Mike Kueber's Blog

June 5, 2011

Welfare as we know it in 2011

Liberals often complain that America doesn’t provide a world-class safety net for its poor, especially since 1996 when President Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.”  Conservatives respond that reports on the demise of welfare in America are greatly exaggerated.

Prior to 1996, the cornerstone of American welfare was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC).  AFDC was an open-ended entitlement, with each state given limitless money by the federal government.  Thus, there was no incentive for states to direct welfare funds to the neediest recipients or to encourage individuals to go off welfare because the state lost federal money when someone left the system.  Furthermore, there were social-engineering complaints that AFDC encouraged poor women to have kids and remain unmarried.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWOR), which gave control of the welfare system back to the states.  The PRWOR, which gave each state a flat-rate per state based on population, eliminated the AFDC and replaced it with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with the emphasis on temporary.  It encouraged states to require some sort of employment search and imposed a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance.

TANF was generally considered a success by liberals and conservatives because it resulted in a steep drop in the number of people on welfare (from 12.3 million receiving AFDC in 1996 to 4.4 million received TANF in 2010), increased employment, and reduced child poverty.  In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, however, liberals are reconsidering whether the earlier good numbers were merely a fortuitous result of a booming economy.  With that in mind, President Obama used his Economic Stimulus Act of 2009 to again base federal grants to the states on the number of people signed up for welfare rather than at a flat rate, which will encourage states to maximize participation in their welfare programs.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

Although AFDC and its successor TANF are what most people think of when referring to government welfare, these programs are only a small part of America’s patchwork of welfare.  In fact, TANF is not even the only current cash disbursement to the needy – the other is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  The EITC, started in 1975, provides a tax credit to low- and moderate-income workers, and when the EITC exceeds the
amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund to those who qualify for the credit.  For tax year 2010, the maximum EITC for a person or couple without qualifying children is $457, with one qualifying child is $3,050, with two qualifying children is $5,036, and with three or more qualifying children is $5,666.  In 2004, the program cost $34 billion.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP is the modern-day successor to the Food Stamp program, which was created by the Food Stamp Act of 1964.  There are currently 44 million Americans receiving food stamps, and program costs nearly $50 billion.  Although liberals sometimes contend that food stamps primarily benefit African-Americans, actually 43% of all beneficiaries are white, 33% are African-American, 19% Hispanic, and 2% Asian.  Welfare reform in 1996 imposed some duration limits on receiving food stamps, but these limits do not apply to children, who comprise 49% of the beneficiaries.
Illegal immigrants are not entitled to food stamps, but their citizen children are.

Low-income housing (Section 8)

Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 authorizes the federal government to provide rental-housing assistance.  It currently provides benefits, primarily through the Housing Choice Voucher program, to 3.1 million low-income households.  Typically, tenants pay about 30% of their income for rent, while the rest of the rent is paid with federal money.  Thus, the more income that a beneficiary makes, the less the federal government will subsidize.

Medicaid and ObamaCare

Medicaid was created in 1965 as a part of the Social Security Act, and although participation by each state is voluntary (states pay for almost one-half of all costs), all states have participated since 1982 when Arizona joined.  It is a means-tested health program, but poverty alone does not necessarily qualify someone for Medicaid.  Beneficiaries (over 60 million) are primarily low-income households with children (45 million),
disabled people ((9 million), and poor old people in nursing homes (6 million).   ObamaCare will significantly expand the scope of Medicaid by providing coverage to all adults with income up to 133% of the poverty line.  The cost of Medicaid is already approaching $400 million a year and will skyrocket under ObamaCare.


To summarize, America still provides welfare through TANF, but there is a five-year lifetime limit on cash payments.  The EITC provides a tax credit to low-income workers, primarily those with kids.  SNAP provides food to low-income people, and there are no duration limits to children.  Section 8 provides housing at a cost that is limited to 30% of a person’s income.  And finally Medicaid under ObamaCare will provide full medical coverage.

The only thing left is the job that candidate Obama promised to everyone who wants one, but as a conservative wag noted, what
left-thinking person wants a job when they already have all of these other fine benefits.

January 23, 2011

Sunday book review #10 – The Next Big Story by Soledad O’Brien

Full disclosure – I read The Next Big Story with a disposition not to like Soledad O’Brien because I recently heard her interviewed on TV justifying her affirmative-action admission to Harvard.  In the interview, she cited her mother for saying that it was better to get into Harvard because you are black than to be excluded from Harvard because you are black.  I think that philosophy is wrong, even if it comes from a saintly mother.

