Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons
Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons

In early June 2015, the Missouri state legislature voted to remove thousands of families, including 6,400 children, from the state’s cash assistance program for the poor. The new law reduces the state lifetime limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from 60 to 45 months, cuts cash benefits in half for those who do not work, and redirects a significant portion of welfare funds toward programs that encourage marriage and alternatives to abortion.

Why has Missouri made these changes now? Since the U.S. Congress acted in 1996 to change welfare funding rules and give states greater discretion, many states have taken steps similar to Missouri. My research suggests that racial dynamics drive these cutbacks – but not in ways many suppose. Demography and attitudes are insufficient explanations; the political context matters.

Race and Welfare Policymaking

Why have some states imposed welfare restrictions in recent years while others have retained more generous programs? Previous studies reveal a clear pattern: the higher the proportion of African Americans receiving cash welfare benefits, the more likely states are to adopt restrictive welfare policies. But not all racially diverse states have adopted punitive reforms and some predominantly white states have taken very restrictive approaches to welfare. Race clearly influences welfare politics, but how?

To answer this question, I examined the policy decisions that state legislatures made immediately after the 1996 national reforms transformed American anti-poverty policy. That law imposed new time limits, work requirements, and penalties on recipients of welfare benefits. After Congress gave states new flexibility to design their own programs, some states adopted the most generous policies allowed by federal law, while others imposed far more restrictive policies. To understand the decision-making processes better, I closely examined a number of states which had large minority populations at the time.

What I found was surprising: Legislators’ decisions about welfare policy were heavily influenced by the political debates simultaneously raging in their states. When these other debates were rife with racial tensions, legislators enacted punitive welfare reforms. But when coterminous debates were not racialized, lawmakers tended to adopt more generous welfare programs. In other words, lawmakers used restrictive welfare changes as a strategy to appease white voters who felt threatened by other racial conflicts happening in the same period. more...

For most Americans, protecting free expression means countering threats from government. Private corporations are not usually seen as threatening free speech. But as private technology companies increasingly mediate access to information and services, the distinction between governmental and private censorship becomes less clear. Concepts of free speech and freedom of expression may need to be revised and enlarged to take account of new threats in the age of digital communications—and policies to protect freedom of expression may need to counter threats, often subtle, from the private sector as well as government. more...

Ask Americans to draw a mental map of who lives where, and they will likely say that immigrants and the poor live in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, while middle-class whites make their homes in the surrounding suburbs. But these mental maps are often inaccurate. Today, more poor people live in suburbs than in central cities, and more than half of all metropolitan-area immigrants reside in suburbs. Immigration, job growth, and residential choices are making our nation’s suburbs more economically and culturally diverse. more...

August 15, 2014 marks the second anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration program to protect young undocumented immigrants originally brought to the United States as children. If these young people were brought across the border before 2007 as minors under the care of adults, America is effectively the country they have grown up in and, the President argued, it makes no sense to threaten them with removal. Under the Deferred Action program, if such youths and young adults have stayed out of legal trouble and go through a specified application process that includes paying a hefty $465 fee, they are exempted from the threat of deportation for two years at a time and granted Social Security numbers and renewable work permits. As of March 2014, 673,417 young people had applied to the program and 553,197 were approved for its protections and benefits. Very soon, temporary protection will begin to expire for the earliest Deferred Action applicants. Many beneficiaries have begun to apply for renewals, but community-based organizations realize that they need to mobilize, both to encourage renewals and to draw more eligible applicants into the program. more...

Half a century ago, President Lyndon Johnson launched America’s War on Poverty; yet by the 1980s President Ronald Reagan famously declared that “we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.” To back up this claim, conservatives point to official U.S. statistics showing that the percentage of Americans living in poverty, around 15%, has changed very little over the decades.

But the official poverty measure is outdated – so I teamed up with several colleagues to produce estimates using a more accurate one. When we use the improved measure, it turns out that U.S. social programs and taxes have had a powerful effect on reducing poverty since the mid-1960s. Back then, government programs did little to alleviate poverty, but today public programs and taxes cut the percentage of people living in poverty by almost half, from the 28.7% it would be without government efforts to 16% after public programs are included. Far too many Americans continue to have inadequate incomes, but U.S. policies have helped millions avoid poverty.

The Need for a More Comprehensive Poverty Measure

America’s longstanding official poverty measure is outdated, because it is not adjusted appropriately for the needs of different types of individuals and households and it fails to take into account the full range of income and expenses that individuals and households face. In particular, it does not calculate the income effects of the full range of government programs whose aim it is to reduce poverty in the United States. Because of these and other failings, researchers cannot simply track official poverty measurements if they want an accurate picture of trends in poverty or the role of government policies in alleviating it.

Along with Liana Fox, Irv Garfinkel, Neeraj Kaushal, and Christopher Wimer, I re-analyzed trends in poverty using an improved measure – called the supplemental poverty measure – that includes near-cash benefits, in-kind benefits, and tax credits that go to various individuals and families. This supplemental measure also adjusts income calculations for taxes paid and for unavoidable child care, work-related, and medical expenses.

Since 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau has estimated annual poverty levels using both the traditional and the supplemental poverty measure, but it has not estimated historical trends using the revised measure. My colleagues and I have taken this extra step, estimating trends in poverty since 1967 using two new measures, one similar to the supplemental poverty measure in which the poverty threshold is calculated for each year using contemporary living standards, and another using an “anchored supplemental poverty” measure, in which we take today’s supplemental threshold and carry it back historically. The second approach is the one we use here in this brief. Data on incomes over the years come from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey.

