Commentary Magazine


Topic: welfare reform

Walker’s Drug Test Move Is a Mistake

During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

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During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

Walker’s plans are, as the Wall Street Journal reported today, part of a series of similar moves by Republican governors across the nation seeking to create a new wave of welfare-reform measures to help people rise above poverty while also providing accountability for the taxpayers. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has already tightened restrictions on assistance and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whom some also see as a potential presidential candidate even though he seems far less eager than Walker, wants Medicaid recipients to give back some of what they get to the state as a condition for their participation.

All of these ideas are, in theory, quite reasonable. Requiring people to stay off drugs while they are seeking work or getting extra assistance makes sense. The worst aspect of the welfare state is the way it subsidizes and even encourages destructive behavior. It’s also usually good politics since most citizens think of welfare as a privilege rather than a right and believe those who get it should give up a bit of their right to misbehave since such activities are, almost by definition, being conducted on the public’s money.

But Walker, who has to this point moved steadily if not flawlessly from a Milwaukee county executive unknown outside of his state to the status of a conservative folk hero on the strength of his epic fight with public employee unions and their Democratic allies, should rethink any emphasis on this issue if he really wants to run for president. This is not because he’s wrong—he’s not—but because what works politically when you’re running for governor can come across very differently when the presidency is the goal.

The problem with drug testing is twofold. The first is the legal obstacle to implementing such measures. Federal laws about such tests are fairly clear and have consistently been upheld by the courts. While states have rightly sought to gain the right to carry out assistance plans according to their own lights rather than being forced to follow rules designed by out-of-touch D.C. bureaucrats, such battles tend to end in the same way. While the fight for drug testing goes on all across the nations, the legal battles this idea has engendered don’t usually end well for conservatives.

Either the states give up and concede that this isn’t a fight they can win or they are slam dunked by the courts.

But the problem goes further than legal technicalities. Though the issue polls and often tests well at the local or statewide ballot box for conservatives, running for the presidency on the strength of denying aid to poor people may be a different story. The reason why these laws are usually overturned by judges is that they presuppose guilt in a manner that singles out the needy for treatment not afforded other Americans. Drug testing may be a good incentive to keep the poor out of trouble but it also can be portrayed as a form of discrimination. Even worse, it can be blamed for denying help to the poor, especially minorities.

Rightly or wrongly, this is a time when Americans are becoming more focused on racial issues because of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and the choking death of Eric Garner. That’s why Republican presidential candidates need to remember that the liberal press will interpret any move on their part that relates to large numbers of minorities as an excuse to justify tearing them apart.

The reason Walker has been so successful is that his conservative activism has focused on public-employee unions and their members who often receive better pay and far more benefits than ordinary citizens in the private sector get. Though the unions worked hard in three elections in four years to convince Wisconsin voters that Walker was a villain, he won each time because the object of his wrath was a class of people most citizens despise.

Walker has as good an argument to be made for his presidential candidacy as anyone else in the field including figures like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who have more establishment support but can’t rouse the enthusiasm of the Tea Party or the GOP base as Walker can. But that doesn’t mean he is immune to liberal efforts to smear him as a racist because of his welfare reform fight.

Welfare recipients aren’t terribly popular but measures that can be distorted to portray Walker as not only insensitive but responsible for taking away food stamps or unemployment from the poor won’t help elect him president. While welfare reform is the right thing to do, Walker and other Republicans should avoid picking fights with people who are far more sympathetic than union fat cats and their thuggish storm troops. This is a battle that he can’t win and will damage his political brand.

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Seeking the Welfare of the City

Representative Paul Ryan yesterday released a 73-page plan aimed at reforming anti-poverty programs and increasing social mobility.

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Representative Paul Ryan yesterday released a 73-page plan aimed at reforming anti-poverty programs and increasing social mobility.

