September 26, 2018; New York Times
The election of Ronald Reagan began a decades-long effort to reduce the size of government and to change our view of poor people. Ending “welfare as we knew it” became a bipartisan rallying cry with the election of Bill Clinton. The social safety net was replaced; direct financial support through cash assistance, food stamps, childcare, or subsidized health care was seen as worsening the problem of poverty by increasing dependency and perpetuating doomed generations of “takers.” Rather than simply offering assistance, new policies tied benefits to work or seeking work. While the Great Recession of 2007 forced the federal government to reverse course somewhat, Donald Trump’s election returned the momentum of reduced funding and stiffened work requirements.
The long-term impact of these policies makes up another part of the toxic tug-of-war between liberals and conservatives that has made governing so difficult. Rather than see this as just a philosophical debate, we now have an opportunity to learn from that ongoing experiment in small government across the ocean.
England did not expand its safety net during the Great Recession. Rather, it kept on with efforts to cut direct government supports. If we go down the same path, we can expect our children to pay a very high price.
According to a New York Times report last week,
Across Britain, the number of children living in poverty has jumped sharply in the past six years, a trend that critics blame in part on the Conservative-led government’s policy of austerity, the budget-slashing response to the 2008 financial crisis that is steadily reshaping British life.
For children, the consequences of poverty can be severe. In the short term, poverty elevates the risk of illness, hunger and social stigma. In the long term, it can create a vicious cycle from which a child struggles to escape.
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Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, a British charity, told the Times that “It’s increasingly evident, particularly to people working with children, that we’re in a child poverty crisis. And it is primarily to do with the massive cuts to benefits.” Experts predict without changes in the policy framework, by 2021, 35 percent of minors in Britain will be poor.
These dire results are evident despite policies effectively reducing the rate of unemployment: “Though unemployment has been more than halved…the overall child poverty rate has risen. And roughly two-thirds of poor children have at least one parent who works,” the Institute for Fiscal Studies said.
According to Garnham, “We tell ourselves completely the wrong story about poverty in the UK…the government likes to focus attention on workless families, but there’s hardly any left. That’s a problem of the past.”
Exacerbating the direct impact on families and children is a decrease in organizational resources. The number of nonprofit organizations working alongside government has decreased sharply as their funding declines. The Times found that a thousand children’s centers have closed, leaving families trying to navigate a complex system without a map.
Britain’s experience should not come as a surprise. Those watching outcomes of similar policies in our country have observed similar negative impacts. Last week, NPQ looked at efforts to increase the work threshold to receive medical services under Medicaid.
A recent study from the Urban Institute addresses the evaluative research on these programs and finds they do more harm than good. One finding was that those targeted by these programs are already motivated to work and, indeed, that the red tape associated with the programs cause people to lose needed benefits. In Arkansas, most of those targeted for this program were either already working or in an education program. They just did not make enough money to pay for the healthcare they needed. That is unlikely to change with the imposition of further work requirements.
Britain’s lessons should be cautionary for policymakers—but that’s only if facts and data matter more than ideology.—Martin Levine