Work Requirements Hurt Children

And since when is Mitt Romney part of "the Left"?

Oren Cass, writing for the home team at National Review, has offered an omnibus reply to the many critics of his New York Times op-ed arguing against Mitt Romney’s proposed child allowance, which does not condition eligibility on work. I haven’t read all the other critiques, so I can’t say whether Cass portrays them fairly. I can say, however, that I’m certain I disagree with Matt Bruening about a thing or two and I suspect that members of “the Left” do not consider me a member of “the Left.” Nevertheless…

It’s revealing when there’s a big gap between home-game and away-game rhetoric. Cass’s choice to cast himself as a champion of conservative ideals against ideologically blinkered Jacobin fanatics suggests that he would rather that readers of the National Review come down with a convenient spot of amnesia about the fact that we’re talking about a bill by Mitt Romney here. Scrawling “despised ideological other” on Post-Its with crayons and slapping them to the foreheads of ideologically various interlocutors smacks of flop sweat, not dialectical success.

Unless I missed big news, Senator Romney (for whom Cass once worked!) is not now a member of the “the Squad,” Antifa, the Industrial Workers of the World or any other part of “the Left.” When the 2012 Republican Party nominee for president (the former CEO of Bain Capital and a devout Mormon with 22 grandchildren) rejects work requirements in legislation proposing a child benefit, it might be worth grappling honestly with the possibility that he’s done so for non-leftist reasons? Sure, it’s easier to prejudice a conservative audience against a conservative policy proposal by misrepresenting those defending it as ideological extremists, but nobody ever said intellectual honesty is easy.

Anyway, Cass claims that “the Left” is making a number of “empirically wrong and politically foolish” commitments:

One is that we should make no distinction between households that are attempting to support themselves through work and those that are not — apparently even the category of “non-working poor” is an offensive one. The subtext evinces  an  attitude that connection to the labor force isn’t all that important anyway. This thinking may earn nods of approval in some affluent circles, but it is understandably unpopular with the vast majority of Americans who are working to support themselves and take pride in that effort. It is also toxic to struggling families, for whom having a job remains quite important to prospects of future success.

Personally, I have no problem making a distinction between self-supporting households and those needing assistance. Nor do I believe that “non-working poor” is an offensive category. Perhaps Cass saw something between the lines of my piece, but I assure you that it contains no coded esoteric doctrine to the effect that “connection to the labor force isn’t all that important.” Indeed, I suggested that Romney’s unconditional child allowance is more likely to facilitate education and forms of work that lead to secure, productive integration into the labor force.

Cass begs the question when he implies that an unconditional benefit for children will sunder their parents’ relationship to work. And he again fails to acknowledge the vast range of circumstances in which work may be infeasible and not in the least due to sloth or a lack of ambition. More worryingly, he either can’t understand or won’t acknowledge the brutally obvious fact that if a child allowance, like the one he proposes, improves the lives and prospects of children with working parents, it is even more likely to improve the lives and prospects of poorer children with non-working parents.

Cass writes that “[t]his question — whether cash benefits should go to households regardless of work — promises to be a central debate in the coming years.”

This has been a central debate for some time. Perhaps Cass is just now catching up? Some of us have been arguing in favor of a guaranteed minimum income for years — and not from the left. Here’s the score: Cass’s side of the debate has been losing badly. That’s why he has found himself in the uncomfortable position of arguing against mergers and acquisitions specialist Mitt Romney. And that’s why the work requirement in his own proposal for direct cash assistance to children has been whittled down to a mostly symbolic vestige of tough love ideological conservatism. He’s already lost. He can, at best, forestall the rout that will come when other conservatives eventually follow the lead of the only Republican in the Senate with solid bipartisan credibility on policy.

This is why, in my opinion, Cass insists on framing the debate in remarkably tendentious terms. It’s a rearguard action to save the viability of the principle of conditioning assistance on work, which is precious to many conservatives. Consider this passage:

Another unwise commitment is the premise that children are adorable free agents who should receive payments because they cannot work themselves — little disabled people whose support is fundamentally an obligation of the state rather than of their parents. The problem with this thinking becomes immediately obvious when trying to craft a “child allowance,” which cannot be paid to the children . . . because they are not little disabled people; they are children. While this facet of life makes many progressives uncomfortable, the unavoidable reality remains that people are not atomized individuals whose every need the state can meet; the institution of the family is indispensable, and the bonds and obligations between its members should be protected and reinforced, not lamented or ignored.

