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OC Register Keeping the myth of Reagan’s Welfare Queen alive

food-stampThe Orange County Register’s klatch of libertarian blowhards is at it again. In a Sunday editorial they use a misleading Cato Institute “study” to keep the myth of Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen alive. The study claims that; “welfare pays more than the type of entry-level job that a typical welfare recipient can expect to find.”

If that sounds sensational and unrealistic to you, your sense of reality is intact. If not, then you’re the demo the Cato Institute and OC Register are trying to appease.

To reach its conclusions the study assumes that their typical benefit recipient receives the maximum possible benefit from all possible benefit programs. This is of course, not even remotely the norm and the study authors even admit so.

“Many welfare recipients, even those receiving the highest level of benefits, are doing everything they can to find employment and leave the welfare system.”

But that doesn’t stop the Register’s editorial writers from citing the report as the basis for their screed attacking public assistance programs.
A report this week by the libertarian Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes revealed that, when factoring in all the various public benefits available to low-income individuals, 35 states make it more lucrative to be a welfare recipient than to be employed in a minimum-wage job. Even when those benefits are slightly lower, it should be noted, the incentives remain perverse: Why work for minimum wage, after all, when you could get 95 percent of the income while doing nothing?

Unsurprisingly, California is among the offending states. According to the study, an individual who was utilizing every available benefit offered by the Golden State would be bringing in the equivalent of a $17.87 hourly wage, a figure that adds up to 96.5 percent of the state’s median salary. Under that math, the suckers are the ones going to work for a living.

The only “suckers” are the people who believe what these folks write.

Bill Moyers points out the flaws of the Cato study in his commentary on the topic.

Not every welfare recipient fits the profile used in this study, and many who do fit it do not receive every benefit listed. Running the numbers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Tanner and Hughes claim that “the current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincen­tive for work” and urge lawmakers to “consider ways to shrink the gap between the value of welfare and work by reducing current benefit levels and tighten­ing eligibility requirements.”

Tanner and Hughes acknowledge that “surveys of welfare recipients consistently show their desire for a job.” They acknowledge that a significant share of those receiving public benefits are working – Walmart employees, for example, famously rely on public assistance to get by, meaning that taxpayers effectively subsidize the Walton family’s vast fortunes. And they note that programs like TANF are time-limited – to a maximum of 60 months except in most cases.

They also acknowledge the central flaw in their conclusion: in real life the “typical” family in their study doesn’t come close to receiving the maximum benefit from every single program for which they’re eligible. But here the authors’ caveat doesn’t go far enough. Due largely to the fact that eligibility requirements have already become harder to overcome, these programs are helping fewer poor families get by.

So a study that claims to tell us about the “typical” poor family is really describing a rarity — the equivalent of a four-leaf clover. But the purpose of these studies isn’t to inform good policy making. They feed a narrative that the poor are lazy and undeserving, and provide wonky cover for further weakening our social safety net. When studies like this one are picked up by the conservative media, all of the authors’ caveats tend to be stripped away, and they become straightforward claims that poor families sit back enjoying a good life, forcing overburdened tax-payers to pick up the tab.

What the study does offer is something that the authors seemingly never intended. The study points out the reality that the federal minimum wage, and even California’s minimum wage, is far too low. If we were to accept the false premise that “welfare” pays more than minimum wage, then the answer is not to lower public assistance benefits. The answer is to raise the minimum wage above the poverty level. The answer is to keep minimum wage in line with the annual increases in the cost of living.

welfare-queenEarly last week, published a story in their section; In plain sight: Poverty in America titled ‘People think everyone who is poor gets welfare, and it’s just not true’; How the myth of the welfare queen died. The story points out the reality of poverty in America, and it looks nothing like the picture the Cato Institute study paints.

Two decades after President Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” — and nearly four decades since President Ronald Reagan repeatedly derided the “welfare queen” while on the 1976 presidential campaign trail — far fewer families are receiving cash and voucher assistance, and a larger share of less educated single moms are working.

About 1.72 million families received direct assistance during an average month in 2012 through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to the latest data from the federal government’s Office of Family Assistance. That’s about half the 3.94 million families who received TANF in 1997, according to an Urban Institute report funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition, about 62 percent of never-married moms ages 20 to 49 with a high school degree or less were working in 2011, according to an analysis of Current Population Survey data prepared by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. That’s up from about 51 percent in 1992, but down from 76 percent in 2000, before two recessions hit low-skill workers hard.

The myth of people living high on government benefits is just that, a myth. But when the chips are down, and the facts don’t support their arguments, leave it to the editorial writers at the Orange County Register to dig up a study that distorts reality to revive the dead myth of Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen.