No, Cato, Welfare Doesn't Pay More Than Minimum Wage

(by mikedunford) Aug 21 2013

It's been a while since I've posted anything, but the intellectual dishonesty of a recent, and in the news, Cato Institute report got the juices flowing.

The gravamen (yes, I'm still in law school) of the Cato report in question is that welfare "pays" more in most states than a minimum wage job. From the report:

Far from condemning welfare recipients to a life of poverty, welfare actually exceeds the FPL [Federal Poverty Level] in 42 states and the District of Columbia (as show [sic] in Table 5). In fact, in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts, welfare pays more than twice the poverty level.

I don't mind that the Cato Institute is opposed to welfare. I do mind that they lie to try to influence policy on welfare, particularly when the Republicans in the House are about to push for additional budget cuts.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that even a minimum wage job is likely to leave a family better off than no job at all. This is true in part because many assistance programs do not automatically cut off the moment that you start to work. The programs have income-based eligibility requirements, and many people who work minimum wage jobs will continue to qualify for these programs.

This does not show up in the Cato report, because the Cato report did not bother to include continued eligibility for benefits when they compared "welfare" with a minimum wage job. Their comparison assumes that welfare "pays" better than a minimum wage job based on the assumption that the welfare recipient collects from every major assistance program, and that the minimum wage earner collects only pay + the Earned Income Tax Credit (which they condescendingly point out is actually a form of welfare).

It doesn't take very long to identify most of the sources of intellectual dishonesty in the Cato report. I'm going to hit the high points there, and provide a few examples of how things look in a more realistic (but still very favorable to Cato) scenario.

We'll start by looking at some of the most basic lies in the report.

First, their "typical welfare family" is nothing of the kind. They base their calculations entirely on families that are eligible for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). However, most of the programs that they include in the welfare income have a much broader reach than nonworking families. Here's a quick breakdown:

Nationwide, in Fiscal Year 2010, there were a total of 1,847,155 households with active TANF cases. In the same fiscal year, 18,618,436 households received SNAP (food stamp) benefits, and another 65,989,147 individuals (~25,577,188 households based on the census 2.58 individuals/household) received medicaid benefits. According to the Cato report's own definitions, households on both of those programs should be "welfare families." With less than 10% of SNAP households also receiving TANF, and less than 3% of Medicaid households receiving SNAP, it's easy to see that Cato's "typical welfare family" is actually based on an extreme case, not on anything that any of us would consider to be an "average."

But let's drill down further.

In order to determine what welfare "pays," the authors of the Cato report based their calculations on the assumption that the "typical welfare family" consists of "a single mother with two children." Cato provides no citation (naturally) for this assumption.

It should also be noted that while Cato does not explicitly state this anywhere, Cato's "typical welfare family" actually assumes that both the children in the family are under age 5 - they include WIC benefits for both children in their calculation of what welfare "pays." Less than 20% of single mother families have 2 children under age 18 - let alone age 5. Here, again, the "typical welfare family" is anything but.

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Donglegate, Law School, and Looking at Issues

(by mikedunford) Apr 02 2013

I should start this by saying that this post is shaped by the way law school has changed the way I assess things, but it is in no way an attempt to examine or comment on the legal issues surrounding the whole incident. There are lots of those, and there's a good chance they'll keep several attorneys employed for quite a few billable hours. I'm not qualified to even begin looking at the real legal issues, so I'm going to confine myself to the bigger picture questions. (And, frankly, after I spend all day in the casebooks, the bigger picture questions are more relaxing.)

I've been in a cave classroom lately, so I managed to largely miss the whole "Donglegate" thing. I caught it when it initially happened, naively assumed that everything was over within a couple of days, and forgot about it. Someone mentioned it today, and I was stunned by how much happened in the story while I wasn't paying attention.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, here's the nutshell version, shamelessly cribbed from Janet's blog:

Adria Richards attend[ed] PyCon, notif[ied] the conference staff about attendees behind her telling jokes during a conference presentation (about, among other things, making the coding community more welcoming for women and girls). Richards felt the jokes were sexualized enough to harm the environment of the conference. PyCon had a Code of Conduct for the conference that encompassed this kind of issue. In a room with hundreds of attendees, in a context where she hoped this harm to the conference community would be dealt with rather than let go (which gives it tacit approval) but where she also didn't want to disrupt the presentations underway, Richards took a picture of the men telling the sexualized jokes and tweeted it with the conference hashtag to get the conference staff to deal with the situation.