Okay, look… children are dependent because they lack the abilities needed to be self-sufficient — not unlike severely disabled adults. The point here (not mine, but Bruenig’s I think) is that somebody must take care of them and they’ll need money to do it. Yes, as I pointed out in my initial reply to Cass, benefits for dependents must go to their guardians. So, how exactly does a straightforward implication of the fact that children are dependent amount to a problem with the observation that they do in fact lack the capacities for independence?

Cass seems to concede that the support of disabled adults is “fundamentally an obligation of the state rather than of their parents,” which is interesting. The implication seems to be that supporting children is a normal obligation, but supporting disabled adults isn’t. And then I guess the thinking is that it therefore makes sense to see the state as having primary responsibility for disabled adults but not for kids?

I can follow the intuition here, but I don’t think it can bear much weight. Cass seems to me to be relying on a set of untenable binaries: child or adult, family or state. But how about we just dispense with false opposition? Let’s just say that the family is indeed absolutely indispensable and that’s why it’s crucial that the state sustain families by helping them care for their most vulnerable, dependent members — especially when times are tough.

When I was about twelve, my grandmother, who suffered from advanced dementia, moved in with my family. A year or so later, after she’d deteriorated past the point my mom could handle, my parents moved her into a care facility. She died a few months later. None of this was cheap, but Grandma D’s Social Security and Medicare made it possible for my mom to stay home and care for her with just my dad’s small-town chief of police salary. Which is to say, money from the government, which my dependent grandmother could no longer manage, “protected and reinforced” our family’s “bonds and obligations” by enabling my mother to not work but to care instead for her mother.

When she lived with us, my grandma usually couldn’t recognize me or my sisters. My mom, who was a tough nurse with a thick callous, cried nearly every day when, nearly every day, her mother said to her, “Dorothy, you look so old.” This is brutal, joyless, thankless work; it can be far harder than looking after a six-year-old and I think my mom aged half a decade that year. She did it anyway, out of love. My grandmother was confused, sometimes paranoid and very often afraid. Cass is right: there are many needs the state simply cannot meet. The state certainly could not have consoled my scared and disoriented grandma. But without her Social Security and Medicare, my mother probably couldn’t have consoled her much, either. She would have been working to make sure her mother wasn’t relegated to the terrors of a bare bones nursing home full of total strangers. Thanks to the state, my grandmother had her daughter at her side to sing along with hymns she never forgot.

Where’s the “atomism”? Where’s the dispensability of the family? Who in this debate believes that individuals are self-sufficient monads? Nobody. The entire thing is about the essential dependence of children and the scope of our collective responsibility to them. The role the state played in enabling my mother to care for her mother is basically the role that conservatives like Romney propose that the state play with respect to children. No one denies that parents bear primary responsibility for their children. No one is suggesting that the state is a viable alternative to mothers and father, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.

Moreover, everyone involved in this discussion agrees that child allowances help children. Cass is proposing one himself. But, again, if he thinks that child allowances help children generally, then he ought to think that they help children whose parents don’t work. His critics are asking, “Why deny to a subset of very poor children the same help you are willing to offer much more privileged children?” On its face, this seems perverse and cruel.

Cass whines and stomps around in a giant huff about what he sees as the unfairness of this perception. He seems to think that the existence of his own proposal, which would offer most children substantially more support than they currently receive, ought to render him immune from the perception of callousness. He’s somehow oblivious to the fact that his critics universally see him as proposing something awful because his own plan completely buys into the idea that direct cash assistance helps children. If direct government transfers of cash help kids so much, then why withhold cash transfers from kids who really need them? Cass never gets around to answering this question in a clear way. I can’t find it in his column and I can’t find it in his huffy rejoinder.

