No, It’s Not The Welfare, Stupid

Posted by Bob Lord

[Note — While I was drafting, the AZBlueMeanie posted on the same topic. But we make somewhat different points. And, as you'll see, this one is a bit personal for me. I couldn't not publish it.]

If you believe the reports coming from the right these days, especially the Libertarian right, welfare queens once again reign supreme. 

In fact, our welfare system is causing able-bodied Americans not to work.

So says Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute in a report entitled The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013 and reported by the Daily Caller in Study: Welfare pays more than work in most states.

I know Tanner. You see, for a few years back in the 90's he was married to my sister. He was one creepy dude. Speculating on how our welfare system inhibits work while he earns a living writing papers for a think tank funded by ultra-rich plutocrats and their private foundations is entirely consistent with the worldview I remember him having. Back then, he used to rail about the evils of social security. Apparently, he's evolved little in two decades.

And his report shows that he's willing to stoop to pretty much any level of intellectual dishonesty to make his case.

Tanner contends that welfare in 35 states pays more than a minimum wage job and more than $15 per hour in 13 states. That leaves me scratching my head. If Tanner's correct, how did we manage to flirt with full employment for the better part of a decade prior to the financial meltdown? If Tanner's correct, why are all those McDonalds workers striking, rather than just quitting and living off welfare programs? If Tanner's correct, why are wages so low? Wouldn't employers have to pay higher wages to entice welfare recipients to ditch their benefits and accept jobs?

Is Tanner's "study" a crock? Absolutely. If you read carefully enough, you discover that Tanner's analysis applies only to single mothers with two minor children. In other words, his conclusions have no application to married couples, or to single adults with no children, or to those whose kids are adults. It doesn't even apply to single mothers with one child.

It's obvious why Tanner chose a single mother with two children as his "profile family." The safety net benefits available to single mothers far exceed those available to all other adults. If your objective is to make welfare appear too generous, and you're not terribly concerned about intellectual honesty, isolating on single mothers would be the way to go.

It gets worse. Tanner's analysis isn't even valid for single mothers with two children, for at least three reasons. First, most single mothers receive child support, which reduces rather dramatically the benefits to which they're entitled. Tanner's report fails to take this into account. That seems to be a huge oversight. Second, in comparing welfare to work, Tanner implicitly assumes the compensation package does not include health benefits. Third, Tanner assumes that the available benefits disappear if any work is performed. To be sure, there are "cliffs" where the loss of benefits create a disincentive to increasing one's income, but that supports a restructuring of the benefit programs to eliminate the cliffs, not a paring back of benefits to those in need.   

What has Tanner really shown? Essentially, all Tanner has shown is that in some states welfare benefits available to a single mother with two kids whose dad either is dead or a deadbeat allow her to survive reasonably well without working. That's it. That's as far as Tanner's study goes. 

In that limited case, is Tanner correct? I sure hope so. And that's why I think Tanner is such a creep. I believe the wealthiest country ever to exist has the moral obligation to provide for single mothers with two kids whose father is either dead or unwilling to provide for them. Tanner, on the other hand, finds that proposition galling.  

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