The conference staff addressed the issue with the men telling the jokes. Subsequently, one of them was fired by his employer, although it's in no way clear that he was fired on account of this incident (or even if this incident had anything to do with the firing); Adria Richards started receiving an avalanche of threats (death threats, rape threats, we-know-where-you-live threats, you-should-kill-yourself threats); Adria Richards' employer fired her; and PyCon started tweaking its Code of Conduct (although as far as I can tell, the tweaking may still be ongoing) to explicitly identify "public shaming" as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed.

I wasn't kidding when I said that law school has changed the way that I approach issues. Much of getting through law school (if not much of the practice of law) involves looking at broad sets of facts and finding the narrow issues hidden within them. When you do that enough - and I've done it a lot over the last eight months - that kind of thing starts to bleed through into other areas of life. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, as long as it doesn't make you lose sight of the big picture. (I'm not sure how well I'm doing there, but I'm trying.)

One of the places where I've found the issue spotting approach to be very helpful is in looking at complex situations that seem to involve situations that are in the grey area. In many cases, the big picture really is pretty damn grey. Looking for and at the individual issues can help us find the individual black and white pixels that make up the grey image.

To a certain extent, we tend to naturally find and focus on limited issues without really looking at them. That's why, for some people, "the" Adria Richards issue is the appropriateness of public shaming. For others, it is the appropriateness of sexual innuendo in a private conversation that is taking place in a public, professional setting, and where it is likely to be overheard. For still others, it's about the importance of creating a welcoming environment in a profession that has historically (and currently) left certain groups underrepresented. The Adria Richards issue is collegiality. And it's chilling dissent and creating a hostile environment. And proportionality. And...

In this case, the whole great grey picture becomes especially contentious because different people place different values on different pixels. In some cases, there is tension between the issues, and difficulty in striking a balance between them. And, here, few of the issues I just mentioned are - in isolation - frivolous. They might not be able to stake a good claim as the most important, or even as important enough to risk distracting from some of the others, but that doesn't make them objectively unimportant.

The trick really comes in trying to look at all of the issues, and trying to untangle them from each other as far as possible. I'm a slow learner, and I like sticking my finger in electric sockets, so I'm going to try to do just that. (Or, at least, start the process.)
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Strangers, Religion, and the Perils of "Live and Let Live."

(by mikedunford) Apr 01 2013

In general, I'm a live and let live kind of guy. Aggressively so. I don't have a lot of time or patience for people who are unwilling to cut others slack - particularly when it comes to relatively harmless foibles. Individual people are the moving parts of society, and biting your tongue around harmless idiots is part of the lubrication that keeps everything from grinding to a halt.

I'm still mostly on board with that overall view, but I spent some time today reconsidering my views on harmlessness, foibles, and idiots, and particularly on the application of those views toward displays of well-meaning religiosity directed toward complete strangers.

This reconsideration was sparked by an experience that Christina Stephens reported on earlier today. For those of you who aren't familiar with Christina's recent experiences, she had a little bit of a problem recently when her left foot wound up between the brake rotor on her falling car and the floor of the garage. The good news is that it's absolutely certain that there will not be an exact repeat of that particular incident, but the bad news is that this is certain more because of the absence of biological left foot than because of a suspension of gravity. (Levity aside, Christina has been dealing with things with amazing grace, and her Youtube chronicles of her experiences are a must-watch.)

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Visiting Pele

(by mikedunford) Mar 28 2013

As you might guess, time is a bit tight when you are in law school. (Yes, I'm making excuses for the lack of posts again.) Still, every now and then some time becomes available. When you live in Hawai‘i, even a little time can be enough to let you see some amazing things.

I got over to the Big Island last weekend. On Saturday evening, we managed to get over to the Volcano, and I managed to get some nice pictures of Halema‘uma‘u at night.

