The Amazing Colossal Poorhouse

Ten years after welfare reform, the welfare state is even larger than before.


Ten years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, known more colloquially as welfare reform. The president had promised to end "welfare as we know it," and by signing the bill he did exactly that: In 2006 the welfare state is larger than ever before, but the way Americans think and talk about it has been radically changed. As a function of the government, welfare is thriving. As a culture war issue, it's practically dead.

The size of the welfare state isn't easy to discern, and its boundaries aren't so simple to define. Conservatives associate the dole with indolence, and thus sometimes will discount programs that attempt to push recipients into the workforce or to enforce habits congenial to low-wage labor. But the welfare state has always been tied closely to social engineering; it is a pendulum that swings between relatively permissive grants and stricter subsidies. Liberals, in turn, tend to think of welfare in terms of generosity, and thus sometimes will discount a program that does not make life significantly better for the recipients—even if it obviously constitutes a vast expansion of the state's redistributive machinery. (That's how Consumers Union was able to dismiss President George W. Bush's new Medicare benefit, expected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion in its first 10 years, as a "stingy" system guilty of "undermining the fundamental principle" of Medicare.) But few government programs have been created out of sheer munificence. The growth of the welfare apparatus has been linked much more closely to two baser impulses: buying the beneficiaries' support, and keeping the beneficiaries in line.

Even without conservative or liberal blinders, many Americans discount two large swaths of the welfare state. First: payments to people who aren't poor. In his history of American welfare, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, Michael Katz notes the difference in social attitudes toward public assistance (which "has become synonymous with welfare") and social insurance (which "carries no stigma"). By any sensible definition, Social Security is a transfer payment: In the words of the program's own website, "the Social Security taxes paid by today's workers and their employers are used to pay the benefits for today's retirees and other beneficiaries." But because it enjoys the trappings of an insurance program, and because the bulk of its largess goes to the middle class, it usually falls into a different mental category—at least until someone proposes privatizing it, at which point we're reminded of all the destitute octogenarian widows who rely on their Social Security checks to get by.

As the left-liberal historians Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward wrote in their 1971 book Regulating the Poor, most "social welfare activity has not greatly aided the poor, precisely because the poor ordinarily have very little influence on government. Indeed, 'social welfare' programs designed for other groups frequently ride roughshod over the poor, as when New Deal agricultural subsidies resulted in the displacement of great numbers of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, or when urban renewal schemes deprived blacks of their urban neighborhoods." For simplicity's sake, I won't even address the question of corporate subsidies. Suffice to say that penniless people aren't getting all or even most of the handouts.

Second: the prison system. Hardly anyone thinks of convicts as being on relief, but the typical prisoner, more so than anyone on food stamps or in a workfare program, relies almost completely on the state (or a nominally private company paid by the state) for food, shelter, and health care. Most people would not commit a crime to get a free night in a cell, even if some hobos see jail as "three hots and a cot." But the history of the penal system and the history of welfare are closely intertwined, going back to the invention of the prison and the poorhouse. As the sociologist David Wagner writes in The Poorhouse, a social history of the institution, "two totally different ideas—hospitality and punishment—oddly enough became confused," with the old medieval institution of the almshouse and the newer, more punitive workhouse both falling under the "poorhouse" label in popular discussion. (Workhouses were rare in America, but poorhouses attempted with mixed success to enforce a regimen of labor. One 19th-century New York journalist, quoted in Katz's book, visited a Rhode Island institution where he saw "a party of men carrying wood from one corner of the yard to another and piling it there; when it was all removed it was brought back again and piled in the old place.")

It's telling, at any rate, that one of the centers Wagner studied, the poorhouse in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, evolved directly into both the county nursing home and the county jail. They share the same complex to this day.

All that having been said, there are at least three approaches to measuring the welfare state: the number of people on the rolls, the amount of money spent, and the intrusiveness of the system.

People on the rolls. If you focus narrowly on the program known until '96 as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and known since then as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, you'll get the impression that welfare is disappearing. In a time when the country's population was growing, the number of families receiving AFDC/TANF subsidies dropped from 4.6 million a decade ago to under 2 million today. There were several reasons for this, including a booming economy in the late '90s, but the chief factor was welfare reform, which established new time limits and work requirements for the program's clients.

But if you look across the spectrum of federal social programs, a more ambiguous picture emerges. As Douglas Besherov of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out last week in The New York Times, some of the families booted from TANF simply move to different sources of assistance: "food stamps (an average of more than $2,500), the Women, Infants and Children program (about $1,800 for infants and new mothers), Supplemental Security Income (an average of over $6,500), or housing aid (an average of $6,000). Their children also qualify for Medicaid. In reality, these families are still on welfare because they are still receiving benefits and not working—call it 'welfare lite.'" It's not clear what makes this arrangement "lite," given that all five forms of aid have seen their budgets increase since Bush took office.

