Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Welfare Reform and the Great Recession

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 1:04 PM EDT

CBPP has posted a series of charts showing the effects of welfare reform on the poor over the past couple of decades. In its first few years it seemed like a great success: welfare rolls went down substantially in the late 90s while the number of poor people with jobs went up. But the late 90s were a boom time, and this probably would have happened anyway. Welfare reform may have provided an extra push, but it was a bubbly economy that made the biggest difference.

So how would welfare reform fare when it got hit with a real test? Answer: not so well. I added some red recession shading to the CBPP chart on the right, and as you can see, the Great Recession created an extra 1.5 million families with children in poverty. TANF, however, barely responded at all. There was no room in strapped state budgets for more TANF funds:

The TANF block grant fundamentally altered both the structure and the allowable uses of federal and state dollars previously spent on AFDC and related programs. Under TANF, the federal government gives states a fixed block grant totaling $16.5 billion each year....Because the block grant has never been increased or adjusted for inflation, states received 32 percent less in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars in 2014 than they did in 1997.  State minimum-required contributions to TANF have declined even more. To receive their full TANF block grant, states only have to spend on TANF purposes 80 percent of the amount they spent on AFDC and related programs in 1995. That “maintenance of effort” requirement isn’t adjusted for inflation, either.

Welfare reform isn't a subject I know a lot about. I didn't follow it during the 90s, and I haven't seriously studied it since then. With that caveat understood, I'd say that some of the changes it made strike me as reasonable. However, its single biggest change was to transform welfare from an entitlement to a block grant. What happened next was entirely predictable: the size of the block grant was never changed, which means we basically allowed inflation to erode it over time. It also made it impossible for TANF to respond to cyclical economic booms and busts.

Make no mistake: this is why conservatives are so enamored of block grants. It's not because they truly believe that states are better able to manage programs for the poor than the federal government. That's frankly laughable. The reason they like block grants is because they know perfectly well that they'll erode over time. That's how you eventually drown the federal government in a bathtub.

If Paul Ryan ever seriously proposes—and wins Republican support for—a welfare reform plan that includes block grants which (a) grow with inflation and (b) adjust automatically when recessions hit, I'll pay attention. Until then, they're just a Trojan Horse for slowly but steadily eliminating federal programs that help the poor. After all, those tax cuts for the rich won't fund themselves, will they?

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Obamacare May Not Be Popular, But Its Provisions Sure Are

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

Brian Beutler on the way health care reform is playing out in the Arkansas Senate race:

The most interesting thing about Senator Mark Pryor’s decision to tout his support for the Affordable Care Act in a well-financed, statewide television ad isn’t that he stands apart from other embattled Democrats this election cycle. It’s that Republicans scrambled to spin the story, insisting to reporters that Pryor couldn’t possibly be running on Obamacare if he won’t refer to the law by name.

....Instead, Pryor says, "I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick or deny [sic] coverage based on pre-existing conditions.” Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything about “a law” at all, but that’s a niggling, semantic critique. That Republicans working to defeat Pryor are asking reporters to squeeze the word “Obamacare” into this sentence is an admission that they’ve lost the policy fight. They criticize Pryor for eschewing the label, because the label’s just about the only thing they’re comfortable assailing.

I suppose this isn't the biggest thing in the world, and as Beutler says, Republicans did manage to talk several reporters into mentioning this. So from their point of view, it's just savvy media strategy. Besides, the truth is that Republicans have always focused on only a few things in their critique of Obamacare. That's because polls have shown for years that most of the provisions of the law are popular even though support for the law itself is pretty shaky. This causes Republicans endless grief, since Democrats get to harass them relentlessly about whether they oppose closing the donut hole; whether they oppose subsidy assistance; whether they oppose guaranteed issue; and so on. Republicans can hem and haw about how they'd keep all this stuff and only get rid of the nasty taxes and mandates, but even the dimmer bulbs in the GOP caucus know perfectly well that this is untrue.