The deficit-neutral plan would consolidate nearly a dozen federal anti-poverty programs into a single funding stream for states (called the “Opportunity Grant”); expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to childless workers; streamline federal grant, loan, and work-study programs and give more educational programs access to accreditation (thereby increasing more access to technical careers); revise the mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programing; and roll back “regressive regulations” that are particularly injurious to low-income people while easing licensing requirements to enter the workforce. Thoughtful analyses of Ryan’s plan can be found here, here, and here.

There are several features of Ryan’s “Expanding Opportunity in America” plan that are worth highlighting. The first is that his core reform requires and rewards work for those states that would opt in. It would do so by expanding one the best features of the 1996 welfare reform bill, in this case implementing work requirements for people receiving non-cash welfare assistance. States would have flexibility in terms of how they spend federal dollars, so long as it’s spent on programs that require work. This is a way for government to promote not simply work over idleness, but the dignity and self-sufficiency that often result from work.

Representative Ryan is also showing Republicans the importance of structural reforms, which are more important even than only cutting spending. (This applied to his Medicare reform proposals as well.) Mr. Ryan is demonstrating through his proposal that he wants to strengthen the social safety net, not undo it. And by supporting EITC, an effective federal program that promotes work and reduces poverty, Ryan is showing an empirical-minded rather than ideological approach to governing. He’s interested in championing what works.

I’m also encouraged by the fact that Ryan proposes reducing corporate welfare (such as subsidies for agriculture and energy). I’ve argued before that Republicans should be visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare–the vast network of subsidies and tax breaks extended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to wealthy and well-connected corporations–since such benefits undermine free markets and undercut the public’s confidence in American capitalism. “Ending corporate welfare as we know it” is a pretty good mantra for Republicans.

In the wider context of things, Ryan has shown that he is–along with Senators Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and others (including governors and former governors like Jeb Bush)–helping the GOP to be both conservative and constructive. They are able to present not just a governing vision but also a governing agenda–one that is designed to meet the challenges of this moment, this era, this century. This contrasts rather well, I think, with modern liberalism, which is increasingly reactionary and exhausted.

One other thing: Paul Ryan’s effort to combat poverty and increase social mobility is important and impressive because great parties and political movements will care about those in the shadows of society. “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you,” Jeremiah writes, “and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”

Politics involves many things, including rather mundane and even distasteful ones. But it also involves, at its best and at its highest, seeking the welfare of the city. That is something worthy of our attention and energies, as Paul Ryan and other prominent figures in the conservative movement understand.

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Ryan and Liberal Welfare-State Amnesia

At first it seemed like just a minor kerfuffle, the sort of thing that happens to every politician and soon fades away. Paul Ryan says something on a talk show. Liberals howl. Conservatives defend. And a couple of days later nobody even remembers what it was about. But now I’m convinced it’s about something bigger than the normal inside-baseball political fights. What’s at stake is an attempt to reinstate the old shibboleths that were the foundation of the liberal welfare state that was buried when President Bill Clinton said the era of big government was over and then signed a historic welfare reform act into law.

I’m referring, of course, to the dustup that ensued after the chair of the House Budget Committee said the following on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

That provoked the left to blast him as a racist using “dog whistle” politics in which “inner cities” means black. But as I pointed out on Friday, the faux outrage being ginned up against Ryan flew in the face of just about everything we had learned about the role that family breakdowns and cultural problems have played in creating and perpetuating poverty. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a recognition that one of the unintended consequences of the creation of the welfare state was the way it had produced a near-permanent underclass in our cities that no amount of government largesse seemed capable of ameliorating. As I noted last week, the backlash against Ryan seemed rooted in forgetting everything Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught us about the subject.

But rather than tailing off after a day as I anticipated, the assault on Ryan seems to be growing. In the last three days, we’ve seen a new round of attacks from even more prominent sources such as this hit piece from Politico Magazine and a 700-word-long rant from (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to call him) “former Enron advisor” Paul Krugman in the New York Times. Yet rather than this being a case of the left simply seeking to damage a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, what is going on is something much bigger. The discussion about “income inequality” was intended to change the subject from ObamaCare and to breathe some life into the lame-duck Obama presidency but it is now morphing into something far more ambitious: erasing the last half-century of debate about the problems of the welfare state.

