Welfare Queens, Performance Incentives, and Public Transportation Planning

If you ever attend pub quizzes you will be familiar with the question format where three things are listed and participants must say how they are related. Quick – welfare queens, performance incentives, and public transportation. How are they related? Stumped? Read on to find out.

Myth of the Welfare Queen

reagan 76 buttonThe myth of the welfare queen is the racially-tinged culmination of centuries of distrust of the poor. The term “welfare queen” was coined by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in a 1976 campaign speech, four years before he was elected to the office. The story was based on an actual woman, Linda Taylor, who bilked the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The mythology and its long-standing power, however, came about long before Reagan’s speech. It’s a power narrative that defines the poor as a group of people that are failures because they do not “adhere to a set of core American values.” “From this perspective, single motherhood, divorce, desertion, and a failure to hold the family unit together become the causes of their impoverished condition. In short, welfare dependency is a function of the moral failings of poor women. Their unwillingness to adhere to the principles of hard work, family values and sexual control thus deem them as undeserving.” (Gillam, 1999)

Both Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935 by Linda Gordon and From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America by Walter I. Trattner outline how “relief,” as welfare was first called, started as a program for Civil War widows – white women who were unattached to a man due to the war (pitied and entitled). As more black women and never married women began to apply (not pitied and unentitled) through the 1930s to the 1950s, public sentiment about this relief changed and program rules and requirements along with it.

There has always (at least since Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger in 1867) been a tension between the deserving and undeserving poor in the United States. The “deserving” poor are poor through no moral fault of their own. Their poverty is due to old age, legitimate widowhood, or disability (so long as it is not disability caused by addiction or mental illness). The undeserving poor are those we have deemed to have made bad choices or whose poverty is due to their moral failings. These are people of color generally, the able-bodied, single mothers, and the addicted and mentally ill. Our poverty policies and programs walk the line between these two ideas, wanting to provide aid to the deserving while not incentivizing the undeserving to give up employment and useful occupation.

The result is that programs to help the poor focus almost solely on the individual, not the system within which they live. Our interventions focus on “fixing” what is wrong with these morally failed individuals. We help people write resumes, get social services to address family struggles, give people bus tokens, provide job interview practice, and teach “soft skills” like how to dress professionally, show up on time, and be polite.

workforce center north st paul

Ramsey County Workforce Center in North Saint Paul.

Performance Incentives

Here is when we start to have lots of fun. The welfare queen myth shapes the performance measures and the financial incentives that are based on them. There are two main performance measures for the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), which is our state’s cash assistance program for families partially funded by Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) at the federal level. The first is the Work Participation Rate (WPR). The WPR is a federal measure. States can be financially penalized for not meeting its complicated requirements (although this has never happened in Minnesota). The WPR is a process measure, meaning that it measures the types and amount of time participants spend doing certain activities, rather than outcomes such as having a job, getting off welfare, or getting out of poverty. Although it was put in place with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (welfare reform), its requirements and documentation were tightened considerably as part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

Employment Service Providers (often Workforce Centers) track participants in 12 categories of countable “core” activities, such as on-the-job training, job search and job readiness assistance, or community service volunteer work, and “non-core” activities that can only be counted when participants have at least 20 hours a week of “core” activities. Non-core activities include education and job skills training. No more than 30 percent of families statewide are allowed to have their time in educational or vocational programs counted (including teens in high school). There are strict requirements of how long activities can be counted. For example, participants are only allowed six weeks of job search and no more than four can be consecutive.

The result of the WPR has been a move from job counselling in the sense of helping individuals find jobs that match their abilities and interests, to accounting. Now job counselors track documentation and make sure participants are doing the right activities in the right order to meet the WPR. Of course, this varies by Employment Service Provider with some rigidly focused on the WPR to others who ignore it completely. Overall, however, the WPR and the fear of financial penalties has further ingrained the focus on fixing an individual.

Minnesota has done a good job recognizing this and has tried to move away from a strong focus on the WPR. While the state is still beholden to it by the federal government, Minnesota changed the way it incentivizes counties, who actually do the work of processing welfare applications and providing job services. Before this year, each county was held responsible for the WPR and could be penalized for not meeting it in their individual county. Starting this year, counties are no longer held accountable to the WPR, but can receive bonus funds if they perform well on the Self-Support Index (S-SI), our second performance measure. (§ 256J.626, Subd. 7)

The S-SI is an outcome measure that counts the number of participants in a baseline quarter who were either off the program or working at least 30 hours a week three years later. It is a nifty regression analysis that controls for factors beyond a county’s control like the unemployment rate, child poverty rate, and participant characteristics. Each county is given an Expected Range of Performance based upon the regression analysis. A poor county with high unemployment and lots of participants without high school diplomas would have a lower expectation than a county with low unemployment and lots of two parent households. Starting in 2016, counties that meet or exceed their expected range will be given a bonus.

