On Tuesday the usual cast of welfare industry characters came out to attack the bipartisan effort to fix Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash welfare program. Their shrillest complaints centered on the Parents as Scholars (PaS) program, a program Gov. Paul LePage has placed on the chopping block. While liberal Democrats point to PaS as a shining example of social safety net success, all they have as evidence is anecdotes. Compelling anecdotes, yes, but anecdotes nonetheless.
The liberals’ PaS argument highlights an interesting nascent double-standard in the welfare reform debate. When conservatives argue in favor of welfare reform on the basis on anecdotes, liberals scoff. “You can’t possibly expect us to make policy based on what your Uncle Ned saw happen at Shop N’ Save?” And, for what it’s worth, the liberals are right: we should not be making policy on the basis of anecdotes. But ironically, anecdote-driven policy is precisely what today’s progressives are supporting in their defense of the PaS program.
Maine’s newspapers, for their part, are all to happy to elevate these anecdotes. Over at the Bangor Daily News, the headline on a story about the welfare reform public hearings focused sharply on an anecdote: “Maine woman who benefited from Parents as Scholars program argues against LePage’s proposal to eliminate it“.
Every government policy should be able to find at least one success story. But anecdotal successes are not always reflective of the whole program. Just as not every TANF recipient spends cash welfare on cigarettes or at Disney World, not every PaS participant goes on to become a lawyer.
Gov. LePage is not seeking to eliminate the program because he, as the BDN editorial board has crudely suggested, wants to be cruel. He is seeking to eliminate the program because it is ineffective. An example he gave at a press conference provides a window into his reasoning. On Monday, the governor spoke of a woman in the PaS program who used it to become an Emergency Medical Technician — even though she was told explicitly that all EMT positions in her community were filled. The PaS program allows people to get training in fields where there may be no job demand. That’s a problem, especially if our goal is to bring people from poverty to employment.
Liberal who wish to preserve the PaS program ought to do more than rely on anecdotes. If they can produce data showing that the anecdotal successes they have elevated are typical of the program as a whole, then perhaps LePage is wrong, perhaps the program is worth preserving. But until the have some data to back their policy prescriptions, we should treat their PaS anecdotes like Uncle Ned’s stories.