STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Get a load of this chart

U.S. House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee

What you see above is a chart of all 80 federal programs that provide help to low-income families. This chart was prepared by the leaders of the U.S. House committee that oversees federal social service programs. Republican leaders on the committee put it together for a hearing a couple days ago.

"What it shows is, in short, a mess," said Republican Charles Boustany of Louisiana, in a statement issued for the hearing. "The system may have started out with good intentions, but it has become a confusing maze of programs that are overlapping, duplicative, poorly coordinated, and difficult to administer. I defy anyone to say this is the best way to address the human tragedy so many of our fellow citizens experience." 

Boustany, of course, has a point. But there's also more to the story than the chart lets on. 

First, what he gets right: No one really thinks the federal government's programs for low-income families are perfect as they are. And the chart above shows one reason why. The system is incredibly difficult to navigate. Each program has its own requirements, which can change with the whims of administrators or elected officials. And, when you add in state and local programs, the system is actually more complicated than this chart lets on. People who depend on these programs are lucky to have social workers or case workers who can help them navigate the system. But a lot of those people are carrying high caseloads, and help isn't always easy to get. 

... if you think Republicans have bad things to say about welfare, you should really hear what people on welfare have to say.

I've heard plenty of these stories as a reporter. But I also have some personal experience here. My family depended on federal aid programs when I was a kid. We got food stamps, WIC and free school lunch. I lived in federal housing for a few years. My sister went to Head Start. A lot of the people we knew also depended on programs like this. I try to keep those experiences in mind when I hear people critique these programs. Because the truth is, if you think Republicans have bad things to say about welfare, you should really hear what people on welfare have to say. They know better than anyone what it's like to struggle through the "mess" Boustany is talking about. 

Still, these programs can do a lot of good. That's the part the chart leaves out. In fact, if you're able to zoom in on the full-sized version of the above chart, you'll find a number of red diamond shapes inside the chart, with more details on what's wrong with each program. What you won't see is any description of what those programs get right. 

So here's another chart for you to consider: 

Credit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

This chart was presented during the same Congressional hearing I mentioned above. It comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. What it shows is that, despite all the chaos, welfare programs can help lift people out of poverty. A lot of people. As you can see in the chart, when you add in the benefits received through federal assistance programs, the U.S. poverty rate drops by almost half. 

CBPP President Robert Greenstein argued this point in his testimony during the hearing a few days ago. He agreed that Congress should try to ensure better coordination across the many agencies and programs that serve low-income families. But, he said, eliminating programs entirely might not be a good idea. Even if the federal government used the savings to just cut checks to the states, Greenstein argues programs would be less responsive, and there'd be less accountability over time, compared to the system we have today. 

So yeah, the system we have today is a mess. Everyone agrees on that. But replacing it with something else wouldn't be easy, and it might not be smart. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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