On October 26, 2011, Tim Costa, the Executive Deputy Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW), testified about implementation of Governor Tom Corbett’s new state budget, which cut hundreds of millions of dollars from DPW programs that help the poor and disabled. Costa said:
[T]he welfare system, over time, has contributed to the problems that the country now faces.For years, if not decades, our welfare system has fostered unhealthy levels of dependency and family fragmentation that represents a staggering loss for our country and our state. The reality is that low income individuals today are far less capable of self-reliance – especially in this downturn – than they were when means-tested welfare became a growth industry in the late 1960s. Moreover, a much larger portion of our population today is welfare dependent than it was in 1970. President Reagan once remarked that we “declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” He was and is correct. Therefore, our long-range challenge is to transform our welfare system so that it becomes part of the solution, not the problem (Costa Testimony PDF).
Invoking the specter of President Reagan, Costa repeats discredited welfare myths that poor people and government programs are primarily to blame for poverty and that anti-poverty programs contribute to the problem (we blogged about a related welfare myth—the “welfare queen”—a year ago). According to these myths, a reiteration of the controversial “culture of poverty” arguments popularized in the 1960s, the poor grow dependent on government assistance programs and develop certain behaviors, such as weak work ethics, that keep them in poverty. Here, Costa uses these stereotypes of the poor to excuse the Corbett Administration and the Pennsylvania General Assembly for turning their backs on the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians in tough economic times.
These myths persist despite no evidence that public assistance actually causes impoverished individuals to choose to stay poor simply to continue receiving welfare. It is telling that Costa never mentions the welfare amounts supposedly so high that they would compel someone to forgo paid employment: in fact, a mother with two children in most Pennsylvania counties receives a mere $403 a month. It is ludicrous to assume that anyone, much less a parent, would be discouraged from working by such minimal assistance. At current levels, assistance through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is still well below the federal poverty line. It is more likely that most individuals who stay on public assistance for extended periods of time do so because of real economic problems outside of their control.
As DPW cuts government programs for the poor, more Pennsylvanians are slipping into poverty. In 2010, the Commonwealth had a 13.4 percent poverty rate . Poverty disproportionately burdens women, especially single mothers and ethnic minorities, as discrimination, pregnancy, caretaking obligations, and the impact of domestic violence and sexual assault create barriers to gainful employment. It is particularly difficult to find gainful employment today. According to a report by the Pew Trust, the percent of unemployed who have been unemployed for more than a year surged recently to over 30 percent, more than double the highest percentage recorded over the past forty years. There are simply too few jobs, and those that exist pay too little for workers to support their families.
Furthermore, cutting DPW programs ignores the economic boost anti-poverty measures can provide: every $5 in new SNAP benefits, for example, translates into $9 of total community spending, as families use their benefits supporting stores, warehouses, truck drivers, and farms.
Costa also boasts in his testimony about the ways in which DPW has turned its back on the disabled and gravely ill by dropping people from Medical Assistance. Needy and deserving recipients have lost coverage due to minor paperwork errors beyond the individual recipient’s control. These arbitrary actions, taken under the guise of rooting out “waste and fraud,” have harmed real people, such as children with cerebral palsy who have been wrongly dropped from Medical Assistance.
With this state budget, the Corbett Administration, DPW, and the General Assembly have let down the people of Pennsylvania. We need more from our state government than arbitrary practices and excuses for selfish, short-sighted policies.