Halema‘uma‘u 1

A small linguistic diversion may be called for here. The Hawaiian language has 13 letters. One of those letters is the ‘okina, or glottal stop. The ‘okina is often seen represented by the apostrophe ('), but is more correctly represented using an inverted comma (‘). It's also often omitted entirely, which can lead to some confusion. I try to use the inverted comma. Since not all fonts render that correctly, you may see something different instead. If you do, I apologize.

In other words, you may have seen Halema‘uma‘u written as Halema'uma'u, or as Halemaumau. They're all referring to the same place.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Big Island, or with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Halema‘uma‘u is a crater that is located within Kilauea Caldera. At the moment, there is a pit within Halema‘uma‘u. Within that pit, there is a lava lake. The lake itself is not visible from any safe location, but the column of vapor that the lake emits is. At night, the column is incandescent, which allows for some really spectacular views.

One of those pictures is above. There are more below the fold. As usual, you can click on any of them to see a higher-resolution version at my Flickr site.

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Habemus Papam

(by mikedunford) Mar 13 2013

Yes, this is a post about the new Pope. And not because he's got a chemistry degree in his background.

My feelings about religion at any point in time are rarely clear. My skeptical nature and my Catholic upbringing are usually found in either a state of open conflict or uneasy truce. Fortunately, that doesn't matter so much for this post, since I'm not really planning to get too much into theology, and don't need to get into my own feelings and beliefs (and disbeliefs) at all.

Pope Francis does not have what anyone would call a progressive outlook on any number of social issues. He's not exactly a big promoter of women's issues. He's called same-sex marriage "demonic" in origin. We are not going to wake up tomorrow to learn that women can now become priests, or that priests can marry. None of those changes are going to happen under this Papacy.

But they would not have happened under a Scola Papacy. Or a Scherer Papacy. Or an Ouellet Papacy. Or a Dolan Papacy. Or, for that matter, under any of the leading candidates. Or under any of the non-leading candidates, with the possible exceptions of 1000:1 longshots Bono and Guido Sarducci. (It definitely would not have happened under the 666:1 longshot Dawkins Papacy, but for very different reasons.)
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Right. A Title Would Help, Wouldn't It?

(by mikedunford) Mar 11 2013

There was a time when this was a science-type blog, written by someone on the path to a PhD in the sciences. Same blog. Same writer. But now it's starting to focus more on law, probably because I'm now in law school. The $10K question is why.

I love science. Did then, do now. As I write this, I'm multitasking my way through a real property class covering a topic that is increasingly making me consider the benefits communism would have to my personal sanity. So why am I sitting here in the classroom when I could be carrying fermenting banana mush around the Big Island.

Rest assured, the smell of rotting bananas is vastly preferable to the intricacies of the Rule Against Perpetuities.

Yet here I sit, wrestling with the Unborn Widow case, and a principle of law so complex that California has quite literally ruled that it's not malpractice if a lawyer screws up and writes a will or trust that inadvertently violates the rule.

(The professor just literally said to us, "I'm so sorry to have to teach you this.")

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I think I'm back

(by mikedunford) Mar 10 2013

It's been a while since I used this blog. Life has interfered with blogging a bit. A lot of that has to do with starting law school. Learning the law has proven to be at least twice as much fun as I could have imagined, and at least three times as much work as I expected. And I expected a lot.

But I think I'm more or less back in the groove, and I've missed blogging. My new legal focus might feel a little out of place in a science-oriented community from time to time, but hopefully there will be enough connections to justify my place here. And, of course, I'll still be talking about politics, current events, life, and other things.

I'm hoping to get the place cleaned up a bit, re-do the sidebar, and so on over the next couple of weeks. But I'm good enough at breaking things that I might be better off leaving them the way they are. We'll see how it goes.

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Here's How United Airlines Supports the Troops

(by mikedunford) Jun 23 2012

United was able to get my wife into one of the many empty seats on their 0600 departure. While I'm happy that she is en route, the number of empty seats makes me wonder why she couldn't have been rebooked onto that flight in the first place, particularly when United was willing to sell me a seat on that flight for $1500 in the last couple of hours before departure.

Look, I'll admit at the start that United Airlines - or, for that matter, any other commercial enterprise - does not have any obligation to treat members of the military any better or worse than they treat their regular customers, but it would be nice if they can do better than what my family is dealing with right now.

