Update September 10, 2014: The Baker-Polito ticket is out with a new (post-primary) ad. It’s chock full of old ideas like “let’s require work for welfare.”
ORIGINAL POST: May 7, 2014
The Baker-Polito ticket announced yesterday that it’s going to spend this week campaigning on (drumroll)–welfare reform. (The press release is here on the Baker campaign website, under the “Travels with Charlie” tab.)
You might have thought that Baker would just take a victory lap on this issue. After all, he deserves much of the credit for the 1994 welfare reform law signed by his boss, Governor William Weld, that instituted a two-year time limit on benefits and mandatory work requirements for families whose youngest child was school aged. These changes, the Baker press release boasts, resulted in “a reduction in the welfare caseload of 50% from approximately 104,000 to approximately 48,000 due to reforms which got people back to work.”
The law has not changed much in 20 years. In fact, by one of the measures important to the Baker campaign, it has become even more strict: it now requires the parents of children as young as two years to work (in the Weld-Baker years, parents of school-aged children were required to work).
The low caseloads Baker attained have continued, too. During a period of years that includes the worst recession in our lifetimes, when a spike in the welfare caseload would not have been surprising, only a very modest (10 percent or so) increase occurred. Today the caseload is back in Baker territory, around 48,000 families.
So, you might have thought that Baker would be touting these stats as proof of his reformer chops instead of devoting an entire week to touring the state to bemoan the “culture of dependence” (yes, the same one he eradicated two decades ago). But then you would have failed to appreciate the important role that welfare has played of late in helping the Republicans distract the public from their desolate party agenda. For this week, at a minimum, they’re back to their fixation on this program that amounts to less than one percent of the state budget. Welfare must be reformed again so that, as the Baker campaign says, “it provides a true safety net for those who need it.”
Really? “A true safety net…?” The fact is that welfare grants have lost 40 percent of their value since 1989 and are farther than ever from being sufficient to lift a family out of poverty. An increase in the grant amount would be required just to keep up with 20 years of inflation, but Baker is not including any increase in his recommendations.
“…for those who need it?” Certainly not for all of them and far fewer than when Baker was last in charge. Back then, 92 percent of the families living in poverty in Massachusetts were receiving welfare. By 2010, that number had dropped to 45 percent. In other words, more people are living in poverty in Massachusetts today without welfare assistance, but the Baker campaign seems concerned solely with the “integrity” of the program.
Candidate Steve Grossman was quick to criticize Baker yesterday for trying to score cheap political points instead of offering real solutions to poverty. It will be interesting to see if and how his Democratic competitors respond and if in 2014 welfare rancor is finally exhausting itself as a campaign issue.