which Winship advocates.  

"Private providers would then compete for the vouchers and be subject to rigorous evaluation," he proposes as a conservative low-income program nirvana.

Oh, sure. Privatize assistance to low-income families. That'll work. We know what will happen, because we've seen how private initiative coupled with "rigorous" oversight works in other industries -- in oil it's given us the Deepwater Horizon; in chemicals the Charleston, W.Va., disaster; in education an unending stream of profit-making college ripoffs and government handouts to creationist mountebanks.

As is usually the case with such proposals, Winship's "compassion" is reserved for privatizers and profiteers, and those undeserving needy are cannon fodder.

Winship says that the only thing keeping me from seeing the light as he does is my own "righteous indignation." Well, no. It's an examination of the actual numbers, and a recognition that what underlies his "solid evidence" is pure ideology.

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