How to Do Last-Ditch Assistance

As I detailed on Tuesday, welfare reform was bad for deep poverty. Upon coming to realize this, the obvious question is: what exactly should be done? If we want to "bring welfare back" as Annie Lowrey suggest in New York Magazine, what would we do?

In my view, programs like AFDC and TANF should be understood as last-ditch assistance programs. What this means is that they should not be a significant part of the overall welfare system. Instead, the other parts of the welfare system should be so good that few people every find themselves needing last-ditch assistance.

So the first step in designing a last-ditch assistance program is designing other programs that make it so almost nobody ever uses the last-ditch program. That means putting in place free/subsidized child care so that all parents have the chance to work. That means putting in place unemployment benefits and active labor market policies (ALMP) so that people who cannot find work receive income and help finding a job. That means putting in place a child allowance, free health care, and other income supports like housing benefits and wage supplements to top off low earners. And finally that means putting in place benefits that ensure people who cannot work, such as the disabled, receive social benefits to meet their income needs.

In this welfare environment, the need for last-ditch assistance should be exceedingly rare. To see why, just think about the circumstances that might cause someone to seek last-ditch assistance. Can't go to work because you can't afford child care? That can't be true as child care is made affordable through subsidization. Can't find a job? You can get unemployment benefits and help from ALMP to eventually get a job. Can't work at all due to disability? There are disability benefits. Can't afford your necessities despite working or receiving unemployment/disability benefits? There are universal income supplements like child allowance and means-tested supplements like housing allowance. The only time you would find yourself in need of last-ditch assistance is if you wound up in a truly extraordinary situation.

When you don't have a good comprehensive welfare system, last-ditch assistance ends up picking up the slack and carrying burdens that it is not well-equipped to shoulder. It's better than nothing, of course, but it's very imperfect. Ideally last-ditch assistance takes the form of some transfer income and a social worker helping to untangle the extreme circumstances of a person who has fallen through all the other benefit programs. But when it's forced to operate as a major part of the welfare system, as it is in crappy welfare systems, it can't take that ideal form because it serves way too many people and there are only so many social workers you can reasonably afford.

So, we should be at least a little careful when talking about "bringing back welfare." The best welfare systems in the world don't rely heavily on last-ditch assistance programs like AFDC and TANF. They rely on other benefits that make reversion to programs like AFDC and TANF very uncommon. Should we ever get to a political moment where we can reshape the US welfare system, serious last-ditch assistance needs to come back, but so too do the kinds of robust welfare benefits that keep the last-ditch assistance rolls down.