The first story described in the book supported my theory that Soledad was a life-long elitist with a feeling of entitlement.  The incident concerned an 11-year-old Soledad and her 14-year-old sister Estela visiting a local Long Island photographer to have their picture taken for a gift to their mother.  Although the 30-year-old white photographer was “exceeding polite,” he rocked the girls’ world by asking, “Forgive me for asking, but are you black?”  

While Soledad is speechless because the “nice-sounding words make her feel small and embarrassed, my sister is light-years ahead of me.  She starts to shred the guy.  ‘Offend us?  Offend us?  By asking if we are black?’ ….  Estela is totally on it.  I am very impressed that she can articulate her anger so well at fourteen.  She is already able to take apart a grown man.  She’s so much more on top of it than me.  ‘Forgive me if I’m offending you…’  We don’t have to take this crap.  And from a photographer?  Estella gives me the universal body language for ‘we’re taking a walk’ and off we go.”

I don’t know how Soledad defines “articulate,” but I fail to discern anything articulate in Estella’s speech.  Further, I don’t know what is impressive about a 14-year-old girl being able to take apart an exceedingly polite 30-year-old photographer.  And finally, I don’t know what being a photographer has to do with level of insult one should accept.

Only a few pages later in the book, Soledad irritated me even more in insulting her hometown of Smithtown on Long Island.  Although Soledad admits that Smithtown was a wonderful place to grow up, she gratuitously impugns Smithtown by describing recent litigation over the town’s resistance to accept Section 8 housing from non-residents from the NYC environs:

  • This is one of the reasons my town was split into two – a landing place for the American dream had slammed the door shut on anyone new.  That is not what being American is about.  Our communities thrive because they renew themselves with people who bring in new ideas and refresh out culture.  Smithtown could have only gotten better by welcoming people aspiring to make good.  The duality of my home town didn’t have to exist.  They had the choice to embrace new people and encourage change or reject newcomers and limit growth.  My parents had so much to contribute to Smithtown, including six children who appreciated the obvious benefits of where they lived and went on to succeed.  We are proof that a choice to welcome newcomers can help a community thrive.”

The preceding passage is incredible.  Is it disgraceful for a rural city to resist an influx of Section 8 people from the NYC metro area?  Why does Soledad think her parents chose to live in Smithtown instead of NYC?  Does Soledad seriously equate the value added to a city by her family (headed by a college professor and a high school teacher) with that of a family living in Section 8 housing? 

Soledad left Smithtown to enroll like her four older siblings at Harvard.  Instead of directly addressing the role of affirmative action in her matriculation, Soledad mentions it only indirectly – “I am here because I have strong grades.  They like strong grades.  I was a woman and they needed women, a person of color and they wanted people of color.”

After college, Soledad became a “minority writer trainee” for an NBC TV station WBZ in Boston, and the doubts about her qualifications began – “Once you’ve been tagged a minority, the strange process begins.  At times I feel like I have a question mark hovering over my head.  Why are you here?  It is your race?  Do you have any skills, anyway?…  I demand to know what I need to know to get to the next level.”  That sounds to me like a prototypical sense of entitlement.

In 1993, after five years in Boston as a field producer, Soledad moved to an NBC station KRON in San Francisco because her boyfriend lived there.  Although she made less money, she would finally be on the air. 

In 1996, after floundering for three years at KRON (“I feel stuck at KRON.  The news director is clear I’ll never have a chance to anchor.  I feel like I am one woman too many.  I am frustrated because I am not growing my skill sets.”), Soledad landed a local job with newly-created MSNBC anchoring a technology show.  Although the technology show was quickly cancelled, MSNBC offered Soledad a job in NYC anchoring its morning newscast, Morning Blend.

In 1999, Soledad moves to NBC to anchor Weekend Today with Jack Ford and later David Bloom (and a third anchor she never names).  The experience is not a good one because there is only one serious interview a day, and Ford/Bloom fight her for it.  The rest of the time is spent on cooking and fashion.

In 2003, Soledad left NBC to move to CNN, where she became an anchor on American Morning with Bill Hemmer.  She says she moved because she wanted to get back to serious reporting.  Her first big story on CNN was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  From that experience, Soledad learned that people will do incredible things to take care of themselves and that this skill is essential because government is so incompetent at taking care of its citizens, especially if those citizens are minorities or disadvantaged:

  • The hurricane hit on Monday.  It’s Friday.  This all makes no sense to me.  By now this place should be abuzz with rescue services, with government relief from a storm.  I feel like I am in another country….  How can this be?  I see the fear, the panic.  Anger rises into a tight knot behind my forehead….  I join the clutch of exhausted CNN staffers.  No one says more than they have to.  I begin to report.”

