The Case for Welfare
June 23, 2014 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Can someone help me find well-researched academic or think tank articles that challenge the position that current US welfare spending is a disincentive to work? I am specifically asking about debate over actual real levels of benefits in various states in the USA, not other countries or welfare as an abstract ideal. I'm looking something that engages with the basic argument of this CATO whitepaper.

The numbers CATO gives don't line up with the experiences of people I know who have received welfare benefits, for instance they claim that the total welfare benefits in Massachusetts are equivalent to a pre-tax salary of over $50,000. However, my disbelief is only anecdotal data based on a limited number of my friends' experiences. Where can I find a systematic analysis?
posted by Wretch729 to Law & Government (9 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend perusing Brookings' Center on Children and Families website, if you haven't already. While I'm not sure that they've done a system-level analysis of welfare benefits and their salary equivalency, they do engage with the argument in that Cato whitepaper quite a bit, and could help you shape your perspective on this topic.

Later today I might be able to find some specific articles for you, but hopefully this lead will help you a bit.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:11 AM on June 23, 2014

Ending Welfare as We Know It by Ken Weaver (published by the Brookings Institution) is the most in-depth and clear book about welfare I've read, and I've read *a lot.* It's focused on Clinton-era welfare reform, but since that launched "workfare" and changed much of the funding to block grants to the states instead of federal entitlements to individuals, it is still very relevant to how welfare works today.

Another problem is that a lot of "welfare" spending today is through the tax system, and for people of lower incomes, specifically through the EITC. Since people of all incomes as well as corporations deal with the tax system, calculating things like "total welfare benefits" (for people of any income) is not a cut-and-dried issue.

There are also a lot of other problems that make this less cut-and-dried as it would probably seem, such as place-based rather than people-based services (so that someone living in an urban area of concentrated poverty might have access to more place-based services than someone of a similar income living in a suburban area with just pockets of poverty, but at the same time, the person in concentrated poverty is likely to have less access to jobs and other ways of increasing income or getting out of poverty. That's just a really vague example, but that's just to say that the "total welfare benefits" someone receives isn't necessarily an absolute measure and there's a degree of arbitrariness involved. Which is in some ways hindered and some ways helped by the refusal to take cost-of-living into account when calculating the poverty line, etc).

In general, Brookings is a think tank that does a lot of work on this, and that's the think tank I would go to for domestic poverty issues. The University of Michigan and its National Poverty Center is probably the top place to find academic work. If you would like links to specific articles about poverty, please feel free to memail me.

The ACA and Medicaid expansion is also likely to have complicated some of the figures used, but since that is still so recent, finding papers, let alone books, that take those figures into account might not be easy at the moment.
posted by rue72 at 10:17 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know whether this fits your analytic requirements, but I do recommend Jason DeParle's book American Dream, which was written as a case history of several single parent families during the national debate on welfare in the 90s.
posted by janey47 at 10:18 AM on June 23, 2014

Best answer: There's so much intellectual dishonesty coming from the Cato Institute when it comes to discussing anything to do with social welfare that it can be difficult to unpack. They always start off using highly suspect assumptions and hypothesize wildly from there, obfuscating merrily along the way. A lot of their talking points barely need to be analyzed at all in order to be proven as patently false.

First and foremost, Cato's report was written under the assumption that every family who receives welfare benefits is receiving and will continue to receive literally every single benefit that could possibly be made available to them, indefinitely, which is very far from the truth -- just as an example, the overwhelming majority of families receiving TANF (cash assistance that has a lifetime limit) do not receive any housing benefits at all (cite, PDF). In addition, many benefits require would-be recipients to provide documentation ascertaining they have either been working, training for a job, or otherwise actively seeking employment for 20 to 30 hours per week for the duration, while others -- Section 8, for one -- have years-long waiting lists. Cato also counts Medicaid premiums as a cash benefit.

Check out these point-by-point rebuttals for a closer look: Life on Welfare: Cato Gets It Very Wrong; No, Cato, Welfare Doesn't Pay More Than Minimum Wage; and a detailed look at how Cato's data proves the opposite of what they're attempting to prove, using Florida as a template.
posted by divined by radio at 10:49 AM on June 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

This paper [PDF] talks about unemployment benefits, not TANF, but I think is relevant. It shows that more generous unemployment benefits do not discourage job search, in fact those with more generous benefits actually search more intensively. Worth noting: The measure of job search intensity is based on audit, not self-report (so they called the employers to make sure person X applied for the job) and second the generosity of benefits measure actually compares people in the same state who earned the same in their jobs but got different benefit amounts. Because benefit amounts are based on the timing of earnings, not just their amount, people who earned the same before becoming unemployed can actually get different benefit amounts. So this is better than comparing state-by-state (because other things vary across states), and better than just looking at absolute benefits (because people who earn different amounts are different in other ways.

So no, giving people more money does not make them not want to work.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:55 AM on June 23, 2014
posted by goethean at 11:03 AM on June 23, 2014

If researchers have monetized heath care as a benefit 1) That's a lot of money and 2) ACA changed that some and there hasn't been enough time for new research to come out.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2014

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