Nick Kristof and the Failure of Welfare and Education Reform

Back before school reform killed so many of the opportunities to teach meaningful subject matter in a holistic manner, my inner city high school students frequently read Nick Kristof's New York Times columns and his in-depth reports on global problems. Our discussions were so wonderful that I almost felt personally betrayed when Kristof editorialized in support of corporate school reform. Then, he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote A Path Appears. It was predictably brilliant in terms of their analysis of world poverty and science-based solutions.

A Path Appears was mostly silent about the output-driven school reform movement but, for me, its treatment of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) was nearly as good as an apology. Had the technocrats who imposed market-driven reform on America's schools understood the effect of ACEs on inner city schools, we would have never had to endure the test, sort, reward, and punish education policies of the last generation.

Now, Kristof apologizes for his support of welfare reform. He writes, "In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a controversial compromise bill for welfare reform, promising to 'end welfare as we know it.'" Kristof admits to being sympathetic to Clinton's goal at the time, but he now says, "I was wrong." He recently visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, where "cash welfare is essentially dead, leaving some families with children utterly destitute." Kristof has now joined local and national experts who compare Oklahoma's extreme poverty to that of a Third World country. He writes that in "the heartland of America" that "the embarrassing truth is that welfare reform has resulted in a layer of destitution that echoes poverty in countries like Bangladesh."

By the way, Oklahoma is tied for first in the nation in the percentage of children who have survived multiple ACEs, and it is at the top of states in the decline of life expectancy for uneducated middle aged persons.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute's David Blatt further documents the tragedy which resulted from welfare being replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). He explains that extreme poverty is defined as household income of less than 50% of the poverty level, which is $200 a week for a family of three, and more than 10% of Oklahoma children are in that category. Blatt writes:

Welfare barely exists in Oklahoma. A monthly average of just 2,469 adults were enrolled in TANF in Oklahoma in fiscal year 2015. That's less than the number of women in Oklahoma prisons. Prior to the 1996 law, Oklahoma provided cash assistance to half of all families in poverty; now it goes to fewer than one in ten. ... Even during the depths of the recession in 2008-2010, while the number of children in families with no working parent rose substantially, the number of TANF recipients barely budged.

Oklahomans have sometimes been among the pioneers of humane, evidence-based education and mental health programs. But, as Blatt explains, even some of our best efforts are being decimated:

The state Department of Education slashed funding for high-quality early childhood programs by $2.5 million and eliminated funding for financial literacy programs. Oklahoma used to invest heavily in parenting training for disadvantaged families, but the Department of Education just eliminated the last $1 million from the Parents-as-Teachers program, while the Health Department has cut funding for the Children First program by 30 percent since 2011. Until five years ago, the state provided over $2 million for adult education programs; that funding was wiped out in 2011.

Blatt describes recent cuts in mental health, substance abuse, and child care programs. There is a temporary freeze on accepting new families for child care subsidies, and "as a final blow, a single mother with two kids working year-round at $10/hr will now lose $231 a year because the Legislature cut the state Earned Income Tax Credit."

The maximum cash payment for a family of three in Oklahoma is $292 per month, and that makes me wonder what Kristof supports in terms of cash welfare. He speaks highly of Franklin Roosevelt's "aggressive jobs programs" as a way to put money in poor peoples' pockets. Even though welfare reform has failed, Kristof writes, "The solution is not a reversion to the old program. Rather, let's build new programs targeting children in particular." He cites academic researchers, as well as "the real experts," poor people, who warn against programs that create dependency. He cites one poor woman who criticized reliance on TANF, "Everybody was taking advantage of it." Another woman said, "If it (continuing payments) was readily available, I'd abuse it; I'd say they're giving me free money. ... People use these systems as a crutch more than a steppingstone."

Such statements cut both ways. Yes, we must respect the observations of welfare recipients who can often be their toughest critics, but their words are also evidence that poor people don't want to depend on the government, and they work hard to avoid that possibility.

And, that brings me back to class discussions in the mid-1990s, when legislators and experts like the late Hannah Atkins visited class and presented the case against Clinton's welfare policy. My poor students understood multiple sides of the arguments. As usual, they took a more conservative stand than their representatives, Ms. Atkins (Oklahoma's first black female state representative and former Oklahoma Secretary of State) and their liberal teacher. Sometimes my students' arguments were blunt, and they were bolstered by unsettling anecdotes. But, that sort of deep moral consciousness is our best protection against so-called "waste, fraud, and abuse."

If policy makers and analysts were to spend more time with poor kids and their families, I strongly believe that they would be less fearful of systems being abused. Poor women and their children are very sensitive to the complexities, the contradictions, and the trade-offs they face. They are determined to maintain their dignity.

Kristof is correct; welfare reform is a misnomer. The same is true of education reform. Both failures were built on a faith in incentives and disincentives. Reformers could not contemplate rewards without punishment. Although sanctions must be applied to recipients at times, the reformers' devotion to the punitive remains unsettling. Whether in education or welfare, in Oklahoma or across the nation, the philanthropists who Kristof often praises still concentrate too much on human weaknesses. The teacher in me believes that we should focus more on peoples' strengths.