Here's the deal:
Yesterday, the Northeast had yet another air travel debacle. Between weather and an FAA fire, flights were cancelled and delayed all over the coast. Naturally, yesterday was also the day when my wife arrived in Atlanta from Afghanistan for her 15 days of mid-deployment leave, which started upon arrival in the states. Her connecting flight from Chicago to New York was cancelled.

It happens. It's frustrating, but it happens. Weather is not something that an airline can control. Fires in FAA control centers are not something that an airline can control. It's frustrating, but I get it.

How passengers are rebooked, however, is something an airline can control. And it is here that United Airlines is showing just how they support the troops.

My wife is travelling in uniform. She has explained the situation to the United agents at O'Hare, and says that they appear to be doing their best to help her. Unfortunately, the best that they could do is rebook her for an 8:15 pm departure today - that's more than 24 hours after the cancelled flight.

I should be asleep right now, but I'm not. That probably has something to do with being alone in a hotel bed I had planned to share. Since I couldn't sleep, I decided to try to see if I could find some alternative that would get my wife to NY before an 8:15 pm departure from Chicago would.

I started with Priceline. I plugged O'Hare and NYC into the appropriate boxes, told it to try to come up with anything arriving within 200 miles of New York, and waited to see what came up.

Priceline found a 6:00 flight from Chicago to Newark with seats. On United.

I figured that couldn't be right. I went to United's website, punched in ORD and NYC, and went to see what I could book.

At this moment, while my wife sits in uniform at O'Hare waiting on the "first available" 8:15 departure to see her children for the first time since December 27th, United Airlines is willing to sell me Economy seats on:
Flight 1750, departing from O'Hare at 6:00 am and arriving at Newark at 9:00 am
Flight 3452, departing from O'Hare at 2:45 pm and arriving at LaGuardia at 5:54 pm
Flight 5151, departing from O'Hare at 5:22 pm and arriving at Newark at 8:48 pm

That's just the nonstops with allegedly available economy seats. There are another half-dozen nonstop flights with first class seats available, and several multi-stop itineraries with economy seats also turn up.

I've got - and may post - screen captures of some of this later. I've looked at the seat maps for the flights, and they show specific seats that United is willing to sell me on those flights. I sent my wife a text. The agents at the airport in Chicago cannot get her those flights. They tell her that their computer setup won't let them, unless it's tied with pay. Instead, they're trying to get her a flight to Albany, where I can meet her and we can catch the train.

The kids and I flew United's Honolulu-Newark nonstop on the way out here. I'm looking at alternatives for the flight back.

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(by mikedunford) Jun 01 2012

I spent the weekend goofing off. And, since the kids are out of school, I spent most of the week goofing off. This makes me nearly the last blogger in the sphere to hear about the minor tempest that MSNBC host Chris Hayes sparked on Sunday morning, when he said:

I think very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen, without invoking valor, without invoking the words heroes. And why do I feel so comfortable about the world hero? I feel uncomfortable about the world hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. And I don't want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that's fallen and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine tremendous heroism, you know, in a hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that. But it seems to me we marshal this word in a way that's problematic. Maybe I'm wrong.

Before going further, in the interests of full disclosure I should note that Chris' parents and mine are friends. He and I are products of the same liberal village in the Bronx. The military, obviously, is also a sensitive subject with me. We both had the benefit of having the love and support of a tremendous group of thoughtful, intelligent, and compassionate adults. Clearly, we've gone in very different directions. He's gone on to fame as an intelligent, thoughtful progressive voice. I've spent much of the same time raising two children while living on a collection of military bases and worrying my way through 2.5 (and counting) deployments. There was a time when he and I had a great deal in common; that time is long past. Our experiences have been so completely different that they've left me - as he put it earlier in that show - in a nation within a nation, barely inhabiting the same union he does.

I didn't get around to watching the controversial Sunday show until today. Frankly, I'm not sure I should have. It was frustrating and aggravating, and not necessarily because Chris was wrong.
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And Max the king of all the wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

(by mikedunford) May 08 2012

And sailed back over a year
And in and out of weeks
And through a day
And into the night of his very own room
Where he found his supper waiting for him

And it was still hot.

Goodnight, Mr. Sendak. The world is better for having known you.

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