Sunday, May 7, 2017

You can’t fix child welfare spending with distorted data and doublethink

Listen closely. That giant sucking sound you hear is the foster care-industrial complex grasping for every dollar it can swipe from every possible “funding stream.”

George Orwell gave us the concept of  doublethink.
Foster care advocates perfected it.
 In 1984, George Orwell defined “doublethink” as holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting them both.

In child welfare, for example, we have been told for decades that child welfare systems don’t take away children because their families are poor. Elizabeth Bartholet, for example, in her book, Nobody’s Children, derides the notion that cases of neglect are “mere poverty” cases.

Sean Hughes sneered at the notion when he wrote that “if you look at the data, it’s hard to see any evidence of there being a pattern of foster care entry due solely to material deprivations of poverty.” (For the record, such data are, in fact, abundant.)

But now we also are told, in an opinion column by Hughes and Angie Schwartz that every single federal program designed to ease poverty – including housing assistance, food stamps, even the Supplemental Security Income program for the aged, blind and disabled – is a foster care prevention program, and every dime from every one of them should be counted as child welfare spending.

In other words, great gobs of money are going to prevent something – removal of children from their parents because they are poor – that child welfare agencies say they don’t do anyway.
Hughes and Schwartz use this doublethink to stand reality on its head, leaving both a written and visual impression of vast sums of money for prevention dwarfing a tiny amount for foster care. But by this same logic, the entire Social Security and Medicare budgets should be counted as foster care spending, because some of that money helps grandparents providing kinship foster care to grandchildren.
In fact, as advocates of taking away children themselves love to point out, a majority of poor families are never subject to a child abuse or neglect allegation. Well, at least if they’re white. So if torturing logic were a war crime, counting this spending as preventing foster care would be Exhibit A at an international tribunal.

Where the Money Really Goes

But even if you accept Hughes and Schwartz’s premise, the graphics accompanying the article misrepresent reality. They portray the amount available under the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) as equal to the amount available under the portion of the giant open-ended entitlement known as Title IV-E reserved exclusively for foster care. In fact, even if every dime allocated to the SSBG were spent exclusively on child welfare, it still wouldn’t equal the amount spent on IV-E foster care.

Even more egregious, the amount available under the one program that really is targeted, in part, at preventing needless foster care, Title IV-B, is presented as about half as much as the IV-E foster care entitlement.
In fact, total IV-B funding is less than one-fifth what is spent on IV-E foster care, and the portion of IV-B funds actually spent on family preservation and reunification is roughly one-eighth the amount spent on IV-E foster care. So if the graphic were accurate, you’d barely be able to see the box showing efforts targeted to keeping families together.

When Hughes and Schwartz finally get almost real – in a pie chart – we find that even counting all those other categories of spending, and even if we pretend all the money from all those other categories spent on child welfare goes to keeping families together, child welfare still spends more on foster care and adoption than on everything else combined.
But even that doesn’t tell the full story.
§  Hughes and Schwartz portray Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as part of the cornucopia of funding available for prevention. But the real TANF scandal is how it’s been turned into a child welfare slush fund, with states siphoning off millions for adoption, foster care, child abuse investigations and even the worst form of “care” of all, institutionalizing children.
§  More than $750 million in SSBG funds similarly has been diverted to foster care and child protective services.
§  As for SSI payments: there, too, there’s a real scandal: Child welfare agencies snatching away money that rightfully belongs to individual foster children in order to fund their bureaucracies.

 Aid for the Vulnerable is Always Vulnerable
As I’ve noted before, this happens because of whom these different programs serve. Programs such as TANF serve poor people who are widely despised, so they’re easy targets for raids by a foster-care industrial complex that can pressure government to get what it wants. Foster care, on the other hand, separates the good children from the “bad” parents – making it far more popular. Because it is a middle-class constituency and because a whole industry has grown up around it – complete with high-powered lobbyists – it is far less vulnerable to cuts.

That’s why it’s so important that any reform to child welfare finance make foster care funding available for prevention and family preservation while protecting family preservation and general aid to poor people from being raided for foster care.
There’s another crucial difference between funding, say, food stamps and funding foster care. Food stamps don’t do harm. Often, foster care does. That’s why incentives should be geared to preventing the misuse and overuse of foster care.

As for the claim that child advocates won’t argue for more money, let’s put it to the test. Send out one of those ubiquitous “sign-on” letters with a call for simply spending more money on everything in child welfare and see what happens.  Shall we take bets?
No, what Hughes and Schwartz really are saying is that advocates should oppose anything that compromises the sacred status of foster care funding by allowing that money to be used for better alternatives.
That’s why the only way to promote their agenda is with doublethink.