In any case, other Democratic politicians have touted their support for specific provisions of Obamacare, so Pryor isn't really doing anything new. He's just being smart. He knows that denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions is extremely unpopular, even among conservative voters, and he'd love to draw his opponent into a debate about exactly that. Tom Cotton has so far refused to take the bait, pretending that he'd somehow keep that provision while repealing everything else. This is a bald-faced lie, of course, but if he sticks to that story like glue he can probably avoid any serious damage from Pryor's attacks.

The Intersection of Social Liberalism and Social Media is Brutal

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 3:14 PM EDT

I think it's safe to say that Freddie deBoer is considerably to my left. But even he finds much of contemporary social liberalism dispiriting and self-righteous:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing.

....I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks....If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.

....People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free.

Now, I suspect that this is a more acute problem on university campuses than in the rest of the world, so it hits deBoer and his students harder than it does many of the rest of us. But I think deBoer is right when he says that social media has largely sanded away the differences. If you make a mistake these days, you won't just get a disapproving stare or maybe an email or two about it. You'll get an endless stream of hate from Twitter and Facebook. And while it's easy to point out that a few hundred angry tweets aren't really all that many compared to the millions of people on Twitter, it can feel devastating if you're on the business end of this kind of avalanche. You're not thinking in terms of percentages or small fringes, you're just reading what seems like a relentless flood of scorn and malice. And it can be overwhelming, especially if you're not accustomed to it.

Some of this is simply the price of speaking in public. The problem is that in the past there were lots of different publics. Some were small, maybe no more than family or friends. Some were a bit larger: people you worked with, or went to school with. There were local publics, statewide publics, and national publics. The bigger the public you addressed, the more vitriol you could expect to get in return. The vitriol still wasn't fun, but it was, in some sense, a trade made with your eyes open.

No longer. If you write a blog post or a tweet, and the wrong person just happens to highlight it, your public is suddenly gigantic whether you meant it to be or not. Then the avalanche comes. And, as deBoer says, the avalanche is dominated by the loudest, angriest, least tolerant fringes of the language and conduct police.

I suspect this wouldn't be so bad if there were an equal and opposite reaction to the avalanche. If the hundreds of angry tweets were balanced by hundreds of more thoughtful tweets, it wouldn't be so overwhelming. But what thoughtful person wants to get involved in this kind of thing? No one. That's almost the definition of being thoughtful, after all. So the vitriol pours in, and it's soul-crushing.

And with that, I'm sort of petering out. I feel like I should have a sharper point to make about all this, but I don't really. I don't know what the answer is, or even whether there is an answer. Maybe if I get a few hundred hate-tweets in response, I'll think of something.

Chart of the Day: The Horrible Toll of the Recession on the Poor

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 12:24 PM EDT

When we talk about rising income inequality, we usually talk about the skyrocketing pay of the top 1 percent. And that's quite proper, since that's the main driver of increasing inequality.

But new census data shows that when it comes to net worth—which is basically total wealth—the biggest change has been at the bottom. Even after taking some lumps immediately after the recession, the well-off had recovered and even made some gains by 2011. But the poor have been devastated. Their median net worth has always been pretty close to zero, but by 2011 it had plummeted to $-6,029. On average, poor families were in the hole to the tune of $6,000, an astronomical and completely debilitating number to someone with barely poverty-level earnings.

In other words, when it comes to wealth, the rich really are getting richer, and the poor really are getting poorer. A lot poorer.

Russian Sanctions Mostly Hitting Russian Consumers

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 11:52 AM EDT

The BBC reports on how those Russian sanctions against Western food have put the squeeze on European and American suppliers:

Moscow officials say frozen fish prices in the capital's major supermarkets have risen by 6%, milk by 5.3% and an average cheese costs 4.4% more than it did before the 7 August ban took effect. Russia has banned imports of those basic foods, as well as meat and many other products, from Western countries, Australia and Japan. It is retaliation for the West's sanctions on Russia over the revolt by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

And it is not just Moscow. On the island of Sakhalin, in Russia's far east, officials say the price of chicken thighs has soared 60%. Before the sanctions these were among the cheapest and most popular meat products in Russia.