Don’t you get chills just reading how noble and selfless Soledad and CNN were?  She goes on to say:

  • “The places hit by Hurricane Katrina couldn’t rely on regular services; they required a massive national response, a cavalry of forces only a country can muster.  Yet the cavalry didn’t arrive.  To survive, you had to be ready to help yourself.  If that makes you angry, it should.  It makes me angry, too.  But anger doesn’t get you pulled off the roof of your house when the waters rise.”

A noteworthy incident with Jesse Jackson occurred while Soledad anchored American Morning.  During a lunch, he begins grousing to her about the absence of black anchors on CNN.  Soledad naturally cuts him off and reminds him that she anchors American Morning:

  • “He knows that.  He looks me in the eye and reaches his fingers over to tap a spot of skin on my right hand.  He shakes his head.  ‘You don’t count,’ he says.  I wasn’t sure what that means….  I was angry and embarrassed, which rarely happens at the same time for me.  Jesse Jackson managed to make me ashamed of my skin color….  I am immediately upset and annoyed and the more annoyed I am, the more upset and pissed off….  I am a product of my parents (black woman, white man), my town (mostly white), multiracial to be sure, but not black?…  After two weeks of stewing, I sit upright one day, angry at myself for not telling this man he is wrong….  So I should have called him up and said, ‘What the heck does that mean?’ But I didn’t.  I slunk away.”

Obviously, this was not one of Soledad’s finer moments.  After all these years, she still didn’t have the confrontational fire that he sister Estela displayed while a 14-year-old.  Or perhaps she was acted this way because she was dealing with Jesse Jackson instead of a photographer. 

Only recently, Soledad called Jackson and asked for an explanation.  He responded that he wasn’t aware that she was black.  He thought her brown skin tone came from somewhere other than Africa.  This was a simple misunderstanding that could have been corrected it Soledad had managed to speak up.

As the Katrina debacle wound down, so did the ratings of American Morning.  Bill Hemmer was replaced by Miles O’Brien (no relation), but the hemorrhaging of ratings did not stop.  With no hard news stories, the ratings for American Morning dropped 6% and it was “overshadowed by the personality-driven Fox & Friends.”  Even the ratings for MSNBC’s simulcast of Don Imus grew by 39% and passed American Morning.  Soledad and Miles were told that they were “great reporters but not magnetic anchors” and were fired in 2007.  Soledad was reassigned to long-form documentaries called CNN Presents.

Soledad’s first documentary was a two-night, four-hour special called Black in America.  Following the special, Jesse Jackson’s slight became more prevalent as bloggers openly challenged Soledad on whether she was black enough to report about blacks.  One said, “Can Soledad O’Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not sounding black, and not being married to a black man?”  Soledad’s response was that, way back in Smithtown, her mom and dad had decided that their kids would identify themselves as black Latinos.  This was convenient because Soledad’s next big documentary was Latino in America

Following Latino in America, CNN created a new unit for Soledad called In America, which was to provide a voice to “voiceless communities” and “marginalized individuals.”  Although the unit was to focus on Americans, the next big story was Haiti, and Soledad refused to miss it:

  • I am dying to go.  The newsroom duties just vanish at moments like this.  I’m a journalist.  I have a perspective on how to tell the human story that is unique.  I won’t go and do what everyone else is doing.  I will add something more.  I need to be there.  But how am I going to get in?  At the moment no one is asking me to go…. I grab my producers and we go from office to office….  I go home that night and want to scream up at the sky.  How unimaginably awful it must be in Haiti.  I want to be there.  I want to help in the way reporters can help.  I want to spread the word of what the people need….  There is an emotional line you cross as a reporter from feeling an embarrassing thrill at the magnitude of the story you are telling to experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.”

Naturally, the SVPs from Newsgathering and Programming eventually gave Soledad the green light.  She was “to focus hard on something no one else is doing.  He wants us to come back with something special so the pressure is on.  We are bound for Haiti.”

 Upon arriving at Haiti, Soledad was reminded of the desperate people in New Orleans.  She expects nothing of Haiti, but is amazed at the relief efforts underway.  “This makes it all the more remarkable that our government allowed its people to languish in New Orleans.  I feel as if the Americans here are the same ones who materialized in Louisiana once they realized that the government wasn’t up to the task.”  Based on her comments, you might think Soledad believes people should be able to sit on their hands while goverment rescues them. 

Soledad finishes her book by taking a nostalgic return visit to her childhood friends in Smithtown.  Some have done well; others haven’t.  She doesn’t understand why everyone in America can’t be as successful as she has been. 

Soledad’s success is especially remarkable when you consider that she has been a weak or mediocre performer in virtually every job she has held.  Yet she has the audacity to walk away from that job and demand and receive a better job.  Where do you get chutzpah like that?  To borrow Ann Richard’s joke about Bush-41, Soledad was born on third base and thought she hit a triple.