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At first it seemed like just a minor kerfuffle, the sort of thing that happens to every politician and soon fades away. Paul Ryan says something on a talk show. Liberals howl. Conservatives defend. And a couple of days later nobody even remembers what it was about. But now I’m convinced it’s about something bigger than the normal inside-baseball political fights. What’s at stake is an attempt to reinstate the old shibboleths that were the foundation of the liberal welfare state that was buried when President Bill Clinton said the era of big government was over and then signed a historic welfare reform act into law.

I’m referring, of course, to the dustup that ensued after the chair of the House Budget Committee said the following on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

That provoked the left to blast him as a racist using “dog whistle” politics in which “inner cities” means black. But as I pointed out on Friday, the faux outrage being ginned up against Ryan flew in the face of just about everything we had learned about the role that family breakdowns and cultural problems have played in creating and perpetuating poverty. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a recognition that one of the unintended consequences of the creation of the welfare state was the way it had produced a near-permanent underclass in our cities that no amount of government largesse seemed capable of ameliorating. As I noted last week, the backlash against Ryan seemed rooted in forgetting everything Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught us about the subject.

But rather than tailing off after a day as I anticipated, the assault on Ryan seems to be growing. In the last three days, we’ve seen a new round of attacks from even more prominent sources such as this hit piece from Politico Magazine and a 700-word-long rant from (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to call him) “former Enron advisor” Paul Krugman in the New York Times. Yet rather than this being a case of the left simply seeking to damage a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, what is going on is something much bigger. The discussion about “income inequality” was intended to change the subject from ObamaCare and to breathe some life into the lame-duck Obama presidency but it is now morphing into something far more ambitious: erasing the last half-century of debate about the problems of the welfare state.

Ryan’s problem is not just that he tripped over the way some on the left have tried to turn the use of the phrase “inner cities” into a code word for racist incitement. The newly energized left wing of the Democratic Party wants something far bigger than to delegitimize the intellectual leader of the Republican congressional caucus. What they want is to take us back to those heady days of the 1960s before Moynihan’s report on the black family started to strip away the veneer of good intentions that defended government policies that hurt the poor far more than it helped them.

The point is, absent the buzz words about inner cities, you’d have to have spent the last 50 years trapped in some kind of time warp in order to think there was anything even vaguely controversial about the notion that cultural problems play a huge role in creating poverty. To his credit, Andrew Sullivan concedes as much when he defended Ryan from attacks by fellow liberals. Sullivan gets bogged down in a defense of Charles Murray’s seminal book Losing Ground and the question of various ethnic groups’ IQ numbers.

But the argument here is far more basic than such esoteric intellectual debates. The talk about income inequality isn’t only an attempt to associate Republicans with their traditional allies in big business and reposition Democrat elites as the friend of the working class. The goal of resurgent liberalism is also to reboot discussions about poverty in such a way as to ignore decades of research and debate about the ways in which dependency on the government breeds unemployment and multi-generational families mired in poverty.

That’s why the need for pushback on the slurs aimed at Ryan is so important. For decades, fear of telling the truth about the social pathologies bred by big government was assumed to be a permanent obstacle that would prevent change. The racism canard constituted the third rail of American politics that even reform-minded Republicans feared to touch. But by the ’90s, even many liberals understood the system was unsustainable. The passage of welfare reform was an acknowledgement on the part of Democrats that New Deal and Great Society liberalism had flaws that could no longer be ignored. But the shift left under Obama has given some liberals the belief that they can recreate the politics of the past and undo everything Moynihan and Clinton had done to change the national conversation about welfare and poverty. Instead of taking into account the way government policies create havoc for society and the poor, we may go back to the old liberal shibboleths that assume that throwing more money at a problem is the only solution and that the state can do no wrong.

What is at stake here is something far bigger than Paul Ryan’s political prospects. The future of generations of poor Americans trapped by government dependency hangs in the balance if the amnesia about the welfare state that is the foundation of the attacks on Ryan spread. Fair-minded Democrats who remember the cost to the country and to the poor, including so many minority families from an unrestrained welfare state, need to join with conservatives and restore some sanity as well as historical memory to this debate.

