The Oklahoman’s distorted case for cutting the safety net

frayed-ropeA recent report by the Cato Institute claims to calculate the total value of a “welfare benefit package”, and it contrasts that value with the salary of a full-time worker earning minimum wage. On Tuesday, the Oklahoman published an editorial about this report. They claim that Oklahomans can receive welfare benefits worth more than the starting salary of many entry level positions, and that this acts as a disincentive to work.

The Cato report and the Oklahoman op-ed are premised on two big distortions of the truth. The first is to base their argument on the premise that Oklahomans receive support from every major public assistance program at once. Cato arrived at its number for the annual value of public assistance in Oklahoma ($26,784) by totaling average benefits for Oklahomans receiving TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, housing assistance, LIHEAP, WIC, and emergency food assistance. Yet these are separate and distinct safety net programs with different purposes and different eligibility criteria. They are not part of any “package.” The number of Oklahoma families enrolled in all of them ranges from tiny to nonexistent.

For example, let’s look at the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). This is the only program offering cash payments to low-income families. Even so, most of the TANF funds that Oklahoma receives from the federal government have been diverted to other uses. The result is that the program provides cash assistance to a small fraction of the families living in poverty in Oklahoma.

The average monthly enrollment in TANF is about 9,000 families, containing about 20,000 individuals. More than 80 percent of those recipients are children. As of November 2011, just 3,828 adults were enrolled in the program. Based on Census population numbers and the poverty rate (17 percent) of working-age adults in Oklahoma, our state has about 400,000 adults under 65 living in poverty. TANF payments go to less than 1 percent of this population, yet the TANF benefit makes up more than 13 percent of the total that Cato is presenting as Oklahoma’s “welfare benefit package.”

Other parts of the so-called package run into the same problem. A majority of Oklahoma Medicaid recipients are children, and working-age adults without children are ineligible for Medicaid regardless of how little they earn. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program provides food and baby formula only to low-income mothers of children younger than 5 who are at severe nutritional risk. Demand is so great and funding so limited for LIHEAP utility assistance that this year the program ran out of money in a week. Cato’s own report says just 17.7 percent of TANF households receive housing assistance. These distortions are why Cato’s hypothetical family gets $26,784, but data on real families shows the average public assistance income for the bottom fifth of households is just $4,633.

The Cato report and the Oklahoman editorial depend on a second big distortion — that the safety net primarily functions as an alternative to work, rather than as a supplement to jobs that do not pay a living wage. The Oklahoman mentions that the salary for a retail cashier in Oklahoma averages $12,000 and for a preschool teacher, $22,000. How do they think anyone is surviving and supporting a family on that income, if not with public assistance?

The reality is that the vast majority of Oklahoma’s poorest families work hard, but they do not earn a living wage. Public assistance programs are not subsidizing people who choose not to work; they’re subsidizing companies that don’t pay workers enough to live on. Oklahoma’s largest private employer, Walmart, is a prime offender. Examples from across the nation show that workers at Walmart and other large retail and fast food corporations are forced to rely on Medicaid, food stamps, and other public assistance just to get by.

Instead of addressing this real problem, Cato and the Oklahoman call for making it worse by hacking away at the safety net. By spreading such a wildly inaccurate story about poverty, The Cato Institute and the Oklahoman have done a disservice to anyone who takes them seriously as a source of information.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

4 thoughts on “The Oklahoman’s distorted case for cutting the safety net

  1. Privately-owned U.S. businesses–the ones the Republicans keep wanting to give ever more and more tax breaks to, despite the fact that many are recording record peofits, and getting taxpayer-funded subsides–so that many aren’t even even paying ANY taxes! And these are the very same ones that the Republicans keep identifying as the so-called “job creators! Only problem is, is that they are very adept at creating huge numbers of lousy,low-paying, minimum wage jobs, primarily in fast food and retail, which don’t pay enough to support an individual worker, let alone support an entire family! And Yes, in addition to paying virtually NO taxes, getting taxpayer-funded subsidies, and all while making a killing, they also want to pass what should be, all their OTHER costs of doing business–like providing their workers with a living wage that is adequate enough to provide every worker & his or her family, with food, housing, health care, and all of the other little necessities of life on to the taxpayers as well!

