Hard Work and Marriage Aren’t the Magic Cure-Alls for Poverty Jeb Bush Is Hoping For

Economists are already calling out the dangerous ramifications of Bush’s plan to eliminate safety net programs in favor of providing block grants to states.

Economists are already calling out the dangerous ramifications of Bush’s plan to eliminate safety net programs in favor of providing block grants to states. PSB SATELLITE NEWS/Youtube

At the Kemp Poverty Forum in South Carolina on Saturday, Republican heavy-hitters threw around a lot of suggestions—and plenty of misinformation—about what is causing poverty in the United States and the best ways to end it. Chief among their talking points were the popular conservative notions that marriage and working hard are magic cure-alls that could do away with poverty altogether, claims that Jeb Bush used last week to launch his welfare reform platform in anticipation of the event.

Fresh off the release of his “Empowerment Agenda for the 21st Century,” Bush used the Kemp forum to highlight the main points of his plan to makeover welfare programs.

“Work needs to be the single biggest requirement,” Bush said at the forum. “No more waivers, as this administration has done,” he went on, seemingly referring to a temporary waiver on work requirements for food stamp recipients living in states with dire economic situations.

“Imagine a system where you are starting from scratch, not the one we have today. If you had the same amount of money, but you could deliver these programs to help people get out of poverty in a different way. You would reward marriage, not penalize it,” Bush continued, likely referencing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC).

The details of Bush’s welfare reform push identify four key areas of change for social safety net programs: eliminating what Bush deems to be “bloated, destructive welfare programs” such as such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Section 8 housing vouchers and replacing these programs with state block grants; eliminating fraud and abuse; promoting work throughout welfare programs; and “promot[ing] marriage” both generally and through the tax code.

Economists are already calling out the dangerous ramifications of Bush’s plan to eliminate safety net programs in favor of providing block grants. Economist Jared Bernstein noted on his blog that Bush’s proposal, like a similar pitch from Paul Ryan in years past, may actually “increase poverty,” deeming it an attempt to “fix poverty by breaking the safety net. And that’s a really bad idea.”

And Bush’s initial justification for his reformsthat these programs are rampant with fraud—is false. His claim in the plan that social safety net programs are “subject to considerable waste, fraud and abuse,” making federal funding “unfair” for taxpayers to pay into, is nothing more than a conservative myth.

Occurrences of fraud and error in programs such as SNAP are actually incredibly rare. A 2014 report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that SNAP errors are at “an all-time low,” having declined for seven consecutive years in a row.

Bush’s proposal goes on to call for a greater emphasis on “promoting work” by instating a work requirement for able-bodied welfare usersbut that requirement already exists for many programs, as stringent work requirements were signed into law as part of a 1996 welfare reform package. And the results are nothing to brag about.

When it comes to SNAP, for example, the 1996 reform included a mandate that childless SNAP recipients be cut off from the program after three months if they did not find work for at least 80 hours per month or a job training program. States are able to receive a waiver from the work requirement during times of high unemployment. Although 37 states qualified for such waivers for 2015, eight—Delaware, Maine, Texas, Colorado, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin—moved to partially or completely bring back work requirements anyway, according to the New Republic.

As waivers begin to expire, economic policy experts estimate that more than 500,000 adults could lose access to food assistanceeven if they are actively searching for work and willing to accept any reasonable job offer.

Cutting off food assistance over a work requirement means ending access to a program already proven to help “millions of households lift themselves out of poverty,” as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explained:

By providing benefits that must be used to purchase food, SNAP is an important part of a low-income household’s budget. A CBPP analysis using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which counts SNAP as income, found that SNAP kept about 4.8 million people out of poverty in 2013, including about 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted 1.3 million children out of deep poverty (defined as 50 percent of the poverty line) in 2013, more than any other government assistance program.

The next part of Bush’s plan calls for a focus on “strengthening families” by focusing on marriage, under the assumption that the “most effective anti-poverty program is a strong, two-parent family.” 

Bush and his fellow Republicans are right about one thing: There is research to suggest that those married are less likely to experience poverty than their unmarried counterparts.

But the connection between marriage and poverty is a lot less black and white than Republicans might have us believe. As the Center for American Progress (CAP) explained in a January 2015 report, although stable marriages can help keep children out of poverty, pushing them as the solution to ending the issue relies on the false assumption that there are “static types of families that children are born into and remain in until they leave home.” However, many children experience an ever-transitional family structure over the course of their adolescence; those family structures are often not based around a married two-person parenting unit and can also include grandparents and other family members. The apparent correlation also glosses over the fact that a stable two-parent household may include unmarried parents, a reality for many same-sex partnerships where marriage was, until recently, not an option.

CAP’s report went on to directly contradict the “claim that marriage is the only difference between being poor and not poor with kids” frequently championed by Republicans, noting that there are now more married than never-married parents living below the poverty line.

“Of the 12 million poor adults who lived with related minor children in 2010, about 43 percent were married; 39 percent were never married, although a substantial share of this group were in a cohabiting relationship; 10 percent were divorced; 6 percent were married but separated; and 2 percent were widowed,” CAP’s report explained.

And we shouldn’t be so quick to attribute findings that married couples are less likely to live in poverty to the marriage itself.

“It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty,” Kristi Williams of Ohio State University told the New York Times in 2014. “Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.”

Economist Nancy Folbre and historian Stephanie Coontz questioned the “widespread assumption that failure to marry, rather than unemployment, poor education, and lack of affordable child care, is the primary cause of child poverty,” in a brief on the topic, noting that “the low income associated with single parenthood reflects many interrelated factors.”

“Income is distributed far more unequally in the United States than in most other developed countries, making it difficult for low-wage workers (male or female) to support a family without a second income,” wrote Folbre and Coontz.

The GOP’s steadfast obsession with focusing on work and marriage as the end-all be-all solutions to poverty ignore the bigger picture. There is no magic pill that will unequivocally solve poverty, and the platforms the party is pushing to help address the issue—like Jeb Bush’s welfare reform proposal—ignore its root causes and do more to harm the poor than help them.