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22. Welfare Reform Up For Reauthorization But Still No Safety Net

Sources:

MOTHER JONES, May/June 2002
Title: Without a Safety Net
Authors: Barbara Ehrenreich, Frances Fox Piven

IN THESE TIMES, Sept 2, 2002
Title: “Bad to Worse”
Author: Neil deMause

THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, Summer 2002
Title: “What Does Minnesota Know?”
Author: Dave Hage

DOLLARS AND CENTS, September/October 2002
Title: Good Times, Bad Times: Recession the Welfare Debate
Author: Heather Boushey

Faculty Evaluators: Maureen Buckley Ph.D., Barbara Bloom Ph.D.,
Wingham Liddell Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Jen Scanlan, Jessie Esquivel, Sarah Zisman, Alyssa Speaker

In 1996, President Bill Clinton enacted legislation that ended sixty-one years of federal aid designed to lift families out of poverty and ushered in a commitment to lower welfare rolls and forcing recipients to work. The 1996 law, entitled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), is set to be reviewed in the summer of 2003. Poverty and unemployment are on the rise in the U.S. and the welfare safety net for needy children no longer meets basic needs. Yet the Bush administration is seeking to reduce the safety net even more.

The White House has proposed new work requirements as part of its plan to reauthorize TANF that promise to exacerbate the plight of the unemployed by undercutting state programs that managed to make partial successes of the 1996 bill. Under the 1996 provisions states had the right to adopt local policies to accommodate the job training and education needs of clients. New rules being proposed in Washington would replace state level policies with more rigid, mechanistic limitations imposed by the federal government. Programs like employment skills training, guided job searches, and bilingual education would be constricted or discontinued altogether.

Although the new burdens placed on the states back in ‘96 were initially a challenge, most were able to figure out plans that worked for some families. Prior to 1996, the federal government had matched a percentage of the state’s welfare spending. With the passage of TANF, it gave each state an annual grant of a set amount. Some states were able to take the grant and work with client families to move them from assistance to reasonable employment and out of poverty, but in most states as the welfare rolls declined, poverty actually increased.

While the 1996 welfare law required parents to work in order to receive TANF benefits, in practice a good bit of leeway remained for parents to attend school and job training programs. But now, with very little input from state agencies, the White House has decided to impose new restrictions that would eliminate states’ flexibility regarding the application of their yearly grants. States would be required to verify that 70 percent of their welfare clients worked 40 hours a week
A study released by the Christian Science Monitor indicated that mothers on welfare received an average of $13,000 a year, well below the poverty line. Since government assistance diminishes as job income rises, recipients are still unable to cover food, rent, and utilities. One-fifth of all mothers in the study had to cut the size of meals they serve their children because they could not afford to buy more food. To earn more money, the mothers work more hours, leaving the kids without their mother for longer periods at a time. This also means that mothers have to pay more for childcare.

According to a recent survey by the National Governors Association, the new welfare requirements will “dismantle effective programs that reduce non-marital births, improve job retention, encourage completion of secondary education by teenagers and young adults, and reduce substance abuse.” Many state legislators are angry that they were never consulted before the push for the new rules began. This move toward the imposition of big government over states’ rights seems an ironic policy for a conservative Republican administration.

In 1996 the assumptions underlying welfare reform were that a job could lift a family out of poverty and that there were enough jobs for anyone willing to work. In today’s economy, families living close to the poverty line are increasingly likely to fall over the edge.

UPDATED BY DAVID HAGE: The landmark federal law known as “welfare reform’’ received intense news coverage during 1995 and 1996, when Congress was debating the measure and battling with President Bill Clinton. By 2000, however, it had dropped off the national radar screen. Lawmakers considered welfare reform a finished project, since they had debated and passed legislation, and most reporters moved on to other stories when no obvious crises emerged.

On the ground, however, it was very much a live story. The law had triggered a revolution at the local level, as states converted their welfare offices into employment agencies, and workers in the trenches were just beginning to figure out what worked and didn’t work in the daunting and unprecedented task of moving millions of poor, under-skilled single parents into the job market.

