In a speech last night at the Cambridge Forum, Dr. John Cook, the Research Director for the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy at the Tufts University School of Nutrition, said that by targeting the wrong programs, congressional welfare reform can only hurt both the impoverished and the economy.
Before a handful of people at the First Parish Unitarian Church in Cambridge, Cook said a comprehensive view of welfare must include a distinction between welfare programs for the impoverished and welfare programs for everyone.
According to Cook while Congress is addressing the former for reform, the real problem lies with the latter.
"Welfare reform is focusing, for reasons which are unclear, on welfare programs for the poor, which are known as means-tested programs," Cook said. "These are programs for which you can't receive benefits unless your income is below a certain level."
According to Cook, means-tested programs include student loans, Medicaid, food stamps, supplemental security incomes, child support and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Cook said these programs cost the federal government $162 billion in 1993, a mere one percent of total federal expenditures.
"Our welfare reform efforts which are [supposedly] going to allow us to balance the budget and stop crime and eliminate all social problems are going to miraculously occur by manipulating less than one percent Federal outlays," Cook said.
But Cook said it is welfare for the not-so-poor--or non-means-tested programs--that costs the Federal government a comparatively exorbitant amount of money and will continue to do so under the current congressional welfare reform proposals.
According to Cook, non-mean-tested programs include Medicare, Social Security and federal retirement programs. Cook said these programs cost the federal government about $600 billion in 1993, more than four times the cost of their mean-based counterparts.
Cook also said that despite popular perceptions, single parent families and illegitimate children have had no affect on the country's welfare ills.
In particular, Cook said that teen births affect only about five percent of the country's youth and that increased welfare benefits are not an incentive to have more children.
"There is no significant relationship between the hope of an additional $60 to $70 per month and the decision to have another child," Cook said.
Cook further stated that there is no indication that welfare causes poverty. Instead, Cook said that welfare benefits to the poor do, in fact, inhibit poverty.
"Empirical evidence contradicts the connections between welfare and poverty," Cook said. "Evidence argues that by cutting off the small benefits received by the impoverished you will expose them to greater health risks and will cause higher costs in terms of health care, crime and the building of prisons for people who have no other way to provide for their families," he added.
In addition, Cook said he blamed Congress for the current reform situation, which he believes amounts to deceiving the public for political gain.
"[Current reform proposals] are symptomatic of dissatisfaction in the social fabric for which we do not have solutions," Cook said. "Thus we believe what we want to believe. Particularly if it is presented to us in an attractive ourselves to be manipulated out of political motives."
While Cook presented no concrete solutions, he stressed that welfare reform was everyone's responsibility.
"The best thing we can do is to think critically and try to understand the root cause of what is going on so that we can eventually propose reasonable solutions."