Last Thursday, Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote a column on what he called the upcoming “welfare wars.” The column was a response to the impending work requirements not just for families benefiting from the federal Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, but also from Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, which distributes what are colloquially known as food stamps. All of these programs benefit the poor. The work requirements suggested by conservatives in the form of an executive order by Trump might not really benefit anyone. Samuelson pointed out that experts argue that while the exclusion of the disabled and the elderly from work requirements is, relatively speaking, a good thing, the exclusion of parents is deeply problematic. This is true. Without getting into the semantics of what constitutes work in a professional or domestic sense (or the fuzzy borders between the two), it’s important that Americans remember that caregiving has tremendous economic value and that the failure to recognize that fact generally leads to social issues.
Like Samuelson points out, TANF, which already has a work requirement, largely assists single moms and their kids who live in poverty. There are 3.9 million recipients of TANF and the program costs taxpayers about 31 billion dollars. SNAP is a much larger program, with about 18.6 million Americans benefiting from the program — about half of whom don’t work and another 20 percent who work less than 30 hours a week. Half of households that receive SNAP are households where children live.
Many conservatives consider this an undesirable set-up because not requiring those who live in poverty to work allows them to suckle from the government teat while not acquiring employable skills. This argument is, on its face, coherent right up until the point a baby enters the picture. After that, the internal logic fails.
People who work low-income jobs, who are also on government assistance, are excluded from workplace benefits. Because their work is often shift-work, it’s rare that they can control their hours of work, making finding meaningful and reliable childcare difficult. As such, because this type of work is more of an unstable job, security in that position is low. This means that poor parents could both get disqualified from their benefits because they make too much money and lose their job unexpectedly and then struggle without benefits or work while trying to find another, low-paying, insecure job. In other words, government assistance is a safety net for those who don’t have meaningful employment. Getting rid of that safety net could be fine for a single person with no dependents. But the majority of TANF and SNAP recipients are parents and family members. Any day they go by without pay or assistance could mean housing insecurity or hunger.
If this argument does not sound new, it’s because it’s not. The debate over the rights of welfare soaked up a lot of ink between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s. The welfare rights movement, which was largely led by the National Welfare Rights Organization, had several goals, but the main goal was the get rid of the work requirements that were starting to become part of welfare legislation under the Nixon administration.
The large majority of people who participated in this movement were single mothers who knew a work requirement would put them in an untenable position. They argued that not only is it extremely difficult to find childcare that was affordable, but also that raising their children is a legitimate job. Not a hobby. Not a part-time gig.
Unfortunately, the movement didn’t go very far in terms of securing legitimate welfare reform. There are a lot of reasons for this — racist rhetoric about welfare queens being one — but also because second wave feminism failed these women. Suburban, white feminists, (think Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique) made a countervailing argument that women who are mothers needed to get out of the home and into the workplace; that they to break free of their suburban boxes. There certainly was some wisdom in that, but working-class women and especially working-class women of color had been forced into a box of another type.
Looking at the NWRO movement today — through the lens of the current, renewed attack on government assistance programs and with an eye toward the soaring cost of childcare — it’s a shame that the movement didn’t get any farther than it did. Too many households in the United States today are forced to be single-income due to the fact that childcare costs outpace the earnings potential of a single partner. Meanwhile, the logic of work requirements — that parenting does not constitute a meaningful contribution to the national economy — seems to be based on agrarian thinking. The same problem of affordable childcare has always been true for welfare recipients who have work requirements. The work that welfare recipients often get is unstable. It’s often shift work, meaning it happens at odd hours. That makes typical 9 to 5 childcare impossible, even if it were affordable. Given that childcare is, in some states, as expensive as a 4-year college, there seems to be a solution that no pundit, politician, or economist wants to admit. It is time to start paying parents to raise their kids.
At one point in time (think: pre-industrial revolution), kids were able to return on their parents’ investment within 10 years. They worked. They helped. Now … not so much. Still, kids are extremely important to the economic well-being of any country. Declining fertility rates often lead to economic decline. There’s a reason Japan has been trying to incentivize its citizens to have kids for over a decade. It’s in the best interest of the country and, specifically, of the older citizens in the country.
As birth rates fall, replacement rates for economic earners fall, too. Programs like Social Security and Medicaid become overburdened by a larger population of the elderly. In Japan, critics blame Prime Minister Abe’s government for focusing too much on the elderly and not enough on encouraging people to have kids. America looks like it’s preparing to make the same mistakes.
So why aren’t we making it easier for families of all socioeconomic backgrounds to raise kids? Why are we talking about putting work requirement barriers in place for parents already struggling to raise their kids, when those work requirements could make their economic situations more precarious? The answer seems to be that the Republican Party is concerned about incentives. The important thing to remember is that procreation requires incentives as well and with new Americans, the old Americans — the ones supporting these sorts of policies — will find themselves in a very bad way.