    They would love to shift ALL of their costs over to the taxpayers, but hey, the dumb taxpayers won’t mind, and they will DEFEND you trying to turn the entire labor force of the United States into a $5.00/day 3rd world workforce, because they all think that someday THEIR ship will come in, because they’re going to win the lottery,and they genuinely believe that they’re somehow going to end up being millionaires too!

    The CATO Institute–funded by the billionaire Koch brothers–(like all of the other Koch brother-funded “think tanks”–is notorious for diseminating fabricated information that has been created for purposes of deceiving and misleading the public on a whole variety of contentious topics.

    The Koch brothers the teo sole owners of Koch Industries–the 2nd largest corporate conglomerate in the United States, fund a whole spider-web of conservative “think tanks” located allover the country, which employ dozens of so-called “experts”,(who all have official-sounding credentials, who are being well-paid to generate and diseminate completely false information and misleading information which has been created for one purpose, and one purpose only: To protect the financial and profit interests of the billionaire Koch brothers! Among their think tanks’ greatest hits:

    1. “Global Climate change (warming) is a hoax”,which of course, was created specifically to protect their oil, gas and petrochemical business interests, which makes up the bulk of their most profitable business holdings.

    2. The Kochs were also instumental in the successful repeal of the Glass Stegall Act, which had protected the United States from the disastrous effects of another economic disaster of the same magnitude of the Great Depression, when it was was passed into law just after the Great Depression.

    Had Glass Stegall still been in effect in 2008, when the United States economy nearly collapsed as a result of companies engaging in dangerous economic practices that had previously been prohibited by that law, we might never have had to endure the horrendous effects of the Great Recession!

    3. The Koch brothers are also committed to the dismantling of the public education system in the United States, and are attempting to do so through their efforts to establish so-called “charter schools”. (privatized schools in the red states under legislative control of the Republicans.)

    4. Through ALEC (The American Legislative Exchasnge Council), theiy are likewise trying to take control of the state prison system away from the control of state government and turn the state penal system into one that is privately owned, which is one reason why prison population in the United States is the highest per capita in the entire world!

  2. Any time one hears Republican arguments in favor of “cutting the social safety net,” which, translated, means that they want to do away with critical public services that primarily benefit the poor and those in the middle class.

    These programs include SNAP–the food stamp program–(the beneficiarties of which, are predominately children)! The same is true regarding the beneficiaries of Medicaid, who are likewise predominately children!

    Medicare, and Social Security, of course,were created to benefit the elderly and the disabled, who receive benefits from both of these programs based on the contributions that they made into these programs, (which were deducted from every one of their paychecks), throughout their entire working lives.

    Of course the Republicans opposition to so-called Social Welfare programs, extends only to those programs that benefit the poor and middle class!
    They don’t seem to have any problem with CORPORATE WELFARE progams. Take, for example, The Farm BIll.

    The federal Farm Bill legislation costs around $100 billion annually,
    financing the food stamp Program–SNAP–(the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Based on this year’s REPUBLICAN version of the Farm bill, the well-being of millions of Americans will be threatened.

    The current version of the Farm Bill in the U.S. House, is proposing $20 billion in cuts to SNAP, which is the equivalent of almost half of all the charitable food assistance that food banks and food charities provide to people in need. “Deficit reduction” is the explanation being given to try and justify such callous indifference and cruelty!

    Two of the most expensive programs contained within the Farm Bill, are food stamps–the cost of which, has soared since the beginning of the Great Recession–and the other is: direct taxpayer-funded subsidy payments.

    So House Republicans are pitting the ability of poor people to be able to eat, against the production of agricultural commodities! Now this might be a more difficult choice if those tax-payer funded subsidies were going to those farmers who could be crushed by failure, but in reality, MOST of these direct subsidy payments go to those who need them THE LEAST, including Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, and Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher, of Tennessee, who justifies his vote to cut SNAP by quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10:

    “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

    Of course, since most of the beneficiaries of the SNAP program are CHILDREN, I’m not exactly sure how this applies!

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