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The Left’s Race Dog Whistles

Some Republicans may be shocked and confused that Democrats are seizing on any mention of welfare or immigration or any other legitimate political issue that can be described as racism. They shouldn’t be. Democrats have been howling about “coded language” and “dog whistles” all year, as well as making race-based complaints about voter ID laws. But lately they have become less subtle as Vice President Joe Biden’s threat that Republicans want to “put y’all back in chains” to a mostly black audience indicated. The hysteria on the left on this point has become particularly intense this week, as the Republican National Convention has served as a convenient target for commentators like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews who have become nearly unhinged trying to prove that Republicans are appealing to racism.

But if anyone is determined to keep race on the minds of Americans it is the Democrats. The obsessive search for hidden racism in Republican rhetoric isn’t merely because, as Mickey Kaus noted today on his blog, they “simply have race on the brain.” It’s because waving the bloody shirt of the fight against segregation is their only way of recapturing the magic of 2008, in which Americans took pride in voting for Barack Obama because doing so was a way to take part in a historic achievement. After four years of presidential futility, it’s not possible to make voters buy into another round of “hope and change.” But it is still possible to make independents and wavering Democrats think voting Republican will undo the progress that Obama’s election signaled.

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Some Republicans may be shocked and confused that Democrats are seizing on any mention of welfare or immigration or any other legitimate political issue that can be described as racism. They shouldn’t be. Democrats have been howling about “coded language” and “dog whistles” all year, as well as making race-based complaints about voter ID laws. But lately they have become less subtle as Vice President Joe Biden’s threat that Republicans want to “put y’all back in chains” to a mostly black audience indicated. The hysteria on the left on this point has become particularly intense this week, as the Republican National Convention has served as a convenient target for commentators like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews who have become nearly unhinged trying to prove that Republicans are appealing to racism.

But if anyone is determined to keep race on the minds of Americans it is the Democrats. The obsessive search for hidden racism in Republican rhetoric isn’t merely because, as Mickey Kaus noted today on his blog, they “simply have race on the brain.” It’s because waving the bloody shirt of the fight against segregation is their only way of recapturing the magic of 2008, in which Americans took pride in voting for Barack Obama because doing so was a way to take part in a historic achievement. After four years of presidential futility, it’s not possible to make voters buy into another round of “hope and change.” But it is still possible to make independents and wavering Democrats think voting Republican will undo the progress that Obama’s election signaled.

The welfare argument is particularly disingenuous, but it is being treated as a license to engage in the most vicious rhetoric imaginable against the GOP. Hence, Matthews’s television tirades and, to seize upon just one of many possible examples, Joan Walsh’s accusation today at Salon that Rick Santorum engaged in “race baiting,” “lying” and “creepiness” during his convention speech because of his mentioning of the welfare issue and the president’s decision to stop the enforcement of some immigration laws.

But the liberal claim, repeated as gospel not only on the opinion pages of the mainstream media but on their news pages as well, is that Republicans are lying about Obama’s changes in the Welfare Reform Act. They insist that he changed nothing and that the GOP charges that he gutted welfare-to-work regulations are fabrications. But the truth, as Kaus noted, is much closer to the Republican narrative than that of the Democrats. It’s true that, as they have repeated endlessly on MSNBC, all Obama did was to give states flexibility in enforcing the law. But taking away such flexibility was the whole point of the movement to reform welfare that culminated in the passage of the act that was signed by Bill Clinton. Obama’s changes will allow states to eliminate work requirements. That’s a fair point and has nothing to do with racism.

But to treat any mention of welfare as a code word for black is a sign of the liberals’ plantation mentality, not that of conservatives. The assumption that welfare equals black is not only factually incorrect — more whites receive such assistance than blacks — it is an insult.

That fits in with the Democrats’ efforts to treat voter ID laws aimed at combating fraud as the next generation of “Jim Crow,” since they assume that minorities are not as capable as whites of obtaining the photo ID that is needed for virtually every other transaction required by society.

