Earlier this week a new study by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) showed that a Minnesota welfare reform pilot program brought “substantial, far-ranging improvements in the lives of single parents who were long-term welfare recipients.” The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) improved employment, reduced poverty, increased marriage and marital stability, and improved school performance of children. The study was held up as proof of the success of current welfare reform efforts.
Sadly, the public has been stung with the classic “bait and switch.”
Welfare reformers and public officials claimed success, but the program studied by MDRC represents a kind of welfare reform that has been abandoned. While the MFIP retains its old name, the new program is very different. The MFIP pilot program that helped raise incomes and keep families together actually increased the cost of welfare and kept more people on welfare longer, two things that are antithetical to current welfare policy. The generous incentives and loosened eligibility of the old MFIP program were essential to the positive results found in the study, but these elements have been stripped out in favor of a roll-slashing, get-tough, no-training approach similar to what we have in Oregon.
Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura took credit for the study’s results, hailing it as proof of the success of his welfare reform effort. Never mind that the pilot program was implemented before he took office. Never mind that the work incentives and lack of punitive provisions of the pilot program represent a kind of welfare reform that Ventura and other work-first boosters reject.
Some of the ways the current MFIP is different from the pilot project include implementation of time limits, lowering of income eligibility from 140% to 120% of poverty, reduced access to training, less generous incentives, additional sanctions, and new requirements for involvement in “work related activities” at the expense of training and barrier removal. The many program changes led MDRC researchers to caution that the study’s results “cannot be assumed to apply directly to the new statewide version of the program.” Welfare agency staff also have larger caseloads, making it impossible to provide the same level and quality of service received by pilot project participants.
If this whole scenario sounds familiar to Oregonians, it should.
In 1998 MDRC released a study of Portland’s welfare program. The study found that the program helped welfare recipients find and retain good jobs, a first step in the move toward self-sufficiency. By the time the study was released, however, Oregon’s welfare system had already abandoned key elements of the Portland program. Oregon stopped emphasizing finding and taking good jobs and not just any job, and adopted a new no-training-get-to-work approach. This radical reversal did not stop Oregon’s governor and agency officials from taking credit for the success of the MDRC-studied program that they had abandoned three years earlier.
It is disappointing to see public officials in Minnesota and Oregon being disingenuous. It is also sad that the real story of welfare reform policies that truly work to alleviate poverty and help families gets lost in the public officials’ spin. Both of MDRC’s studies showed that welfare policies can help poor families when they emphasize the carrot and not the stick. Generous work incentives, training opportunities, and a focus on finding and keeping decent paying work are policies that have been shown to work in Minnesota and in Portland. Agency officials and politicians have used the good news contained in these studies to push a very different set of policies.
Just like the classic bait-and-switch sales approach, state officials are talking about apples and giving us oranges. Taxpayers and poor families with children suffer the consequences.