Oops. Sorry about that. It's actually Russian consumers who are paying the price. And for now, that seems to be OK:

Polls show that the vast majority of Russians approve of the sanctions against Western food. They have been told by government officials and state-controlled TV that the embargo will not affect prices, and that it will actually allow Russia's own agriculture to flourish. And that message is being believed.

At a guess, Russian consumers aren't very different from American consumers. Nationalistic pride will work for a while, as people accept higher prices as the cost of victory against whoever they're fighting at the moment. But that won't last any longer in Russia than it does in America. Give it a few months and public opinion is likely to turn decidedly surly. Who really cares about those damn Ukrainians anyway? They're just a bunch of malcontents and always have been, amirite?

This is why Vladimir Putin needs a quick victory. The fact that he's not getting it will eventually prompt him to either (a) quietly give up, or (b) go all in. Unfortunately, there's really no telling which it will be.

In Ferguson, Cops Hand Out 3 Warrants Per Household Every Year

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 11:13 AM EDT

Alex Tabarrok comments on the rather remarkable caseload of Ferguson's municipal court:

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of....If you are arrested and jailed you will probably lose your job and perhaps also your apartment—all because of a speeding ticket.

We've all seen a number of stories like this recently, and it prompts a question: why are police departments allowed to fund themselves with ticket revenue in the first place? Or red light camera revenue. Or civil asset forfeiture revenue. Or any other kind of revenue that provides them with an incentive to be as hardass as possible. Am I missing something when I think that this makes no sense at all?

This is sort of a genuine question. I know these policies are common, but where did they come from? Are they deliberate, created by politicians who like the idea of giving their local cops an incentive to get tough? Were they mostly the idea of police departments themselves, who figured the revenue from fines would provide a net boost in their annual funding? Or did they just accrete over time, popping up whenever there was a budget crisis and then never going away?

Does anyone know?

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Housekeeping Note

| Wed Aug. 20, 2014 3:28 PM EDT

That's it for the day. I'm off to the hospital for yet another test that will undoubtedly show nothing wrong with me. But you don't know until you look, do you? See you tomorrow.

Do Liberals Rely Too Much on Guilt?

| Wed Aug. 20, 2014 2:05 PM EDT

Tim F. makes an observation:

Spend some time following internet conversations about your liberal cause of the day (global warming, racial injustice, etc) and eventually someone will get to the nut of why the issue pisses many people off: they think activists want them to feel guilty and they don’t want to feel guilty. That’s pretty much it. A huge part of our failure to do anything about the climate disaster or racist asshole cops comes from people protecting their delicate ego.

Yep. But I'd take this a little more seriously, because it's probably something that genuinely hurts lefty causes. It's human nature to get defensive when you feel guilty, and it's hard to recruit defensive folks to your cause. If this were only an occasional problem, that would be one thing. But let's be honest: We really do rely on guilt a lot. You should feel guilty about using plastic bags. About liking college football. About driving an SUV. About eating factory-farmed beef. About using the wrong word to refer to a transgender person. About sending your kids to a private school. And on and on and on.

We all contribute to this, even when we don't mean to. And maybe guilt is inevitable when you're trying to change people's behavior. But it adds up, and over time lefties can get to seem a little unbearable. You have to be so damn careful around us!

I don't really have any useful advice about this. Maybe there's nothing much to be done about it. But egos, delicate or otherwise, are just a part of the human condition. We ignore them at our peril.

