Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Failed GOP Solutions: Is Marriage Really the Right Answer to Poverty in Oklahoma? 1/2

Marriage-Nomadic Politicsby Nomad

In another example of failed Republican logic, one Oklahoma congressman thinks he might have solved the problem of poverty. Draft legislation, HB1908, authored by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, will set aside funding from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program for statewide public service announcements. 
The message?

Marriage is the best tool to fight poverty. Get married, stayed marriage and you won’t be poor.

The government program, TANF, (from which funding the public service ads would be drawn), is a federal-assistance program aimed at reforming past welfare programs. This Clinton era legislation was supposed to replace welfare payments with creating of employment opportunities. 

Importantly TANF allowed states greater discretion on how the federal dollars were to be spent. And the faith-based idea of encouraging people to marry is one major way Oklahoma decided to use the funding. In fact, Oklahoma is one of only two states that uses less than 10 percent of their grant for basic cash assistance. (In any case, the average TANF benefit is a mere $205 a month, hardly a sustainable income even considering Oklahoma’s relatively low cost of living.) 

Instead, the focus has been more on reducing out-of-wedlock births and increasing the rates and stability of marriages. That direction undoubtedly pleased the highly-active, highly-vocal Christian Right which plays an important role in local politics in the state. For example, in the past, members of one Christian Right group took the last Speaker of the House to task on such issues as not offering more support on banning Islamic law, immigration restrictions, for any discussion of gun control and for possible implementation of Affordable Health Care.

Un-Planning Parenthood

In Oklahoma, these religious groups have affected the legislative process in a number of ways. For example, at the same time as legislators were approving the spending federal funds on the faith-based marriage solution, they were also taking aim at Planned Parenthood
As you may know, this organization nationally provides health and preventative services to about 3 million patients a year.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of patients who use family planning clinics consider it their main source of health care. 
As one source observes:
Many uninsured and low-income women in rural areas would have no access to an affordable health care provider if the clinics were defunded.
The problem was, of course, the "preventative services." In an effort to stop abortion, legislators have made several clumsy attempts at de-funding Planned Parenthood. And yet, the organization estimates that controversial procedures, like abortion, account for only 4 percent of the services they provide. 
In truth, Planned Parenthood also provides affordable primary care services (which do include important things like contraception and pregnancy testing and prenatal services), often in rural, low-income parts of the country. And in Oklahoma, that's where the majority of single mothers call home. 

Nevertheless, the idea that marriage is the answer was picked up by several conservative states. In Oklahoma, the effort to encourage marriage took the form of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI).
The initiative, originally proposed by former Oklahoma Governor. Frank Keating in 2000, also uses federal welfare money to promote marriage through a variety of workshops, research projects and programs.  During the Bush administration, the initiative went nation-wide and the federal government now spends over a $150 million a year to encourage healthy marriage.The idea has been highly promoted by the neo-conservative think-tank, as the ideal solution to poverty. The organization likes to produce graphs showing that child poverty is reduced in married couples. Superficially, they seem to offer a solid case. 

However, critics begin poking holes in the idea back when Bush used it in his 2000 campaign. In a must-read analysis, political scientist Jean V. Hardisty,a senior scholar at The Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and President Emerita of Political Research Associates, viewed the approach in quite a different way:
Marriage promotion and fatherhood initiatives are just two examples of how the Right has moved from ideas to messaging to capturing political power, on to developing programs, and finally to policy implementation...In this case, the goal of the Right’s agenda is to replace “liberal” programs that are known to raise people out of poverty— such as education, jobs that pay a living wage, health care, child care, and subsidized housing.
Attempts to raise low-income women out of poverty with marriage and fatherhood programs are hardly benign. They elevate a patriarchal version of family structure, denigrate the role and abilities of single mothers, endorse marriage only for certain people (excluding same-sex couples), and further the stereotype of female welfare recipients and their children as socially and economically handicapped without the presence of a male family head. Further, they demonstrate how the public has been encouraged by the Right to feel free to invade the privacy of low income women and manipulate them by threatening their subsistence income.

In addition, there is, as we shall see, a problem with cause and effect. Simply stated: Marriage is the inevitable result of good economic policy, not the source of it. That may be too high a concept for most of the politicians in Oklahoma to grasp.

Reagan’s Myth and his Panacea

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth:  persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. --John F. Kennedy

In fact, the notion that marriage is the panacea to chronic poverty has a long pedigree that originates with the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan. In 1986 he said:
I'm talking about the crisis of family breakdowns, especially among the welfare poor, both black and white. In inner cities today, families, as we've always thought of them, are not even being formed... The family is the most basic support system there is... But for the children of child mothers and absentee fathers, there is often only a deepening cycle of futility, hopelessness, and despair..
We're in danger of creating a permanent culture of poverty as inescapable as any chain or bond; a second and separate America, an America of lost dreams and stunted lives. The irony is that misguided welfare programs instituted in the name of compassion have actually helped turn a shrinking problem into a national tragedy. .. Poverty, as measured by dependency, stopped shrinking and then actually began to grow worse. I guess you could say, poverty won the war. Poverty won in part because instead of helping the poor, government programs ruptured the bonds holding poor families together.
So according to Reagan, the breakdown of the family was cause of the problem. Moreover, Reagan believed that the government's war on poverty was actually to blame for that breakdown. Government was the cause of the cycle of dependency. Government, the usual suspect in all of the nation's problems in the Reagan mindset, only made the problem worse.

