Not long ago, in response to one of my periodic posts decrying policies that ignore evidence in favor of ideology, I got an email from Peter Germanis, who writes as “Peter the Citizen” and takes the unusual approach of evaluating policies on the basis of whether they actually work, rather than whether they are labeled conservative or liberal.
Peter’s background certainly entitles him to his chosen label, which is conservative: between 1986 and 1996, he helped President Reagan develop and implement his welfare reform policies, and he has worked with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, both of which are very conservative advocacy and research organizations.
Here are some of the things Peter says about TANF, the much-ballyhooed “bipartisan welfare reform” that is considered a great success by Paul Ryan and others intent upon reducing expenditures on social welfare.
- The suggestion that TANF helps people out of poverty is–by any objective analysis–wrong.
- TANF is not welfare reform; it is welfare to states, not the needy.
- TANF is really revenue sharing; states use a considerable share of TANF funds to supplant state expenditures.
Peter points to Texas as an example of how TANF actually works. He notes that in 2014, for every 100 poor families with children, only five received TANF cash assistance, and the state invests little of its TANF block grant to provide education, training or work supports for the working poor. In fiscal year 2014, Texas used just 20% of its TANF funds to provide what Peter designates as “core welfare reform activities”–basic assistance, work activities and child care.”
In the wake of the election, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans plan to apply TANF’s “success” to other social welfare programs, and they have issued a proposal along those lines titled “A Better Way.” As Peter writes,
The Task Force’s Report for reforming the safety net is a seriously flawed document–it would not solve problems, it would add to them…As described above TANF is not “welfare reform”; it is not a “success” it is Truly a National Failure (TANF). The fact that conservatives do not understand this suggests that they do not have “A Better Way”–they have “The Wrong Way.”
Conservatives like Peter the Citizen represent a once-vibrant and now-dwindling strand of intellectually honest conservatism, and the recognition that the labels we employ–liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist–are frequently short-hand for categorizing and discarding (or embracing) policies without bothering to evaluate them. More of his work can be accessed at this link.
Perhaps I am cynical, but I think there is one other difference between the bygone conservatism of people like Peter and what passes for conservatism today. The conservatives who used to be engaged with poverty policy genuinely wanted to help poor people. They might disagree with liberals about the best way to go about it, but the shared goal was to enable impoverished Americans to become self-sufficient. Today’s “conservatives” aren’t simply uninterested in honest analysis; they are uninterested in actually helping poor people. Their idea of “success” is spending less money on social welfare so that they can reduce taxes on the wealthy.
Because after all, poor people don’t vote, don’t contribute and don’t employ lobbyists.