The Return of Bigfoot: Telling the Truth about Welfare Spending in Pennsylvania

A blog post by Sharon Ward, originally published at Third and State.

BigfootYou may remember that the Commonwealth Foundation put out a report about welfare spending a couple of weeks ago that we likened to “Bigfoot” because it found something in the Department of Public Welfare — massive fraud, millions of non-working adults — that just didn’t exist.

I had a chance to debate Matt Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation on WITF’s Radio Smart Talk, and I thought it might be a good time to share the facts and give you my four big ideas about how we push back on the destructive framing that the “Bigfoot” report perpetuates.

First, let me give a shout out to the people who called in to Smart Talk to set the record straight on welfare spending and challenge Matt directly on his use of the welfare frame. It was clear to the listeners that Matt was quite deliberately trying to invoke the image of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen by describing welfare as everything from afterschool programs to autism services. The audience wasn’t buying it and we shouldn’t allow it.

The first step  when talking about this issue, is to define welfare accurately.

1. Welfare is cash assistance.

Assistance for people with intellectual disabilities, child care assistance for working families, nursing home care, child protective services and community-based supports for people with disabilities are not welfare. Anyone who suggests so should be shouted down — fast and hard. 

2. Cash assistance spending isn’t growing.

Cash assistance spending is 2% of the budget in Pennsylvania and averages 2% of state expenditures, according to the National Association of State Business Officials (NASBO). Pennsylvania doesn’t spend more on cash assistance than other states. 

Welfare is a time-limited benefit, available for women with children. Enrollment in welfare had dropped by more than 50% after welfare reform in the 1990s, and about 70% of the caseload is children.

During the recession, Pennsylvania's cash assistance rolls barely grew. One of the untold stories of the past few years is how cash assistance played no role in helping shield families with children from the effects of the recession.

What about the state's welfare budget?

Matt Brouillette and Department of Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander have made much of the fact that department spending is, for the first time in 2011-12, the largest expenditure in the state budget. The fact is that welfare didn’t grow; education shrank. The education budget, which is typically the largest budget item, was hacked by close to a billion dollars.

Most states have several departments that administer human services and health care programs rather than having them all administered by a single agency. States might have a separate agency for Drug and Alcohol, Intellectual Disabilities and Child Protective Services. We lump it all together, hence a larger “welfare budget."

The Commonwealth Foundation argues that Medical Assistance (MA) enrollment has grown, and the program has to be changed. It is true enrollment has grown, although from 1998 to 2010, enrollment in Pennsylvania grew 46%, compared to 61% nationally. There are many reasons: the decline in employment-based coverage, the growth in long-term care and expansion of coverage for kids.

3. It’s the Recession.

The Bigfoot report, which talks at length about food assistance and other benefits, does not mention the word RECESSION once. Since 2008, the economic downturn has increased enrollment sharply in MA and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As the economy improves, enrollment in MA, SNAP and cash assistance will decline.

4. When we talk about people, we win.

The Right labels everything as government, which the bulk of the population believes is too big and unaccountable. We have to face that fact at this moment in time. So when we talk about government programs or use specifics like “mental health" and "adult literacy services,” we lose with the public.

We continually counsel advocates to talk about the people who are helped, not the programs that help them. A better approach is to use language like “adults with low literacy who want to get a better job,” or “people with mental health conditions who want to live independently and contribute to society." It inoculates us against the big government frame and builds public support.

So when someone wants to talk about welfare, first correct them (gently). Identify the service and talk about who it serves. “Medical assistance keeps our parents and grandparents safe at home, or in nursing homes when they are unable to care for themselves. It allows people with disabilities to live independently and assures our kids get to see a doctor when they are sick.” Then go into the specifics.

Most people really do believe that government has a responsibility to help the most vulnerable. That is exactly what it is doing.

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