What Reagan said was not new. As far back as Kennedy, the idea was that, through poorly thought-out social programs, governments could waste of unlimited sums of money and could make the situation worse.   
But Reagan went further. Until that time, the breakdown in families had been a symptom of the problem, not the cause of poverty. This deceptive re-packaging of an old idea was accepted without much question and it has, in one form or another, been around ever since. 
He continues:
Perhaps the most insidious effect of welfare is its usurpation of the role of provider. In States where payments are highest, for instance, public assistance for a single mother can amount to much more than the usable income of a minimum wage job.
Never mind that few people can actually live on minimum wage, especially single mothers. After all, minimum wage is only what employers must pay workers, not what workers can sustain a family on. He is clearly confusing minimum wage with a living wage. And here is where the misinformation and error in logic play out.
In other words, it can pay for her to quit work. Many families are eligible for substantially higher benefits when the father is not present. What must it do to a man to know that his own children will be better off if he is never legally recognized as their father? Under existing welfare rules, a teenage girl who becomes pregnant can make herself eligible for welfare benefits that will set her up in an apartment of her own, provide medical care, and feed and clothe her. She only has to fulfill one condition—not marry or identify the father.
Thus was born the myth of the welfare queen (usually black). It was also news to a lot of people that single mothers didn't want to marry because it would jeopardize her eligibility for welfare. Thus was born the idea that the poor people were abusers of public goodwill and therefore did not deserve any help. What they needed was a lesson in personal responsibility.This notion has become the cornerstone of the neo-conservative approach to all social problems. 

Blame the victims. Pity and compassion for the poor was just more liberal guilt. Even when it came to children of the poor, the response was, not my problem, not with my tax dollars!   What the poor single mothers really need, they say, is tough love, not a government that rewards failure and coddles moochers. 

And yet the truth is very different. 

Most people who live below the poverty line in this country are employed. Of the households below the poverty line, a whopping 84% have somebody in the house who is working. And, nationally, two-thirds of poor children are in working households. Believing that all of the poor are taking advantage of the system is one way to avoid addressing the problem. 

Such thinking can lead to quotes like this:
"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."
That comes from former South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer (from 2003 to 2011). The truth about the poor in South Carolina is the same as it is all over the country. As one authoritative report tells us:
According to the most recent census data, a large proportion of adults in poverty in South Carolina are able to work—of 226,000 individuals living in working poor families, 77% are employed and more than 20% have a full-time, year-round worker. 
What were the results of Bauer's tough love attitude toward the poor? 
While Bauer was in office in South Carolina, there was a 23 percent increase in children whose parents lacked secure employment (from 2005 to 2010). A 13 percent increase in children living in poverty from 2008 to 2010. In South Carolina, one of every two children lives below that threshold. So if Bauer offered any solution to poverty- outside of looking the other way- it didn't seem to help anybody.
Nevertheless, according to Bauer and so many like him, poverty is not an economic problem, but a moral one. A case of poor behavior calling out for old time religion and tough love. These poor folk don't know any better.  But, like stray animals, we cannot reward  them.

Read more here:

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This way of thinking is still very much alive in places like Oklahoma. Yet the solutions offered by the right wing in many southern states have proved to be even larger wastes of federal dollars . These approaches may please the Christian Right, but in terms of effectiveness, they have shown every sign of being losers.
The effect? Nearly all Republican stronghold states (except Texas and Arkansas) take in more federal dollars than they contribute, The irony is, of course, these are the states that complain about government spending and Big government interference in our lives while local politicians complain about the poor asking for a "free handout." 

 “Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit” — Eli Khamarov

This isn't the first time the House Speaker has introduced legislation which punishes the poor. 
T.W. Shannon also drafted HB 1909, which would limit food stamp eligibility for able-bodied adults, under the age of fifty who do not have minor children, to those individuals who participate in qualified work activities at least 35 hours per week. In fairness, the term "qualified work activities" does include job training programs. However, since Washington  was unable to stop the sequester, job training programs will take a big cut from states' budgets. As once source explains:
Job Search Assistance to Help those in Oklahoma find Employment and Training will lose about $339,000 in funding for job search assistance, referral, and placement, meaning around 12,080 fewer people will get the help and skills they need to find employment.
So, with fewer training programs, the only way to qualify for food stamps would be finding employment. In effect, if you don’t have a job, you cannot qualify for this government support. 

He made this statement about his draft bill.
It’s time we encourage the value of personal responsibility. This measure will help able-bodied people break their addiction to government subsidies and let them focus on building a career as opposed to continually suffering under the wheel of poverty.
Building a career? on part-time work at below minimum wage? What world does this man live in? Never mind the muddled logic of offering support to the poor only when they don’t actually need it. Anyway, blaming the poor and cutting their safety nets is one way to establish your conservative credentials in a state like Oklahoma.

In the PART TWO of this series, we will examine how Oklahoma legislators are looking at the problem of poverty from precisely the wrong angle. Marriage doesn't solve the problem of poverty but a marriage and the ideal two-parent family is generally the result of smart legislation on such things as education and employment. 

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