The generosity of Rhode Island’s welfare system is a matter of recurring debate, with taxpayer advocates’ having a general sense that it’s too generous and welfare advocates’ giving the impression that they’re picking points to serve their script. The latest iteration of the latter comes from Scott MacKay on RIPR. His first salvo pretty well sets the tone:
Well, let’s start with the basic welfare program that helps the poorest folks in the Ocean State. That’s a program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families, known by the acronym TANF. The vast majority of these families are single-parent families headed by a single woman. A typical family is a woman with two children. The monthly welfare benefit for such a family is $554 a month, a figure that has not been increased since the 1970s.
MacKay next compares this payment amount to those in other New England states, finding that Rhode Island’s payment is lower than every other state’s in New England except Maine. First, for clarification, let’s note that it overstates things to say that “the vast majority” of TANF families are single-parent. Sixty percent are, with another 33% being “zero-parent families” and 7% being two-parent families. I haven’t found a good definition of “zero-parent families,” but they’re likely children in foster care and teens who, in both cases, have other sources of support.
The more important point, though, comes with MacKay’s comparison to other states. I looked into this point back in May 2004 and noticed that Rhode Island is slower to reduce benefits for those with other income, which quickly improves Rhode Island’s comparative standing.
Another point I made back then was that it’s too narrow of an analysis to define “welfare” as only the simple cash payments; there are so many other ways that taxpayer dollars flow to social services. To his credit, MacKay addresses this argument to some degree, giving comparisons for a few other programs, but then he undoes any reasonableness by getting on a high moral horse to spear some straw men, calling on us to “dial down faux rhetoric that demonizes the poor.”
MacKay should dial down the faux rhetoric that demonizes the taxpayer:
- Who is generous in many ways, including healthcare, education, and more.
- Who already has the second-highest state and local tax burden in the region.
- Who has long been struggling to make ends meet in New England’s worst employment environment.
- Who has a relatively low median income and a struggling middle class.
- And who has reason to doubt the effectiveness of the state bureaucracy, considering that only 11% of participants in the TANF program are actually fulfilling the program’s theoretical requirement for work or work preparation.
MacKay goes so far as to complain that Governor Raimondo’s budget would remove the extra tax that businesses pay for electricity, but households do not. That’s shortsighted, inasmuch as every dollar that a business doesn’t have to pay for taxes (or energy) is a dollar that can be spent directly on somebody’s paycheck, or indirectly on employment by growing.