By 2002 some welfare advocates and poverty scholars were actually looking forward to reauthorization of the federal law. They hoped that Congress would learn from six years of experience and give them tools to handle the emerging problems: the crushing costs of child care for poor single mothers; the fact that most welfare “leavers’’ remained mired in poverty-level jobs; the discovery that millions of welfare recipients had mental illnesses, chronic disabilities, borderline IQs and other disadvantages that barred them from holding steady work.

Instead, in 2002, the Bush administration offered a bill that capped federal funds to the states, imposed demanding new work requirements on welfare recipients, and effectively banned many of the most promising state-level experiments. That proposal, which alarmed many governors and welfare scholars, died by late summer when the Republican House failed to reach agreement with the Democratic Senate.

In mid-2003, however, the Bush administration submitted essentially the same proposal, and the Republican leadership in both chambers promised to adopt it. Ironically, and sadly, this occurred just as the welfare experiment was experiencing its first crisis at the local level: the job market was contracting, welfare caseloads were rising, and state governments were facing their worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. Most welfare reporters seemed fatigued by the story, and a cynic would have predicted that they would return to the story only when poor families turned up sleeping on park benches.

If there was any promise in the 1996 welfare law, it was that society might actually look at the families on public assistance and ask what might be required to give them better lives. By all appearances, seven years into the experiment, Congress and much of the public had never looked or simply shrugged.

In Washington, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have done fine work in tracking the consequences of the 1996 law, and the Urban Institute undertook a comprehensive study of the fate of poor families under the “new federalism.’’ But it remains unclear whether anyone in a position of power was paying attention.

UPDATE BY NEIL DEMAUSE: In the nine months since In These Times published “Bad To Worse,” things have if anything gotten even more dismal for women trying to survive on welfare. Congress never did pass a TANF reauthorization law in 2002, and with Republicans regaining control of the Senate in the November elections, it’s even more likely that what legislation eventually emerges will be heavy on punitive restrictions like increased work hours and full-family sanctions, with more progressive measures likely to be pushed to the side. Meanwhile, the economy-ravaged (and tax-cut-ravaged) federal is even more strapped for cash, making it more unlikely that federal child care funds will be increased, even as need is on the rise – according to a Government Accounting Office study, 23 states have cut child care funding in the last two years because of their own fiscal crises.

All this has taken place far from the public eye, as media coverage of welfare, once a staple of nightly news broadcasts, has all but vanished – just when the effects of “welfare reform,” no longer masked by the ‘90s economic boom, are finally becoming clear: more homelessness, more hunger, and lessened ability to escape from poverty. (Recent studies have found, in fact, that low-income single mothers were the one demographic group whose fortunes slipped even during the height of the boom times.) Instead, the myth that reform has worked persists, largely because caseloads dropped precipitously upon implementation of the 1996 law, and have remained low. But as Mark Greenberg of the Center for Law and Social Policy notes, “That raises big questions: Some people point to that as evidence of the continued success of state efforts, while others ask why welfare caseloads *aren’t* going up when unemployment is going up?”

Instead of asking these questions, Congress has largely focused on following the course set out by the 1996 law – one recent Senate committee hearing was titled “Welfare Reform: Building on Success.” And President Bush is now moving to bring similar “reform” to other programs, proposing to convert Medicaid, Head Start, and Section 8 housing vouchers into “block grant” programs that, like TANF, would freeze federal funding levels while allowing states unprecedented leeway in denying services.

Meanwhile, the coalition of groups that first organized back in YEAR to
track the TANF reauthorization process continues to press for more equitable policies for America’s poor.

Among the groups to contact for more information: the D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy (202-906-8000,http://www.clasp.org) and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (202-408-1080, http://www.cbpp.org); the Welfare Made a Difference Campaign (212-894-8082, http://www.wmadcampaign.org), a network of grassroots low-income organizers; and the Welfare Information Network’s comprehensive website at http://www.financeprojectinfo.org/win.

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