There’s an old saying among cynics in the context of discussions regarding controversial public policy initiatives: ‘there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics,’ meaning, data can be used, misused or manipulated to support one’s argument with disturbing regularity. When the subject is baseball, and the debate centers on the identity of the best hitters of all time, the level of importance is clearly minimal. When the subject turns to economics and welfare reform, however, the use of data can lead to phenomenally misleading and divergent conclusions, depending upon one’s personal political agenda, with serious consequences for those the welfare laws purport to help. When then-President William J. Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 into law, it represented the most far-reaching and bipartisan effort at government reform in many years. It remains, however, very contentious among many liberals, who contend that millions of Americans living demonstrably below the poverty level were unfairly removed from the welfare rolls, thereby exacerbating the problem of poverty in the United States. Journalist Ezra Klein has argued that welfare reform has only worked if one’s measure of success is a decline in the number of American poor actually receiving federal assistance. If one’s measure of success is the elevation of poor families out of poverty, however, then, according to Klein, the 1996 law has been a failure. [See:http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/post/is-welfare-reform-working/2011/08/12/gIQA0AczYJ_blog.html]
On the other side of that argument is journalist Megan McCardle, who, in an article in The Atlantic, rebuts Klein’s assertions, and his use of statistics, by arguing that pre-1996 welfare programs discouraged people from seeking employment and that the Personal Responsibility legislation actually succeeded in removing from welfare rolls individuals capable of finding employment, and that current statistics indicate fewer families on welfare because the adults did find jobs. As McCardle suggests in her article:
“This looks like a modest but real success to me at weaning families from welfare dependency. Even at the nadir of the worst recession in eighty years, the percentage of families in poverty--as well as the percentage of families on TANF--was below pre-reform levels. Unless you really think that these families would be better off spending the rest of their lives on the dole, this seems like a real achievement.” [See “Did Welfare Reform Work,” The Atlantic, August 23, 2011]
Now, two of the questions that makes resolution of this debate exceedingly difficult is whether the poverty line is accurate, a somewhat subjective matter, and whether the removal of many families from the welfare rolls subsequent to the 1996 law’s passage was fair, or unfairly left those families destitute. Because so many analysts and commentators who have addressed this issue bring ideological biases, on both sides of the political divide, it is nearly impossible for a student dependent upon such analyses to arrive at a responsible conclusion. Below is a link to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website page showing graphs and providing statistics on the numbers of Americans receiving welfare, as well as unemployment and medical assistance. Because the graphs cover over one hundred years of the nation’s history, the data is of marginal utility at best. Such numbers tell us little or nothing regarding the circumstances prevalent during any given period. We can see huge spikes associated with the New Deal programs of the 1930s (i.e., the era of the Great Depression), and the Great Society programs of the 1960s, but we can’t tell from that data what effects the 1996 law has had because of the recession of 2007-08. In short, statistics post-1996 largely indicate that fewer Americans were on welfare until the most recent economic collapse, but don’t really tell us whether that decline represented an improvement in the quality of lives of families no longer receiving welfare benefits. We really just don’t know. Add to the mix debates over raising the minimum wage and the picture gets murkier still. Whether block grants for “temporary assistance for needy families” have been successful, and whether changes to food stamp eligibility has left families hungry is uncertain. One part of the 1996 law that certainly seems to have been at least somewhat successful were the sections dealing with child care, protection, and nutrition (Titles V, VI, and VIII). Increased attention to the needs of children from low-income families has certainly helped many such families, especially the free breakfast and lunch programs offered at many public schools. If one were to judge the 1996 law on that basis alone, then one could conclude that the law succeeded.