I like the S-SI, not only because I worked in the unit that produces it for many years, but because it focuses on outcomes. They are still individual outcomes, and human services professionals are long taught to focus on individuals. However, it does not prescribe activities or process like the WPR. Counties are free to experiment and explore interventions that would be fit their client population.

Waiting for the bus in downtown Saint Paul.

Waiting for the bus in downtown Saint Paul. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

Public Transportation Planning

This post was inspired by a comment on Alex Cecchini’s recent post about drive thrus in Minneapolis that jokingly suggested giving cars to poor people because it is a necessity to drive. Working as a researcher and program evaluator in welfare (or cash assistance as we call it) for more than 10 years, I have seen programs that give cars to poor people go in and out of fashion. So, the comment may have been in jest, but this has been seen as a serious solution at times.

When asked about barriers to employment, people receiving cash assistance usually name two big barriers – access to child care and transportation. The need for reliable transportation looks different in Minneapolis and Saint Paul than it does in rural areas. In some areas of our state a car is a necessity. When I did interviews for a wage subsidy program evaluation, I found participants in very rural southwest Minnesota driving an hour for a job at Walmart because that was the only job available and the only housing they could afford.

In that same project, I found workers at a call center near Bemidji could not keep their jobs due to struggles with the public transportation system. Paul Bunyon Transit is a dial-a-ride service. You call for a bus and they come in a given time window, which was often wider than an hour. Workers needing to drop children off at school or day care and then get to work at a specific time would often be late because the window was unpredictable or they would be left sitting outside work for an hour before their start time. Leaving work they would incur late pick-up fees at child care centers because they could not predict when they would arrive. Shifts were constantly being changed at the call center so the time they needed the bus was also unpredictable. So, although transportation exists, it was not workable for these people.

In the Twin Cities we have a decent transit system. I use it all the time and can almost always get to where I need to go, within certain parameters. Then again, I work a first shift job in a downtown. However, as recent articles like this illustrate, transit does not work well for people with reverse commutes or non-traditional work hours. It gets more complicated when day care stops are added. Participants trying to get from one suburb to another, from the inner city to Eden Prairie, or who get off work anywhere after midnight often have trouble with transit. As someone who travels on transit with small children, I know firsthand the challenge of getting to the bus stop on time when a three year old has a different agenda than mine. At least my route comes every 12 minutes and my employer allows me a flexible start time. Having a route that comes every 30 minutes, an inflexible employer, and a toddler is a recipe for losing a job.

Our intervention focus though is solely on the individual. Give this person a bus pass, regardless of the availability of transit. Help with gas cards, even if it is unsustainable to drive an hour to work for minimum wage. That is partially a result of the welfare myth and poverty as an individual failing. It is further incentivized and codified by our performance measures, in particular the WPR.

What if human services shifted some of its focus to systems? Rather than focusing solely on the individual and their problems, we looked to the system in which they were struggling?

Not that I believe that human services agencies have a ton of weight and, if we only changed, the entire system would change. Welfare itself is actually quite small (in December 2014 there were only 24,752 adults and 41,413 children on MFIP statewide). We are certainly not the area of government with the most funding. Our army of social workers in ratty office chairs with outdated technology will not be able to change how people access transportation alone.

First, it would be a healthy change for everyone to change some of our focus away how the welfare myth narrative encourages us to think about people on welfare. That in itself would be good.

For transportation, however, human services could be an important voice at the table. In some areas, like career pathways partnerships, human services has successfully partnered with businesses, post-secondary institutions, and adult basic education to make systemic changes in how we approach the transition from post-secondary education to employment. We are also doing this in the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, which brings together nine state agencies with their different expertise and funding to tackle homelessness. It can be done. If local and state human services agencies were part of the transportation conversation, we could bring different perspectives, a voice for the poorest in our society, and some funding.

Note that while I was an employee of the Minnesota Department of Human Services for 10 years and am currently an employee of Ramsey County Community Human Services, my opinions in this article are my own.

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4 Responses to Welfare Queens, Performance Incentives, and Public Transportation Planning

  1. Emily Metcalfe February 12, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    Great article! My sister and I were talking this morning about how the concept of “deserving” is used to both legitimize and moralize the way capitalism distributes wealth. You give a great primer on how that actually plays out for people needing assistance. And how improving transportation options lowers barriers to employment.

  2. Joe February 12, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    Thanks for the write-up. Was an interesting read.

  3. James Warden
    James Warden February 12, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

    Awesome post. Thanks for doing this. I learned a ton!

  4. Rosa February 13, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    This is great, Dana. Thank you!