In my piece defending Mitt Romney’s conservative plan, I dispensed with Cass’s grandiose, hand-waving claim that a child benefit not conditioned on work “violates the principle of reciprocity at the heart of a durable social compact.” I explained the error he has made in arguing that parents must earn their children’s right not to suffer from deprivation. I explained how unconditional child benefits, in fact, support a durable social compact based on inter-generational reciprocity. Namely, we all depend on others continuing to have children and we’re better off if none of them are deprived of the conditions for the healthy development of their capacities. The wheel turns, and turns most smoothly, when we pay it forward. He didn’t have a word to say about any of this.

I think Cass’s position only makes sense if he’s claiming that the benefit to children of direct cash assistance is outweighed by the harm of having parents that don’t work. But why would it be? I gave a simple example of a single mother with two very young children who doesn’t work because childcare would cost more per hour than she could earn in wages. It’s not just economically irrational for her to work; it’s obviously better for her children if their own mother cares for them rather than making her family even poorer by having somebody else look after them while she works. This sort of circumstance is very common and accounts for a fair percentage of parents who don’t work. Cass does not say why working and losing money on childcare to make herself eligible for a child benefit would be better for her children than if she just got a no-questions-asked $8400/year child allowance to help raise her children.

Cass seems to worry that an unconditional child allowance will “reward” non-work and therefore increase the population of not-working parents. If this is the case, he needs to give us evidence that this is likely to happen (very plausible!) and then explain to us why we ought to care. If an unconditioned cash benefit leads a bunch of poor moms to stop taking shifts at Jimmy Johns and care for their kids instead is this worse for their kids? If the household ends up with more money to spend on milk and diapers and the kids also end up with more mom, it seems pretty likely that this is better for the kids. And it doesn’t seem like Cass disagrees.

Because he strongly affirms the general efficacy and desirability of direct cash assistance and even affirms that there’s an upside to cash benefits that enable parents to work less, the burden really is on him to justify denying it to this subset of needy kids in particular. The premises of his own proposal strongly suggest that these children (a) will suffer if they don’t get the benefit, (b) will end up relatively worse off than kids who do get the benefit, but (c) they won’t necessarily come out ahead off if their parents do work more. Cass quotes his own plan with Wells King to this effect:

The proposed structure does have the potential to reduce work effort for families that might choose to spend fewer hours in the labor force — whether the middle-income household that decides it can now make do without a second earner, or the single mother who finds it possible to go part-time and spend more afternoons with her kids. We see this as a benefit — the importance of work is in the role it assigns people as productive contributors, the habits and social interaction it promotes, and the opportunity for upward mobility it provides. This does not mean that more work is always better or that the two full-time earners or the single mother working double shifts are the desirable outcomes for public policy to promote.

How can he not see the problem he has set up for himself? The benefit of direct cash assistance is clear. The benefit of parents working less to spend time with their kids is clear. However, “the importance of work” here is numinous and abstract. Cass does seem to think that threatening to withhold assistance to needy children will be necessary to ransom some parents into assuming the role of “productive contributor” and to inculcate certain commendable habits. But childcare work is work.

Notice that Cass’s passage actively endorses one parent in two parent, two-income households dropping out of the labor market entirely. But won’t this parent stop seeing him- or herself as a “positive contributor?” Won’t their salutary habits of market participation erode? Will they miss out on the right kind of “social interaction”? If Cass says, “No, they won’t,” the same ought to go for single parents. If Cass says, “Well yes, they will,” then that ought to cut against the desirability of any parent choosing to drop out of the paid labor market to care for their kids full-time.

It’s hard to make sense of this inconsistency unless there is a principled distinction other than marriage between partnered and single moms. But I can think of no principled distinction. There is this, though:

58 percent of single parents are non-white, and 60 percent of single moms are non-white. It’s hard not to suspect a little bit of white paternalism in the implication that partnered stay-at-home moms don’t need a disciplinary state to inculcate and reinforce market-related virtues, but unpartnered stay-at-home moms do. If non-working solo parents are denied the child benefit, which kids disproportionately take the hit?

As a wise man once said, “This is America. Don’t catch you slippin’ now.”

I’d like to hear more about the mechanism through which Cass believes that work requirements will generate upward mobility that leaves some of America’s poorest children better off than they’d have been if their families had been given no-strings-attached cash assistance. Work requirements have generally failed as a poverty reduction tool, which is why they are currently in bad odor with experts. This 2016 study by CBPP’s Ladonna Pavetti is exemplary:

The evidence from an array of rigorous evaluations,[3] however, does not support the view that work requirements are highly effective, as their proponents often claim.  Instead, the research shows: 

  • Employment increases among recipients subject to work requirements were modest and faded over time (for more, see Finding #1). 

