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Money for nothing

I had the same reaction to that New York Times story on welfare as Peter did, but he beat me to it.

But one other thing struck me:

However, a report released in August by the left-leaning Urban Institute in Washington said that as many as one in seven families who left welfare from 2000 through 2002 had no work, no spousal support and no other government benefits.
I knew immediately that this was false, so I went to check it out. As far as I can tell, the study the reporter, Leslie Kaufman, is talking about is this one, and her statements are false.

What the study actually said was this:

About one in seven adults who left welfare recently is disconnected from both the labor market and the welfare system—that is, not working, without a working spouse, and not receiving welfare or disability benefits.
What's the difference? Through sleight-of-hand or ignorance, Kaufman turns "welfare or disability" into "government benefits." In fact, they're not the same thing at all. "Welfare," as commonly defined (somewhat misleadingly) and as used by the Urban Institute, refers only to the direct cash payments to impoverished individuals -- the program formerly known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) and now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

But that certainly isn't the same thing as "government benefits," as the Times article implicitly admits deeply buried in paragraph eighteen. These families are still eligible for and receiving benefits such as food stamps and subsidized housing, not to mention Medicaid, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), the FCC's Universal Service Program, free school breakfasts and lunches, and scores of other government welfare programs.

Moreover, there's another smaller bit of misleading language in the article; when it says these families receive "no spousal support," we're led to think that these people are all poor unwed mothers with no assistance in raising their kids. In fact, though, as the Urban Institute report says, "Some families do receive child support." (The trick is the word "spouse." Unmarried parents who contribute to household income aren't included.)

I don't know that Kaufman was being deliberately dishonest, but if not, that's a pretty poorly written article. Clearly, the beginning of the article speaks in generalities while the end provides details -- as reporters are trained to do. But in this case, the details don't merely provide more specific information; they actually contradict the generalities. It's important to understand, in a public policy discussion, that TANF is only one portion of government welfare benefits, and that families who don't receive the former may still receive significant amounts of the latter. If Kaufman did understand that, then she was dishonest; if she didn't, then she's not qualified to be writing about the subject.

(On the other hand, credit where credit is due. Kaufman did describe the organization as the "left-leaning Urban Institute," rather than pretending, as Paul Krugman so often does, that "nonpartisan" and "unbiased" mean the same thing.)


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Comments (1)

When unemployed women who've lost welfare benefits are interviewed, they typically say they're relying more on support (including housing and food) from their boyfriend, ex-boyfriend (father of kids), family and friends. That doesn't strike me as a bad thing.


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