This will be a long rant which I hope will be theraputic, but it isn't likely to be worth your time to read.
When Ed Kilgore replaced Steve Benen at Political Animal (update: see ironic update below search for Benen), I was very suspicious that he couldn't be a progressive, since he had worked at the Progressive Policy Institute. Until now, I have been pleasantly surprised. He seems very reasonable and writes well. But some people just can't let old debates go. I am one of those people and I hope I am calmed down enough to write about his recent post on, among other things, welfare reform.
As far as I can tell, Kilgore's main point is that redebating welfare reform would be bad political strategy. Paul Ryan is claiming his unspeakable budget is Welfare Reform II. His opponents must decide whether to note this is totally untrue or to denounce Welfare Reform I. Also, Democrats of different orientations can work together to defeat Republicans and going back to our old quarrels is volunteering for the circular firing squad. I feel free to ignore political strategy here, since almost no one reads this blog. Therefore, I feel free to note that I think Kilgore is unwilling to deal with evidence rationally. I think that he is so emotionally committed to welfare reform that noting its horrible effects is like insulting his mother.
I will first try to list all of the things which infuriate me about this post, then discuss them.
1) He attacks the motives of the people with whom he debates claiming we are determined to "grind old axes." The possibility that a description of deep poverty is motivated by oppositoin to deep poverty is not mentioned.
2) He mixes a discussion of the evidence and of political strategy. I agree with Kilgore that the Democratic party is not helped by progressives denouncing welfare reform. The reform is so popular that it is bad political strategy to note the evidence that it has had damaging consequences. But Kilgore should let wonks be wonks. He discusses the political strategy of people who claim to be non-partisan analysts. This is a very common tick among Democratic centrists -- they shift back and forth between discussing which claims are supported by the evidence and discussing which claims are supported by the median voter. Kilgore denounces people who note facts based on the claim (with which I agree) that most US voters will refuse to face those facts and punish the party which notes them.
3) He asserts that the expansion of the EITC was part of welfare reform. This is simply false. His description of welfare reform does not correspond to the bill signed into law by Clinton.
4) He cherry picks statistics. He notes improvements in the situation of the average single mother. This is what one would expect given the increase in the fraction of births out of wedlock. Single mothers are less selected by disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a simple point which he must understand. See an earlier rant about other people who pulled this trick here.
OK down to detail
It is entirely unsurprising that Paul Ryan and his many supporters have been advertising the massive safety net cuts and wholesale abandonments of the poor that make the bulk of the spending “savings” in his budget proposal as the greatest thing since the Clinton-era welfare reform legislation. What is surprising is that some progressives seem to be going along with the characterization in order to grind some old axes about the 1996 act.
There was a big Sunday New York Times piece by Jason DeParle
Given the context, it is an understatement to say that Kilgore very strongly suggests that DeParle's aim is to grind some old axes (it isn't logically implied but it is the normal inference). DeParle wrote a long article full of data. Kilgore speculates about his motives to denounce him for noting inconvenient facts. I think this rhetorical trick should always be denounced.
There was a big Sunday New York Times piece by Jason DeParle conflating the plight of “the poor” with those of the single unwed mothers affected by state-level reductions in cash assistance under the TANF program
I read the DeParle's argument with some care and noticed no such conflation. Kilgore presents no evidence for his claim.
DeParle does indeed document some dreadful state practices (notably in Arizona),
Notice how quickly Kilgore slides over the dreadful state practices. They were made possible by the welfare reform which gave states enormous power to do whatever they pleased with their welfare block grants. Changing programs to block grants is a major feature of the Ryan horror, so this fact is very relevant to the current debate. I think it is clear that Kilgore disapproves ("grinding axes") because it is criticism of welfare reform, not because he has any response to the criticism.
even as he acknowledges that despite the recession more single unwed mothers are able to work than before 1996, and have lower poverty rates.
This is an appalling abuse of statistics for two reasons. First, as noted above, single unwed mothers are different not just because of welfare reform. The comparison is not informative. Second, there is the monomaniacal focus on the poverty rate. This would make sense if all incomes below the poverty line were equally bad, that is it makes no sense. It is a horrible thing to do when discussing welfare reform, because AFDC and TANF benefits are designed to convert deep poverty (income below half the poverty line) to ordinary poverty. Kilgore's point is valid to the extent that an income of $15,000 is just as bad as an income of 1,500. It is very very common to look at the poverty rate as a measure of suffering due to poverty, but it is always simplistic. In a discussion of welfare reform it is utter nonsense. I don't think anyone familiar with the issues could make such a howling error in good faith.
But by overstating the importance of TANF in the post-reform safety net scheme, and giving critics of the original law a new soapbox for claiming vindication, DeParle’s piece is not only misleading, but understates the potential damage Ryan’s proposal could inflict.
Here an accurate account of important facts (people suffering severely) is considered as rhetoric. DeParle doesn't state anything about the potential damage Ryan's proposal could inflict. Kilgore does not accept that there is anything but political strategy. Accurate statements of fact are interpreted as contributions to the policy debate even when the author who is being travestied and insulted draws no such inference.
Kilgore also conflates dollars spent (very few on TANF) with suffering prevented. It is no comfort the the people described by DeParle that other people have section 8 housing vouchers (one in four poor people do) even though a lot is spent on the program. Similarly the deeply poor don't benefit from the EITC much at all (having little earned income). Kilgore clearly infers that TANF is unimportant, because very few dollars are involved. But many people desperately need those few dollars.