  • Stable employment among recipients subject to work requirements proved the exception, not the norm (for more, see Finding #2). 

  • Most recipients with significant barriers to employment never found work even after participating in work programs that were otherwise deemed successful (for more, see Finding #3).

  • Over the long term, the most successful programs supported efforts to boost the education and skills of those subject to work requirements, rather than simply requiring them to search for work or find a job (for more, see Finding #4).

  • The large majority of individuals subject to work requirements remained poor, and some became poorer (for more, see Finding #5).

I consider Pavetti’s work the gold standard on this issue. In a 2018 study on the failure of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) work requirements, she writes:

Work requirements have contributed to the near elimination of the cash safety net in many states, without generating lasting gains in work. As noted, more than 2 million TANF cases have been closed due to a work-oriented sanction since July 1997, and even more families have had their cash benefits reduced. Also, 20 states require families to comply with job-related requirements before approving their application for cash assistance. As a result of policies ending and denying benefits based on work requirements, along with other restrictive policies such as time limits, substantially fewer families receive cash assistance to help meet their basic needs today than before TANF’s creation. For every 100 families with children in poverty, only 23 receive cash benefits from TANF — down from 68 families in 1997, when TANF was fully implemented.[4]

Contrary to claims that reducing or eliminating benefits for not meeting a work requirement will compel parents to find work, studies consistently find lower employment rates among parents whose TANF cases were closed due to a work-oriented sanction than among those who left TANF for other reasons. In Illinois, for example, work-sanctioned parents were 44 percent less likely to be employed than those who were not sanctioned, even after controlling for previous work experience and other characteristics associated with employment.[5]

As it has become harder for single mothers to get direct financial assistance when they are not working, the number with neither jobs nor TANF has grown substantially over time. In 1995, the number of families receiving cash assistance in an average month exceeded the number of jobless single mothers by about a million. By 2016, the number of families receiving cash assistance in an average month was roughly 2 million below the number of jobless single mothers. (See Figure 1.)

Pavetti’s finding that “Work requirements have contributed to the near elimination of the cash safety net in many states,” is the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote that the “‘existing safety net’ barely exists at all,” which is why Cass is badly mistaken to suggest that no harm would be done were we abandon the blameless children of the non-working poor to the tender mercies of TANF and SNAP. I mean, look at this:

The children of those ~3.2 million non-working single mothers are precisely the ones Cass proposes to leave to the wolves. Over the decades, work requirements have led to fewer and fewer of these extremely vulnerable children receiving badly needed public assistance. And this has led to an increase in families experiencing “deep poverty” — an annual income less than half the official poverty line.

Not only have work requirements shredded the safety net for poor families with young children, leading to a brutal increase in extreme poverty, they’ve done so “without generating lasting gains in work.” Excuse my French, but what’s the fucking point? Mitt Romney is right — again!

Anyway, because I agreed with the findings of some of America’s most accomplished experts on the empirical record of work requirements, Cass suggests that I am “genuinely unfamiliar with the contours of the American safety net, on which we spend more than $1 trillion each year.” Tell it to Ladonna Pavetti, Oren.

The upshot of all this is that work requirements hurt children. I’ll repeat where this debate stands one more time for those of you who strolled in late. Cass agrees that direct cash assistance is a great idea that helps kids. He agrees that parents working less to care for their children can be a good for them. However, he has had nothing to say in response to my argument against his confused claim “the principle of reciprocity at the heart of a durable social compact” requires work requirements. Does he concede the point? Meanwhile, the evidence strongly suggests that work requirements make poverty worse and aren’t even effective in promoting stable work. So Cass needs to tell us why denying direct cash assistance to kids unless their parents work isn’t a terrible idea sure to harm millions of our country’s neediest children. But he hasn’t. He has told us that “the Left” is ignorant and impolitic.

I’ll save the question of the causal role of poverty in permanently mangling children’s brains and mental health for a separate post. Spoiler: there’s no question that it does. The hurt is literal and it can last a lifetime.


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