Let Us Now Psychoanalyze Famous Men (And Their Photographs)

| Wed Aug. 20, 2014 12:12 PM EDT

Bob Somerby calls my attention to the following bit of psychobabble from Peter Baker and Matt Apuzzo of the New York Times. The subject is a photo released by the White House:

Mr. Holder, 63, is the one leaning forward, both in the photograph released by the White House and on the issues underlying the crisis in Ferguson, Mo. A child of the civil rights era, he grew up shaped by the images of violence in Selma, Ala., and joined sit-ins at Columbia University where protesters renamed an office after Malcolm X. Now in high office, he pushes for policy changes and is to fly on Wednesday to Ferguson to personally promise justice in the case of a black teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer.

Mr. Obama, 53, is the one seemingly holding back in the White House photograph, contemplative, even brooding, as if seeking to understand how events could get so out of hand. He was too young and removed to experience the turmoil of the 1960s, growing up in a multiracial household in Hawaii and Indonesia. As he now seeks balance in an unbalanced time, he wrestles with the ghosts of history that his landmark election, however heady, failed to exorcise.

Seriously? Take a look at other photographs of Obama when he's conferring with someone. Take a look at other photographs of any powerful person when they're conferring with an underling. The boss is the one who's free to lounge back and relax. The underling is the one who has to lean forward and make his case. This is standard body language. Obama uses it so often that in just the August "Photo of the Day" gallery alone, I count it in three out of four photos where Obama is conferring with other people.

Look, I've been there. You want to say something interesting. You need a hook. But come on. If you want to make the case that racial issues are more immediate for Holder than for Obama, go ahead. But don't pretend that a bog ordinary White House photograph tells you anything. That's just embarrassing. Before long you'll be hiring body language "experts" and handwriting "analysts" to help you with your leads. Here be dragons.

Barack Obama Loathes Congress as Much as You Do

| Wed Aug. 20, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

Ezra Klein responds to a New York Times article about President Obama's chilly relationship with his fellow Democrats:

Obama does see socializing with Hill Democrats as a chore. But there's a lot that Obama sees as a chore and commits to anyway. The presidency, for all its power, is full of drudgery; there are ambassadors to swear in and fundraisers to attend and endless briefings on issues that the briefers don't even really care about. The reason Obama doesn't put more effort into stroking congressional Democrats is he sees it as a useless chore.

The Times article...never names a bill that didn't pass or a nominee who wasn't confirmed because Obama's doesn't spend more time on the golf course with members of Congress. The closest it comes is...not very close. "In interviews, nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers and senior congressional aides suggested that Mr. Obama's approach has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office."

This is ridiculous. There are no issues erupting at home or abroad where the problem is that House or Senate Democrats won't vote with the president. There's no legislation of importance to President Obama's legacy that would pass if only House Democrats had spent more time at the White House. I've listened to a lot of Democratic members of Congress complain about Obama's poor relationships on the Hill. Each time, my follow-up question is the same: "what would have passed if Obama had better relationships on the Hill?" Each time, the answer is the same: a shake of the head, and then, "nothing."

I'd probably give a little more credit to schmoozing than this. But only a very little. At the margins, there are probably times when having a good relationship with a committee chair will speed up action or provide a valuable extra vote or two on a bill or a nominee. And Obama has the perfect vehicle for doing this regularly since he loves to play golf. But for the most part Klein is right. There's very little evidence that congressional schmoozing has more than a tiny effect on things. Members of Congress vote the way they want or need to vote, and if they respond to anyone, it's to party leaders, interest groups, and fellow ideologues. In days gone by, presidents could coerce votes by working to withhold money from a district, or by agreeing to name a crony as the local postmaster, but those days are long gone. There's really very little leverage that presidents have over members of Congress these days, regardless of party.

Obama is an odd duck. It's not just that he doesn't schmooze. As near as I can tell, he has a barely concealed contempt for Congress. He doesn't really enjoy playing the political game, and not just because it's gotten so rancid in recent years. Even if Republicans were acting like a normal political party these days, I still don't think he'd enjoy it much. And yet, he spent years campaigning for the top political job in the United States. It's a little bit of a mystery, frankly.