Why is Elaine Kamarck So Hung Up on Defending Conservative Social Policy?

September 23, 2011

In a recent Washington Monthly blog post, Elaine Kamarck argues that the conservative 1996 law that eliminated AFDC and replaced it with a block grant (known as TANF) is a success. Kamarck is quite right when she argues that “TANF is not, nor was it meant to be, the central pillar of the social safety net”—but she then goes on to effecitvely make TANF the central pillar of “welfare reform.”

This is both an analytical and political error. As I argued previously here, it conflates the progressive welfare reform efforts that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s—including the large-scale expansion of the EITC in 1993, increases in the federal minimum wage, and successful demonstration programs like New Hope and the Minnesota Family Investment Project—with the “truly conservative” hijacking of progressive reform in the 1996 block grant law. Making TANF the central pillar of welfare reform as Karmarck does only bolsters conservative arguments for more block grants, and makes it harder to reform TANF along the lines of previous progressive initiatives that have been shown to be successful based on hard data.

The question that Karmack needs to ask is: of the various policies that fell under the banner of “welfare reform” in the 1990s, which ones are working (or worked, if they were demonstrations), which ones have failed, and which ones do we not know enough about to judge whether they have been a success or failure?

There is considerable evidence that various progressive welfare-reform initiatives were and remain successful—we have lots of good econometric evidence on the impact of the EITC, and good random assignment evaluations of progressive welfare reform evaluations like MFIP and New Hope. As for the TANF block grant, the cornerstone of conservative welfare reform, there is very little evidence that it has had a positive impact and considerable evidence that it is failing to respond to the current downturn in the way any effective economic security program should (countercyclically, thereby reducing economic hardship and bolstering aggregate demand).

In Reinventing Government, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler criticize government programs that don’t “measure the results of their work.” They argue that “if you can’t recognize failure, you can’t correct it.” At the very minimum, Karmarck, who was the director of the National Peformance Reivew/National Partnership for Reinventing Government in the Clinton White House between 1993 and 1996, needs to acknowledge that TANF is a seriously troubled program by these standards.  As GAO has noted, we know very little about how states are using 70 percent of the funds provided by the $16.5 billion block grant, including not just “results” but things as basic as how many families are being helped with these funds.

In certain areas where we do have hard evidence on results on TANF, such as the funds set-aside in the block grant by conservatives for “promoting marriage,” the results are not encouraging. For example, according to a recent random assignment evaluation of a TANF-funded marriage-promotion program, the program had

… had no effect on the couples’ relationship quality or on the likelihood that they would remain romantically involved or get married 15 months after they enrolled in the program. When impacts were examined separately for the eight programs, only one was found to have a consistent pattern of positive effects on couples’ relationships, while another was found to have negative effects.

Kamarck suggests that minor changes to the law’s work requirements or time limits may be needed, but I think this misses the much larger problem with the law, its deeply flawed fiscal structure, one that fails to act in a countercyclical fashion when it is needed most, and that requires no accountability from states for federal funds spend on benefits and services other than income supplements for families. 

Finally, a big part of Kamarck’s argument is political. As she argues, “one of the most positive long-term effects of welfare reform has been that it strengthened the Democrats’ political ability to protect and expand the safety net by eliminating its least defensible part.” Here again she is mistaken. While AFDC needed to be reformed in the 1990s, replacing it with a “truly conservative” block grant program (the description is that of Ron Haskins at Brookings) doesn’t clearly strengthen Democrats’ political ability to protect and expand social insurance programs in the long run. Even in the short run, there is little evidence that acquiescing to TANF has had positive political benefits for Democrats. As political scientists Joe Soss and Sanford Schram have shown, the law has had “minimal effects” on mass public opinion. 

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