Far from the Republicans wanting to talk about race, it is only in the interest of the Democrats to reopen these old wounds. That’s also why the left is going all out to discredit any black person who dares to oppose Obama. Hence the deluge of abuse being showered today on Utah Republican Mia B. Love as well as Democrat turncoat Artur Davis, both of whom wowed the nation with their convention addresses last night.

No American racist was likely to vote for Obama in November with or without a helpful reminder from either party that he was African-American. But plenty of moderates otherwise inclined to support Romney may be scared away from the Republicans by false charges that the GOP is appealing to race. The only dog whistles today being sounded are all from the left, as Democrats desperately attempt to convince Americans that it is still their duty to vote again for Obama.

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Obama’s Food Stamp Presidency

Back during the Republican primaries, liberals accused Newt Gingrich of racism for pointing out that more people were receiving food stamps under Barack Obama’s presidency than ever before. But as a report from CNN shows, though spending on food stamps has doubled since the end of 2008 and more than one in seven Americans are now receiving them, the administration says that isn’t enough. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is running radio ads targeting Hispanics, the elderly and the poor encouraging those who aren’t already participating to sign up.

The USDA believes that despite the massive increase in spending on food stamps that was authorized as part of President Obama’s stimulus act, many more people who are legally eligible for assistance are not getting them, prompting the government recruitment campaign. While this can be represented as an attempt to help the poor, it is also an indication that the government’s focus is on increasing dependency and not on helping people to become self-sufficient. The push to spend more on food stamps made possible by the stimulus is making it look like Gingrich was right.

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Back during the Republican primaries, liberals accused Newt Gingrich of racism for pointing out that more people were receiving food stamps under Barack Obama’s presidency than ever before. But as a report from CNN shows, though spending on food stamps has doubled since the end of 2008 and more than one in seven Americans are now receiving them, the administration says that isn’t enough. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is running radio ads targeting Hispanics, the elderly and the poor encouraging those who aren’t already participating to sign up.

The USDA believes that despite the massive increase in spending on food stamps that was authorized as part of President Obama’s stimulus act, many more people who are legally eligible for assistance are not getting them, prompting the government recruitment campaign. While this can be represented as an attempt to help the poor, it is also an indication that the government’s focus is on increasing dependency and not on helping people to become self-sufficient. The push to spend more on food stamps made possible by the stimulus is making it look like Gingrich was right.

Liberals portrayed the food stamps controversy as a diversion from more important economic issues on Gingrich’s part last winter as well as a racist “dog whistle” argument in which he was accused of trying to link President Obama to African-American poverty. But the expansion of entitlements in the last four years is no illusion.

Obama’s defenders can rightly point to the fact that the Bush administration also used advertisements to recruit more food stamps recipients. They can also note that some of the increase is due to the rise in need as the result of the economic downturn from which the country has yet to recover. But the huge increase in spending on food stamps is just part of the expansion of government spending on entitlements under this administration. Moreover, at a time when the debt is spiraling out of control as a result of entitlement spending, the spectacle of the government trying to entice more citizens to get on the dole is appalling.

While Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to sit in the White House before Obama, is remembered for signing a welfare reform act (passed by a Republican Congress over his objections) that began a historic shift away from welfare dependency, President Obama deserves the opprobrium that should attach to his efforts to reverse that trend. When the stimulus boondoggle was passed few noticed that it contained language that would allow more people to get on food stamps, especially childless and healthy unemployed adults as well as increasing the amount given away.

The Democrats have fiercely resisted Republican efforts to change the way food stamps are funded. The GOP wants to emulate the welfare reform act and send the program to the states as a block grant that would make it more accountable on the local level and decrease the power of the federal government as well as spending.

But however the money is allocated, there is no question that food stamps have become a symbol not of GOP racism but the Obama administration’s push for more dependency. Though Republicans are accused of being heartless, the result of this thralldom to the welfare state hurts the poor as well as the country.

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