When we use the supplemental poverty measure to track the percentages of Americans under the poverty line, a different picture emerges. The traditional poverty measure says that 14% were poor in 1967 and 15% in 2012, but the anchored supplemental measure shows the percentage living in poverty falling by more than 40%.

A New Perspective on U.S. Anti-Poverty Efforts

Our estimates also provide new insights as to the role of government programs. Using the supplemental measure anchored to 2012, we tracked the percentages of the U.S. population that would have been in poverty with and without including income from taxes and government social benefits. The green line shows poverty without taxes and benefits, and the blue line shows how much poverty has been reduced by taxes and social benefits.

Government benefits include food and nutrition programs such as Food Stamps, school lunches, and programs for pregnant women and infants; cash welfare benefits of various kinds; housing subsidies; and Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, and public pensions. Taxes include both those that reduce income (payroll taxes, federal and state income taxes) and those that boost incomes (like the Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax credits). Clearly, U.S. taxes and benefit programs have greatly reduced the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line. If we only counted incomes and expenses in the private market, poverty would have increased slightly over the past half century. But when taxes and social benefits are included, poverty sharply declines.

These results underline a key point: if we want to properly assess the progress the United States has made in fighting poverty, we must include all income and expenses. Properly measured, poverty has fallen substantially since the War on Poverty was declared. The war is far from over, but hard-won ground has been gained – and millions of Americans would suffer if anti-poverty efforts cease now or suffer major reverses.

Jane Waldfogel carries out research on a range of topics including the measurement of poverty, food insecurity, work-family policies, the effects of the Great Recession on parents and children, and inequality in school readiness and school achievement, both within the United States and across countries.

As the new Affordable Care marketplaces get under way in each state, how many Americans without health insurance will learn about their new options – including the generous subsidies available to help people with low or moderate incomes afford premiums for health insurance plans? Public confusion has been widespread, but outreach experiences suggest that providing accurate information – especially face-to-face – makes people more positive toward the health reform law and increases their willingness to sign up.

In the words of outreach specialist Libby Cummings of the Community Health Center in Portland, Maine, “When we have a chance to explain it to people, it’s been very positive. People are excited about it and want to have health insurance. People see it as an opportunity to get coverage that was never open to them before.” more...

Most Americans depend on wages, salaries, and benefits from working-class jobs. But public offices are overwhelmingly occupied by people from very economically privileged backgrounds – officials who often set aside the concerns of working Americans when public policies are debated, enacted, and put into effect. Correcting this glaring imbalance in the backgrounds of officeholders requires many efforts – including programs to identify, recruit, and support political candidates from the working class.

Candidate outreach programs sponsored by labor unions already exist in many places – and they have demonstrated great promise. When candidates from blue-collar and middle-class backgrounds mount well-prepared election campaigns, they usually prove appealing to the general voting public. Once in office, working-class Americans are more likely than other elected leaders to fight for workers’ concerns about workplace protections, business regulation, tax policy, and educational and social safety net programs. Programs that recruit and support more of these working-class candidates represent an important opportunity to make government at all levels more democratically responsive. more...

In 2003, tough new regulations to ensure smoke-free environments in workplaces and public locations were enacted by the Oklahoma legislature. This was a striking victory for public health and reformers advocating tobacco controls in one of the most conservative heartland states – a victory that no one would have predicted just a few years earlier. For decades, tobacco industry insiders and lobbyists correctly saw their relationship with Oklahoma legislators as a “love fest.” Compared to many other states, Oklahoma did very little to regulate smoking or tax cigarettes, despite mounting evidence of smoking’s adverse impact on health.

Inaction might well have continued but for the arrival in 2001 of an activist new Commissioner of Public Health. Recruited from Florida and installed by Governor Frank Keating, Dr. Leslie Bietsch instituted “emergency” regulations and launched an aggressive public campaign for tobacco controls – getting out well in front of health advocacy groups and provoking ire from lobbyists and many legislators. Bietsch only lasted two years, but his battle against tobacco interests was a critical turning point. Not only was he victorious in the arena of clean indoor air, he also set the stage for increasing Oklahoma’s cigarette taxes to levels more on par with other states. As we analyze in our new book Heartland Tobacco War, Bietsch’s story show how a principled public official can escape the constraints of business as usual and mobilize public pressure to support reforms.

Labor unions are known to improve wages and benefits for their members. Yet economic results are not all that unions accomplish. They also make a difference in democratic politics by lobbying for policies, by providing money and volunteers in elections – and also by fostering leadership skills among their members and helping some win elected public offices.

The role of unions in helping members win elected office has not received as much scholarly attention as the other economic and political functions unions perform. In part that is because this function is not easy to study in a rigorous, empirical manner. I have devised a new way to test the hypothesis that unions foster elected officials – and my findings open the door for further explorations of how union membership facilitates electoral careers – and why this matters. more...

Reelected to a second term, President Barack Obama is speaking with new force and clarity about the threat of climate change; and he is encouraging the Environmental Protection Agency to take bold steps to reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. To make up for Congressional unwillingness to legislate, the Obama administration seems ready to do all it can through executive actions. Many professional environmentalists are delighted, and will rely on inside-the-beltway lobbying to urge regulators onward. That is fine for the short run, but it would be too bad if efforts to counter damage from global warming stopped at insider advocacy.

The new few years are exactly the right time to build a broad nationwide network of popularly rooted organizations committed to supporting carbon-capping as part of America’s transition to a green economy. To be prepared when the next opening arises in Congress, organizational efforts must reach far beyond the Beltway – to knit together alliances and inspire tens of millions of ordinary Americans to push for change. more...