In March, USA Today examined 25 programs, from Medicaid to the Earned Income Tax Credit. In nearly all of them, enrollment grew. Congress expanded eligibility for several, usually with the proviso that the recipients also work. But for the most part, this growth was a matter of the existing programs stretching to take on more clients as they fell below the poverty line. That doesn't necessarily constitute an increase in the number of people getting benefits: USA Today calculated that overall enrollment increased 17 percent from 2000 to 2005—"the biggest five-year increase in 40 years"—but that double-counts people who joined more than one program. But it certainly isn't the unambiguous contraction you see if you look at TANF alone.

Lest we forget, incarceration expanded considerably during this period as well. It is not true, as some leftists have suggested, that the people who left the welfare rolls simply moved en masse to jail. But there is an overlap; and, at any rate, any measurement of the number of Americans who depend on the government for sustenance should account for the 2,186,230 people incarcerated in the country's prisons and jails—up from 1,630,940 in 1996.

Money spent. Again, a narrow focus on TANF gives the impression that welfare outlays are down. Spending on that one program dropped severely in Clinton's second term, and has remained roughly flat under his successor. But overall spending on transfer payments has increased radically, particularly under Bush. That shouldn't be surprising, given that government spending overall has increased radically under Bush. The tricky issue—particularly for those of us who are inclined to regard any transfer payment as welfare, whether the recipient is a single mom or a multinational corporation—is discerning which spending does not fall into the welfare category.

I'm not going to go through every item in the budget. I'll just note that even by the narrowest definition of welfare spending—programs aimed at fighting poverty—the figure has gone up 39 percent during the Bush presidency. There isn't any ambiguity here. The government is spending more money on welfare—and with the coming explosion in entitlements, you can expect it to spend even more in the future.

Intrusiveness. I said earlier that the history of the welfare state is linked closely to the history of social engineering and total institutions. Granted: Even in the 19th century, more people received benefits via non-institutionalized "outdoor relief" than through a stay in the poorhouse. But the Progressive Era ideologues who founded the modern welfare state saw outdoor relief as an evil to be contained, in part because it was frequently distributed by urban ward bosses, not credentialed professionals. And after the '30s, as the feds plunged deeper into dispensing "outdoor" funds, the money was soon followed by the sorts of surveillance and other rituals of degradation that once were reserved for the poorhouse. Piven and Cloward, for example, describe how AFDC mothers in this period were "often forced to answer questions about their sexual behavior ('When did you last menstruate?'), open their closets to inspection ('Whose pants are those?'), and permit their children to be interrogated ('Do any men visit your mother?'). Unannounced raids, usually after midnight and without benefit of warrant, in which a recipient's home is searched for 'immoral' activities, have also been part of life on AFDC." Government money usually comes with strings attached, and a large part of the history of welfare is the history of bureaucrats trying to tighten those strings.

For the most part, the agitation that preceded the reforms of the '90s reflected that tradition of imposing controls, not the libertarian tradition of opposing the welfare state itself. Neoconservative critics such as Myron Magnet and James Q. Wilson were never averse to, say, putting welfare mothers into strictly supervised group homes. And center-left writers such as Mickey Kaus called for a complex system of government-guaranteed jobs that was both more punitive and more expensive than the old order.

Ten years later, the most striking thing isn't how the poor have adapted to TANF's new rules, which may be more stringent than the previous system but still aren't as constraining as the ideas Magnet, Wilson, or Kaus proposed. It isn't even the increasingly rigid institutions that have filled the social space the poorhouse left behind. (Wagner's book makes a convincing case that the modern homeless shelter tends to be more draconian than the almshouses he studied.) It's how the intrusiveness of the welfare state has climbed up the social ladder, affecting not just the indigent but the wealthy and middle-class beneficiaries (and potential beneficiaries) of the entitlement state. On the left, "public health" Fabians routinely justify restrictions on personal choices—smoking, eating, wearing a helmet—on the grounds that the public will pay the bill if your decision lands you in the hospital. On the right, the border-control crowd uses essentially the same argument against freedom of movement and freedom of contract: As long as we're paying for Mexicans to use our schools and emergency rooms, they argue, it makes sense to restrict immigration.

Immigration, incidentally, is the one area where welfare still has an impact on the culture wars. In the old days, you could rile up red-meat conservatives by arguing the relief rolls were filled with shiftless, undeserving bums living high on the taxpayers' dime. Today, the immigration debate centers not on services meant for the desperate but on services meant for everyone: schools, hospitals, public amenities. Immigrants aren't accused of pretending to be poor or pretending to look for a job. They're accused of pretending to be Americans, of taking goods that rightfully belong to all us citizens regardless of class.

Paupers or millionaires, we're all on welfare now—or might as well be, to judge from the state of our liberties. That's one way to end welfare as we knew it.