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Shawn Vestal: Shrinking safety net doesn’t mean shrinking poverty

Fri., Dec. 27, 2013

What do you call a safety net that shrinks when it’s needed most?

If you’re a certain kind of thinker, you call it victory.

The state recently announced that caseloads for cash-assistance welfare had dropped to their lowest levels in at least 14 years. Maybe their lowest levels ever.

This is a strange bit of news, given the inarguable economic realities of recent years. Does it suggest that things are better for the poor than we thought? Does it hint that the much-ballyhooed strip club and casino fraud eradication slashed the caseloads? Does it tell us that the work requirements are moving people toward self-sufficiency? Or that the economy is getting better?

All of the above arguments have been made. Legislative Republicans, in particular, argued that this number was super news: Because fewer people were getting help, it meant the people “who really needed it” were getting help; some argued it was evidence that people were moving off WorkFirst and into the workforce.

The truth is probably more complicated than any single answer, but if there’s a good candidate, it’s none of the above. The welfare numbers reflect nothing so much as a simple reality: When you cut a program, it gets smaller.

Washington’s WorkFirst program administers funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. This cash-assistance welfare has been a political target for years and years; under President Bill Clinton, work requirements and a five-year cap on benefits were part of a welfare reform bill. That drove people off welfare by the thousands. In Washington, the number of WorkFirst cases dropped from a high of more than 100,000 to just below 50,000 by 2007.

Then the recession hit, and caseloads in Washington rose to more than 70,000.

How we got from there to here is an interesting story – but not, despite everyone’s head-scratching, a very complicated one.

The state’s budget shortfalls, combined with the never-tax superminority control in the Legislature, made all-cuts budgets the rule of the day. WorkFirst payments were shrunk – the $478 a month for a family of three is 41 percent smaller than the benefit in 1996, adjusted for inflation. The eligibility limit was lowered. Extensions on the five-year cap were largely eliminated.

And – voila! – caseloads plummeted.

In January 2011, right before the changes took effect, there were 70,331 WorkFirst caseloads in Washington, according to the Department of Social and Health Services.

By July 2011, this had dropped to 57,512 – a reduction of 18 percent. In the Eastern Washington region, caseloads dropped from 6,755 to 5,240, or 23 percent.

Did 13,000 people suddenly get jobs? Did 13,000 moochers and cheaters finally get the boot? Well, more people did find work in that year – around 42,000 more people were employed in January 2012 than January 2011, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

But there are a ton of reasons to be very wary of that correlation. Try this one: The statewide poverty rate is the same now – at more than 13 percent – as it was in 2010. Or this: In the time since the welfare caseloads dropped, food stamp caseloads rose by about 45,000, according to a Seattle Times report.

Or how about this: The state Department of Social and Health Services interviews people who leave the WorkFirst program about their reasons for doing so. In recent years, 54 percent to 60 percent of those leaving are doing so because they’ve begun earning income or otherwise are “exiting for self-sufficiency.”

In other words, all the rest of those people are exiting the program for reasons other than going off to participate in the workforce.

But in the month immediately after the program cuts took effect in 2011, what happened in the exit interviews was illuminating: The percentage of those who said they were leaving the program for reasons of newfound self-sufficiency plunged.

The number of WorkFirst “exits” quadrupled in January 2011, and the percentage exiting for self-sufficiency sank to 27 percent.

So, one might think it seems kind of obvious what happened there. In the subsequent years, welfare rolls have continued to shrink, reaching the recent historical low of around 43,000 families this fall.

Some people, naturally, celebrate any reduction in help for the poor. But it’s spurious to argue that this figure tells us they are no longer poor.

The truth is that we are cutting a program that’s already insufficient to providing for the most vulnerable people in the state: the children of poor families.

In 2009, 40 of every 100 children in Washington living below the federal poverty line were receiving welfare benefits, according to the liberal Washington State Budget and Policy Center.

In 2012, that number dropped to 28.

Funny kind of victory.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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