by Max Brantley
Oregon, one of the whitest states in the union, also has one of the most generous safety nets. Is that a coincidence or something more troubling?Arkansas politicians in power today would drop in a dead faint at programs provided in Oregon:
In Oregon, a higher share of poor families is on welfare (now called TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families) than in most states. The state has some of the highest food-stamp uptake in the country. It subsidizes childcare for working parents, asking the poorest of them to contribute as little as $27 a month. It helps people get off of welfare by linking them to employment and paying their wages for up to six months, and then allows them to continue to receive food stamps as they transition to higher wages. Families can be on welfare for up to 60 months, as opposed to 24 months in many other states, and once the parents are cut off due to time limits, their children can still continue to receive aid.
What makes a state generous, like Oregon, or punitive, like Arkansas, which I visited earlier this year? Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram, the authors of the book Disciplining the Poor, point to a number of things, including which party controls the state legislature and the benefit-to-wage ratio in the state (basically, the higher wages are relative to benefits, the less likely states are to make cuts). And Oregon, a blue state with a strong history of labor unions and policies that have protected workers, such as a high minimum wage, definitely fits that description. The state has gotten more progressive over time; it has voted Democratic in all presidential elections since 1988, both of its senators are Democrats, as are four out of five of its representatives.There's much more than race in the article, which also examines the pros and cons and history of welfare programs generally.
But Soss and his co-authors have also found a more troubling explanation for the differences between Oregon’s strong safety net and those in other states. Their research shows that states with a higher percentage of minorities on the welfare rolls are more likely to be punitive, implementing policies that reduce welfare caseloads, such as strict time limits on TANF; family caps that deny benefits to additional children; and benefits disqualification for small violations, like a child’s poor school performance. By contrast, states with poor populations that are predominately white are more likely to be generous, adopting the federal government’s five-year lifetime limit, waving work requirements if participants have young children, and continuing to give benefits to children even if the parents reach the time limits.