Kilgore just asserts that DeParle's piece is misleading. He presents no evidence for the claim. Apparently it should just be assumed that critics of welfare reform are wrong so "giving critics of the original law a new soapbox for claiming vindication" must be misleading. This is how ideology reacts to evidence.
Indeed, the biggest problem with the “welfare reform has failed” narrative, and with treating the Ryan budget as a logical extension of welfare reform, is that it ignores one of the main purposes of the 1996 act was to make other elements of the safety net, some work-conditional and others simply much better targeted, more central, even as they were significantly strengthened.
I assert that this claim is false. Kilgore does not quote from the law. He just claims that other elements of the safety net were strengthened by the law. I claim that his claim about historical fact is absolutely inaccurate. I challenge Kilgore to present evidence in support of his claim. I think he is making up facts which please him.
He cites Elain Karmack making a similar claim. I have denounced her post already. I note that the quoted passage includes no evidence.
Further down he gets more specific. He is demonstrably totally wrong, ignorant and unqualified to engage in the debate.
TANF costs and caseloads were intended to go down in no small part because the other safety net programs, along with the extremely important earned income tax credit (EITC) were intended to pick up the slack.
This is utter anti historical nonsense ! Kilgore does not know what he is writing about ! The EITC was expanded in 1993 as part of the Clinton tax increase bill. The EITC expansion passed with zero Republican votes. It preceded welfare reform. If Clinton had continued to veto welfare reform bills, then there would have been the EITC expansion but not welfare reform (until Republicans had the White House, the House and a filibuster proof majority in the Senate which would probably have happened). Kilgore is totally ignorant and utterly wrong about policy. His main point is that welfare reform was not just cutting and block granting but also included an expansion of the EITC. This is absolutely 100% false. Kilgore demonstrates his utter ignorance of the law he chose to debate. He is not qualified to debate welfare reform, because he is not willing to check the facts (in the Congressional Record).
I am sure that Kilgore will be forced to note the problem that 1993<1996. I am sure he will argue that it doesn't matter and stick to his conclusion which is fundamentally based on an incorrect recollection of the basic facts. I am sure he is incapable of debating welfare reform ratoinally, because he is emotionally attacked to it and because he is reluctant to consider his role in helping to cause extreme poverty and suffering.
He concedes that Ezra Klein is right that states have poached from the welfare budget to fund general programs (he has too Klein presents proof). I'm not sure if he thinks that Klein is grinding old axes (not plausible given Klein's age).
But then back to strategy. Kilgore concludes with a statement about political strategy with which I entirely agree
Progressives would be well advised to put aside ex post facto wrangling over what happened in 1996 and make it abundantly clear that whether you think welfare reform was good, bad, or a mixed bag, what’s underway right now is very different and unambiguously a travesty.
My problem is that he recognizes no role for progressives" except political strategy. Evidently, progressive social scientists can't study facts which displease the median voter.
I ask Kilgore, do you mean to say that progressive economists must not study TANF and deep poverty, because that is counter to the interests of the party ?
This combination of inept argument about reality followed by a switch to a discussion of political strategy is typical of Democratic centrists. Kilgore, in particular, is so grossly ignorant of history that he can't make the shred of a hint of a half decent argument about policy and its consequences. But he knows that most US adults agree with him (and are even more ignorant). So, he argues, the facts don't matter, or rather that mentioning them is objectively pro-Republican wonking.
This is weird. Steve Benen himself approvingly linked to the Kilgore post which made me reconsider my acceptance of the idea of Kilgore replacing Benen at Political Animal. I blasted him in comments.
This is strange. It is as if 1996 and 1993 are ancient history and the claim that something which happened in 1993 happened in 1996 isn't obviously wrong. In other words, I am old. Reminding me of my age is not the way to ease me impulse to rant.
The sensible refutation of Ryan's claim that welfare reform worked in the late 90 s is that everything and the opposite of everything worked in the late 90s. Welfare is still reformed and reformed welfare is not working (click the links in Kilgore's post).
I hate to agree with Ryan about anything, but Kilgore's version of history is absolutely innaccurate. Kilgore claimed that the1993 expansion of the EITC was an "important" part of the 1996 welfare reform. I note that 1993<1996. Kilgore's post on welfare reform is based on an "important" claim of fact which is also totally incorrect.
Since you linked to the post, you should update this post to note the gross error of fact in post to which you linked.
By theway, when I pointed out Kilgores error to him, the person who was deputy assistant secretary of the treasury when the EITC was expanded replied "ouch" and note that the expansion which was not part of welfare reform, was included to ameliorate the distributional impact of the BTU tax (which was replaced by a 4.7 cent a gallon gas tax in the final 1993 "recovery act" bill which increased the EITC and which was not welfare reform).
Kilgore disapproves of progressives who are playing into Ryan's hands by reporting facts damaging to the case for welfare reform. I actually agree that egalitarianism is harmed by noting the facts which make it hard for most Americans (who love welfare reform) to agree with reality based wonks. I just think that journalists should place accuracy above serving the Democratic party. Anyway, Kilgore
has a right to his own opinion but not to his own facts. His claim that Ryan's proposal is not at all like welfare reform rests on a false claim about recent history. posted by Robert
permalink and comments2:21 AM
Thank you for this. I actually do want to fight this fight again, not because of political strategy, but because it was the wrong social policy, and still is. I have never forgiven Bill Clinton for welfare reform. It was entirely predictable (and predicted) that the reform would be a disaster in the next recession/depression, and voila.
I believe the only significant federal addition to the social safety net since TANF is the SCHIP program. A good thing, but medical care will not clothe and house the children.