WSJ Blows Report on Expanding Welfare Rolls by Ignoring State Disparities


If the recession was the only reason why the welfare rolls are what they are in the various states, you would expect the percentage of the population utilizing the entitlement program, now known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Need Families), in the various states to have some sort of relationship to their respective unemployment rates.

That is self-evidently not the case. The failure by Sara Murray of the Wall Street Journal to note that sad fact in her Monday article about the program makes her attempt to communicate what has happened with it during the twelve months that ended in May a major disappointment. As you'll see, she got right to the edge, but didn't look into it. In the process, Ms. Murray also gave all of the credit for welfare reform to then-President Bill Clinton -- a laughably incorrect rendition of what really happened.

Here are Murray's opening four paragraphs (bolds are mine):

Welfare rolls, which were slow to rise and actually fell in many states early in the recession, now are climbing across the country for the first time since President Bill Clinton signed legislation pledging "to end welfare as we know it" more than a decade ago.

Twenty-three of the 30 largest states, which account for more than 88% of the nation's total population, see welfare caseloads above year-ago levels, according to a survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal and the National Conference of State Legislatures. As more people run out of unemployment compensation, many are turning to welfare as a stopgap.

The biggest increases are in states with some of the worst jobless rates. Oregon's count was up 27% in May from a year earlier; South Carolina's climbed 23% and California's 10% between March 2009 and March 2008. A few big states that had seen declining welfare caseloads just a few months ago now are seeing increases: New York is up 1.2%, Illinois 3% and Wisconsin 3.9%. Welfare rolls in a few big states, Michigan and New Jersey among them, still are declining.

The recent rise in welfare families across the country is a sign that the welfare system is expanding at a time of added need, assuaging fears of some critics of Mr. Clinton's welfare overhaul who said the truly needy would be turned away.

The historical fact (and frankly, Sara Murray should know this) is that welfare reform was a GOP-driven and fiercely Democrat-resisted initiative from its very inception under Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin years prior to the passage of national reform. Bill Clinton had to be dragged kicking and screaming into signing a GOP-driven bill he had vetoed twice. He signed the law only because then-adviser Dick Morris told him that "a third veto could (have) cost him the 1996 election." Also, as I recall it, Clinton's pledge to "end welfare as we know it" was a 1992 presidential campaign pledge, not an utterance heard from him at or around the time of the bill's 1996 signing.

That's bad enough, but Murray's failure to note huge state-to-state differences in their percentages of population on welfare leaves readers with the implied impression that welfare reform has been uniformly or nearly uniformly implemented in the various states. An even cursory look at the numbers tells us that this is not the case.

Take California (please). The charts below show that the Golden State has chronically failed to do anything meaningful about its welfare population since 2002. As a result, as of September 30 of last year, it was to the point where a state with 12% of the country's population had 32% of its welfare recipients (up from 22% less than six years earlier), and where the incidence of residents on welfare was almost 3-1/2 times that of the rest of the country (Sept. 2008 data is here; an index to prior years is here):


In September 2008, as I noted last week, if California had mirrored the rest of the country, an astonishing 869,000 fewer of its residents would have been receiving welfare; the entire nation's welfare caseload would be almost 23% lower.

It has probably gotten even worse. Even though TANF rolls nationwide have increased, a graph at the Journal indicates that the number of families on welfare in California was 520,000 in May. Compared to May 2008's 490,604 and mid-2007's 460,000 (per the graph) that's a one-year, 6% increase and a two-year, 13% increase in an already ridiculously bloated number. And they want the rest of the country to bail them out? Zheesh.

Looking at other states using May 2008 numbers from the government along with the estimated May 2009 changes contained in Murray's report (plus a couple of other states selected by me for which May 2009 data was not noted), you'll see that any attempt to tie the size of welfare rolls to statewide population or to changes in unemployment is an exercise in futility (MI comparison is April 2009 to April 2008):


The chart gives rise to all kinds of questions as to why some states are outperforming others that Murray never really explored.

As noted, Murray did get to the edge of the problem when she noted downward welfare recipient moves in states where one might have expected them to go up. But, in the case of Michigan's downward move, she only weakly cited "Some advocacy groups .... (who) complain that strict front-end requirements" are forcing people to try to find work where there supposedly is none before applying for benefits.

The much better question is how much relative effort states have been putting into welfare reform's real goal of reducing dependency during all these years. The obvious answer is that these efforts have varied widely -- and that difference in effort, much more than the current condition of the economy, is a bigger factor in explaining why each individual state is where it is.

Cross-posted at

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