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Three Targets for Welfare Reform
It's time to cut needless red tape and bureaucracy.
Seth Moskowitz has argued in these pages that in order to win back working-class votes, Democrats should focus on legislation “that will tangibly improve the lives of working-class families.” The first few years of Biden’s presidency have been tremendously impactful, passing many landmark pieces of legislation that have done much for the lives of millions of Americans. But it’s true there is still so much more to be done, and plenty of legislation that Democrats should prioritize to improve living conditions in the United States.
Much of this can come in the form of welfare. The United States’ current welfare state is woefully inadequate in dozens of ways, such that even basic low-hanging fruit has the potential to radically improve the lives of millions of Americans. Here are three options for tearing down the red tape and needless bureaucracy inherent in much of our system.
Renew the child tax credit.
The United States’ poverty rate is abjectly shameful by many metrics. It comfortably sits much higher than the majority of comparable first-world countries, including Germany, Canada, and France.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
One of the most impactful policies from the Biden administration so far was the decision to expand the child tax credit for a year during the Covid pandemic. By giving a few thousand dollars to families every month, America was able to lower its child poverty rate by over a quarter, bringing it down to record lows.
At least… it did, until it abruptly expired a year later. The expanded child tax credit (CTC) was one of the many provisions of the American Rescue Plan, a bill that provided American citizens with much-needed stimulus to help the economy recover. When the CTC expired in early 2022, child poverty in America jumped from 12.1% to 17%, leaving millions of families in poverty once again. The fact of inflation reinforces why it’s so important to make the CTC a permanent feature of our economy: the expansion greatly improved the purchasing power of people most impacted by high prices.
One of the concerns that Republicans had about the expanded child tax credit was that it would discourage its recipients from working. The evidence doesn’t bear this out. Research from the Center on Poverty and Social Policy concluded that getting the CTC had little to no effect on how many hours per week families decided to work. This makes sense: families of all backgrounds and income brackets want to live off of more than the few thousand dollars a year that the CTC offered.
Turn WIC into cash.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) was a welfare program passed in the 1970s, providing food and assistance to low-income pregnant and postpartum women. It comes in the form of food vouchers—and there are an absurd number of rules involved. For example, you can use it to buy yogurt, but not if it’s drinkable or if it contains granola. You can use it to buy vegetables, but not if they’re “breaded” or if they’re sold at a salad bar.
Particular states have even more onerous requirements for WIC-eligible foods. In California, you can use WIC to buy white eggs, but not brown eggs, and you can use it to buy peanut butter, but only if it comes in 16-18 ounce containers. And you can use it to buy juice, but only if it has the label “100% Juice” on it and contains at least “80% Vitamin C.”
These are the choices you’d expect from a wealthy person trying to completely maximize the nutritional value of all the food they consume, not a rule that you’d impose on people who are starving and can barely afford to put food on the table.
The WIC should be converted into cash—which would probably be cheaper for the government, since all the tedious rules and regulations lead to administrative burden for the workers who have to coordinate this kind of stuff.
Get rid of pointless work requirements.
The needless bureaucracy and red tape inherent in much of America’s social welfare state doesn’t end at WIC.
One of the main outcomes of the debt ceiling fight earlier this year was the addition of more work requirements for welfare programs. Eligible participants (with a handful of exceptions) need to fill out documentation showing they are employed in order to enroll in programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Doesn’t sound so bad, right? It might encourage more people to go into the workforce. Additionally, it has the potential to cut federal spending, thus reducing the national debt.
The main problem with work requirements is threefold: it doesn’t actually increase labor force participation in the long run, it barely reduces federal spending, and it cruelly boots helpless people off the program for no good reason.
In the same way that starving Americans shouldn’t be expected to know the ins and outs of WIC’s byzantine structure, it is also unreasonable to expect every single eligible recipient of SNAP and TANF to deal with heaps of convoluted paperwork whenever they need to put food on the table—especially when many of them are disabled or mentally impaired.
There is technically a process that allows for disabled people to be exempt from work requirements documentation, but just like many aspects of our country’s welfare state, it is insanely invasive and ludicrously convoluted. In fact, even government workers have a hard time keeping up with the task of processing applications once they’ve been submitted. Around 10,000 people every year submit their applications but die before those applications are processed.
Democrats should get rid of work requirements where they can.
None of this will be easy, with Republicans currently in control of the House. But Democrats can make welfare reform a priority in the years to come. Ultimately, there are dozens of reforms they can champion that will improve welfare and reduce poverty in America.
Andrew Xu is an intern at Persuasion and a student at McGill University.
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