Jeb calls for ending food stamps, replacing them with opportunity and marriage

Jeb Bush has a plan to revamp our nation’s welfare system. And by that, Jeb Bush means that he has a plan to take the legs out from under our nation’s welfare system.

The Washington Post is reporting this morning that Jeb(?) is calling for an end to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). Under his plan, those programs would be replaced by “Right to Rise” grants, which states would have to apply for in order to fund their own programs for their low-income residents.

That is, if they chose to set up such programs at all.

Said Bush, “I know that giving states more flexibility will open the door for transformative ideas to eliminate poverty and increase opportunity.” For many states, particularly in the South, giving them “flexibility” simply means giving them an excuse to let poor people starve.

Because despite the fact that the average SNAP benefit pays out $1.39 per meal per person, and despite the fact that such a low benefit is still one of the single biggest preventative measures our country has for keeping people out of poverty, Republicans still insist the program is nothing more than black moochers taking money from white taxpayers. There’s a reason why, according to professors Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote, “Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare.”

But! That’s all fine and the poor won’t starve Bush argues, if only they get their sexual houses in order and shack up with the right people. From the Post:

Bush also called for stronger families to help cure the country’s societal ills.

“Marriage matters when it comes to reducing poverty and increasing opportunity,” he wrote. “Children raised in married, intact families do better than children raised in single parent families on a whole host of measures, including graduation rates, criminal justice involvement and earnings as adults. But too often in discussions of poverty, this vital issue is left out of the discussion. It won’t be in my administration.”

As Steve Randy Waldman explained at length, marriage promotion as public policy is a cargo cult, a conflation of correlation and causation taken to absurd extremes:

The case for marriage promotion begins with some perfectly real correlations. Across a variety of measures — household income, self-reported life satisfaction, childrearing outcomes — married couples seem to do better than pairs of singles (and much better than single parents), particularly in populations towards the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. So it is natural to imagine that, if somehow poor people could be persuaded to marry more, they too would enjoy those improvements in household income, life satisfaction, and childrearing. Let them eat wedding cake!

But neither wedding cake nor the marriages they celebrate cause observed “marriage premia” any more than dances on tarmacs caused airplanes to land on Melanesian islands. In fact, for the most part, the evidence we have suggests that marriage is an effect of other things that facilitate good social outcomes rather than a cause on its own. In particular, for poor women, the availability of suitable mates is a binding constraint on marriage behavior. People in actually observed marriages do well because they are the lucky ones to find scarce good mates, not because marriage would be a good thing for everyone else too. Marrying badly, that is marriage followed by subsequent divorce, increases the poverty rate among poor women compared to never marrying at all. Married biological parents who stay together may be good for child rearing, but kids of mothers who marry anyone other than their biological father do no better than children of mothers who never marry at all.

Furthermore, as Matt Bruenig argued for Demos last month, we’ve already tried promoting marriage. It hasn’t worked:

One of the main points of so-called Welfare Reform was to end the scourge of single motherhood and promote marriage, “the foundation of a successful society.” Since that reform, which massively spiked extreme poverty in the US, the rate of birth to unwed mothers has continued to go up, and marriage rates have continued to go down. Nothing has been able to reverse this trend.

As part of Welfare Reform and other related measures, the government also got directly in the business of promoting marriage via projects like Building Strong Families,Supporting Healthy Marriage Project, and the Healthy Marriage Initiative more generally.As Bryce Covert has extensively pointed out at The Nation and elsewhere, assessments of these programs have found them to be utter failures. Nonetheless, states still redirect TANF funds meant to provide cash assistance to poor families to these dead-end ideology projects.

Jeb Bush is losing, in large part because he told the public from the get-go that he was willing to lose for the sake of being less of a vile racist/puritanical scold than his opponents. Gutting one of the most successful anti-poverty programs we currently have and replacing it with Catholic social teaching is a nice effort, but it’s likely too little, too late to put him back in contention.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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