The New York Times ran a front-page story today about the failure of the welfare rolls to increase even as the economy tanks. It's by Jason DeParle, who covered welfare reform for the Times in the 1990s, and wrote the best book there is on the subject: American Dream, and I think he got it just about right. There are some states with significant percentage increases in their caseloads, to be sure, but the base is so low at this point that the absolute numbers of new cases is pretty small. And the two states with the highest unemployment rates -- Michigan and Rhode Island -- have experienced large decreases in the number of families receiving welfare. Frankly, it scares me.
The article is currently #9 on the Times list of most emailed articles, and it received 171 comments on their website before the Times cut it off. (I didn't know that the Times cut off comments on their articles... I wonder if this is based on a time limit, a number of comments, or a subjective judgment of the quality of the discussion. Actually, the comments are far more balanced and reasonable than I would have guessed.)
As the article notes, there are some provisions in the recovery bill that provide incentives to states to let more people receive assistance. So far, they haven't received much attention, and that's probably a good thing politically. They're pretty small dollars in the scheme of the bill (although I'd have said the same thing about the family planning provisions, and that didn't protect them). I think it's really key that Ron Haskins, who was the lead Republican staffer for the Ways and Means Committee during welfare reform, was willing to be quoted in the article that he thinks caseloads ought to be rising:
Even some of the program’s staunchest defenders are alarmed.
“There is ample reason to be concerned here,” said Ron Haskins, a former Republican Congressional aide who helped write the 1996 law overhauling the welfare system. “The overall structure is not working the way it was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare.”
“When we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people starve,’ ” said Mr. Haskins, who is now a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on the rolls.”
That provides a LOT of political cover to Republicans who don't want to do anything that can be seen as undoing welfare reform.
That said, I don't think it helps things when progressives refer to the bailout as "corporate welfare." I think the term inherently suggests that welfare is a bad thing.