The War Against the Poor
BETTY REID MANDELL, a welfare rights activist since the 1960s, co-edits Survival News, written by and about poor people. She is Professor Emerita from Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, and the author (with Barbara Schram) of An Introduction to Human Service Policy and Practice. Her article "Falling through the Safety Net: Women and Children First," appeared in NEW POLITICS, Winter 1999.
I GO TO THE HOMELESS UNIT
I GO TO THE HOMELESS UNITof the Boston Department of Transitional Assistance (a.k.a. the Department of Welfare) as a volunteer for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless to tell people that they still have rights, and to help them get the help they are entitled to. They are entitled to less and less as welfare reform is implemented and as rents skyrocket. Once upon a time, welfare gave assistance to unemployed people who had used up their unemployment compensation. No more. Once upon a time there was rent control in Boston. No more.
The Homeless Unit feels like a war zone where refugees have been displaced from their homes. I feel like a war reporter as I tell their stories. There is a war going on against the poor, and most fiercely against people of color. The DTA treats all of its clients as unwelcome guests whom the host wants to get rid of as soon as possible, and the host is not subtle about it. Clients are not allowed to eat in the waiting room, not even give bottles to babies. If clients park in the parking lot of Burger King, which adjoins the DTA parking lot, they are towed immediately. When I discuss this with the security guard (one of four, including two State Police), he grouses about clients who don't read the (small) sign on the door telling them not to park in the Burger King lot, and says it's their fault if they get towed. (These people are homeless and strapped for cash, and it costs $50 to reclaim their car.)
At a meeting of the Mass Coalition for the Homeless where we discuss our work, I say that it would be so easy to solve these problems for the clients. DTA could easily afford to put signs in the parking lot to tell clients where to park. And forbidding homeless families to eat while they are waiting for shelter, sometimes for an entire day, is cruel. A lawyer from Greater Boston Legal Services agrees that it would be easy to be humane to clients, but the DTA follows a policy of "calculated cruelty" to intimidate people and discourage them from asking for help.
HERE ARE STORIES THAT PEOPLE TOLD ME. They are fairly typical of normal days at the Homeless Unit, days full of unrelieved misery:
A woman with three children is looking for a decent shelter. Welfare placed them in a motel in Malden (a suburb of Boston), which she said is a terrible place. It is drug infested and couples come in for a couple of hours for sex. It is dirty and smells. She slept with two of her children in a double bed that sagged in the middle. They promised to bring in a cot but didn't. Her children are going to school in Boston and she works at Terradyn in Boston from 3 p.m. to 11. Her 18 year old daughter takes care of the two younger children while she works. She had been living in one room in a rooming house but complained to her landlord about his not making repairs. In revenge, he called the Department of Social Services (child welfare department) and accused her of neglecting her children because of the conditions they were living in at the motel. The DSS worker was going to file a neglect petition, but after she visited her at the motel, she said the motel was a drug infested place and the family should not have been placed there.Congress and the President yanked the safety net, never very strong, out from under people, and Congress doesn't even want to know about the misery they have caused. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996 ended welfare as an entitlement and gave money to the states in the form of block grants, leaving the states to do pretty much what they pleased with the program. The federal program is called Transitional Aid to Needy Families (TANF), but states give it a variety of names -- Temporary Assistance to Families of Dependent Children (TAFDC) in Massachusetts, W-2 in Wisconsin. The federal law set a life time limit of five years for receipt of TANF, but the states were allowed to set shorter time limits and many of them did. The federal law allowed states to force mothers to find a paid job when their child was as young as one year. Some states set the age higher, but in a state such as Massachusetts which has a two year time limit but does not enforce paid work until the child is 6, if the family hits the 2 year time limit they are off, even if the child is younger than 6.
A man who was looking for shelter for himself and his son was placed in a shelter in Holyoke (150 miles west of Boston). His son goes to school in Boston, and he works in Boston. He was very upset, because his son will have to leave his school, and he will have to leave his job.
In May 1999, Senator Wellstone introduced a bill that would require the Department of Health and Human Services to collect data on families leaving welfare to show how families are faring: whether they are working, how much they are earning, whether they continue to receive Medicaid and Food Stamps (to which they are likely to remain eligible). The amendment failed by a vote of 49-50 (R 4-50; D 45-0).1
The shredding of the safety net, the low wages, and the high rents have resulted in increasing numbers of people seeking refuge in the Homeless Unit. It is not a kind refuge. The PRA praised the virtues of work and family responsibility, but it didn't say that work should pay enough to support a family, nor did the majority in Congress care whether it did or not. In November 1999, Senator Kennedy offered a bill to increase the minimum wage by $1 over 2 years. It was defeated by a vote of 50-48 50 - 4; D 0-44).2
The annual income for a worker at the minimum wage is just over $10,000. A study by Wider Opportunities for Women showed that a mother and one child in Boston needs to earn $15.28 an hour (over $30,000 a year) in order to make ends meet.3 Employed former recipients of welfare and recipients combining work and welfare earn, on average, between $8,000 and $10,800 a year.4 The maximum TAFDC grant for a family of 3 in Massachusetts is about $7,000 a year. The median cost of a two bedroom apartment in Boston in 1999 was about $16,000 a year.5 The minimum wage is not adequate to afford the Fair Market Rent anywhere in the United States.6 Housing subsidies help poor people pay the rent, but by 1997, 5.4 million working people in the nation paid over half of their income on housing or lived in severely substandard housing, but received no government housing assistance. No doubt there are many more now.7
Officials who supported the PRA are crowing about how well it has been working because it has drastically reduced the welfare rolls, which was their goal. Welfare rolls have shrunk from 14.1 million households in January 1993 to 6.3 million in December 1999 -- a drop of 56 percent or 7.8 million households,9 two-thirds of them families that were previously being helped. No one knows for sure how many of these 7.8 million got jobs.
Estimates of how many recipients are working after leaving welfare vary from state to state. A 1999 Associated Press review of 21 state studies showed that the percentages of people who were working after leaving welfare ranged from 35% in Mississippi to 75% in Florida. Most states hovered between 50% and 65%.10 Many of them returned to welfare soon after leaving -- between 19% and 30%, according to a 1999 Government Accounting Office survey.11
What has happened to the unemployed? Some follow-up studies show them to be in the lengthening lines at food pantries and food kitchens, and in the welfare Homeless Unit. Some probably returned to live with abusive partners whom they had been able to leave when they received welfare. Youth workers report that children are going hungry and begging has increased.12 Soup kitchens and food pantries are swamped, often unable to give food to those who need it. Some people have probably gone into prostitution, theft, or other illegal activities. Some are scraping by on odd jobs that formerly supplemented an inadequate welfare grant, but now constitute their entire income, such as baby sitting, housekeeping, cooking, hair styling, and snow shoveling.
One of the most common reasons for case closings during welfare reform has been sanctions by the welfare department. A client may be sanctioned from the rolls for any of a number of bureaucratic reasons. Clients are sanctioned for failing to return a form on time, for failing to fill a form out correctly, for not coming to a meeting with a worker (even when the meeting conflicted with required community service activities), for not cooperating with work or community service requirements, and often because of the worker's mistake. I met one mother of two children in the welfare office who said that the younger child was a "Family Cap" baby for whom she did not get any money.13 As I explored her situation, it became clear that the DTA had designated that a family cap baby even though it was born before she applied for welfare. I had uncovered yet another case for overworked legal services lawyers to battle with DTA.
Some states and organizations have been doing follow-up studies, and we can begin to see the broad outlines of what's happening. A study by Families USA tells us that states have stripped more than a million low-income American parents, mostly single women, of health insurance. When removed from the welfare rolls, they were dropped from the Medicaid rolls as well. The PRA did not impose penalties on states for failing to follow the law. President Clinton, who signed the law, and Al Gore, who urged that the law be passed, are now supporting a new federal program to reduce the number of uninsured children, apparently ignoring the fact that the welfare law they supported increased the number of uninsured children, as well as their parents. Governor George W. Bush's Texas had one of the biggest declines in the Medicaid rolls -- 46 percent, as compared to the average of 27 percent in the major welfare states included in the study.14
Welfare reform has also reduced the number of people who receive food stamps. States have been neglecting to tell people that they are still eligible for food stamps when they leave the welfare rolls, and many people who have not been on welfare don't realize that they are eligible. Food stamp participation has declined by 11 million people -- nearly 40 percent -- since 1994. An Urban Institute study found that only 42 percent of families that left welfare but had incomes below the food stamp eligibility limits continued to receive food stamps.15
A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that about 17 percent of all children in the country, or roughly 12 million, faced hunger in 1999. More than 21 percent of all black people went hungry or lived on the edge in 1999, the highest percentage of any racial group. A large percentage of Hispanics, 20.8 percent, faced a similar situation. By contrast, only 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites went hungry or were what the report called "food insecure." Single mothers with children were the most vulnerable to the problem, with nearly 30 percent of such households reporting food insecurity.17 In areas where housing costs are especially high, as in Boston, there are higher rates of poverty.
Most welfare recipients who got jobs did not get out of poverty. Women leaving welfare for work earn on average $7 to $8 an hour. Much of their work is temporary and part-time. About half of women on welfare don't have even a high school education, so they are not likely to find high paying jobs. Many of them have a hard time even finding a low paying job. The Personal Responsibility Act doesn't allow for more than a year of higher education, and that has to be vocationally oriented.
The incomes of 10 percent of homes headed by single mothers have dropped 14 percent since the 1996 law was signed. Virtually every other group in the nation has seen its income rise during the economic boom.18 The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the poorest 20 percent of single mother families19 saw their incomes plummet between 1995 and 1997 as welfare reform kicked in.20
This harsh law has resulted in severe hardship for immigrants. In 1997, 49% of non-citizen children were without health insurance vs. 19% of citizen children. Parents sometimes believe that their children are not eligible for health and food programs. Food stamp utilization for children in immigrant households from 1994-1997 declined 37%, versus a 15% decline for children living with native-born parents, according to a USDA study.21 Over half a million legal immigrants remain ineligible for food stamps due to the 1996 welfare law.22 Many parents fear repercussions with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) if they apply for benefits. Despite working full-time, immigrant families cannot take part in programs that were created for working poor families, and immigrant women's weekly earnings have been falling since 1970.23
Immigrants who are applying for a green card must document a constant work history during their stay in the U. S., making it all the more imperative that they find work.24 Many immigrants are in a bind because they couldn't get authorization to work due to the several year backlog at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.25 Many welfare offices and other social service and health agencies do not provide translators. Community-based organizations often have to accompany clients to appointments at the welfare office, where they often wait hours to meet with a worker. Workers often do not refer people to ESL classes. One community service worker said, "We have a lot of clients who don't know English so that they're not able to complete forms and attend training and things so they're not really at a level where they're even able to take advantage of the few things welfare is offering."26
President Clinton, in explaining his decision to repeal sixty years of social policy said: "The poverty population of American was fundamentally different than it is now.... When welfare was created the typical welfare recipient was a miner's widow with no education, small children, husband dies in the mine, no expectation that there was a job for the widow to do or that she ever could do it, very few out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births. The whole dynamics were different then."27 Gwendolyn Mink comments on this: "What can he have meant? That if the welfare population were still 89 percent white and 61 percent widowed as it was in 1939, welfare would not need to be reformed?"28
The racial mythology of welfare "cast the welfare mother as Black, pinned the need for reform on her character, and at least implicitly defined Black women as other people's workers rather than their own families' mothers. Racially charged images of lazy, promiscuous, and matriarchal women have dominated welfare discourse for quite some time, inflaming demands that mothers who need welfare -- though perhaps not their children -- must pay for their improvident behavior through work, marriage, or destitution."29
Because they are disproportionately poor, a disproportionate number of African-American and Latina mothers are on welfare. In 1994, adult recipients of AFDC families were 37.4 percent white, 36.4 percent black, 19.9 Latina, 2.9 percent Asian, and 1.3 percent Native Americans. Of unmarried mothers who received welfare, only 28.4 were white. "Hence, the burdens that welfare law imposes on mothers because they are not married are burdens that fall especially heavily on women of color."30
Since welfare reform began, high proportions of minority families are leaving welfare, but white families have been leaving at a faster rate. This makes the racial mythology of welfare more insidious than ever. Probably white women have left welfare to go to work sooner than women of color because they were more likely to have the necessary education and skills. In 1997, the racial composition of the rolls was 37 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, and 35 percent white.31
Welfare mothers are keenly aware of the increasing stigma associated with receiving assistance, and many feel the effects of racism. Single mothers, particularly African-American and Hispanic women, speak of policies to isolate people of color.32 In Lisa Dodson's study of mothers on welfare, "one group of women discussed what they called 'healthy fear syndrome,' which is the fear of public offices, of case workers, and of giving up information about themselves or their children.... Latina mothers spoke of cultural bigotry, of 'anti-immigrant' sentiments expressed through both immigration and welfare policy. We heard a woman, who had been on welfare and is now working in a health center, speak of a national trend toward 'our own brand of ethnic cleansing.'...Above all, most respondents and some providers spoke of the specter of the Department of Social Services as more threatening than any other public office. This agency was viewed as waiting for women who 'are being set up to fail' so they can then remove their children from their custody.... One mother suggested there was a conspiracy to systematically take poor children away from their families."33
WorkThe YWCA, one of five private agencies that administers Wisconsin's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program (called W2), created a for-profit branch of their agency to accommodate the massive profits that W2 is generating. In 1999 the YW earned over $7 million in profit from their W2 clients. They require women on welfare to work at unwaged jobs at the YWCA itself. They have also purchased a plastics factory, Generation Plastics, where they mandate single mothers to work for them for free in exchange for their state welfare grant. Pat Gowens says that "women partially disabled with asthma, diabetes, lupus, heart disease, back injuries, and mental illness are forced to take infants and toddlers on the bus to day care, then take the bus to the YWCA's plastic factory, or the YW's welfare offices to work off their children's welfare support check. Single mothers with infants as young as 3 months old must travel across town to the YW plastics factory to work for no pay, no benefits, no vacations, no meaningful experience."34
If you are poor ... work.
If you are rich ... continue to work.
If you are burdened with seemingly unfair responsibilities ... work.
If you are happy ... keep right on working.
Idleness gives room for doubts and fear.
If disappointments come ... work.
When dreams are shattered and hope seems dead ... work.
No matter what ails you, work.
Work faithfully ... work with faith.
Work is the greatest remedy available.
Work will cure both mental and physical afflictions.
Thank God every morning when you get up that you have something to do
which must be done whether you like it or not.
Being forced to work and forced to do your best will breed in you temperance,
strength of will, contentment, and a hundred other virtues
which the idle will never know.
The federal government doesn't penalize states for kicking people off Medicaid or food stamps, but it does penalize them for not getting people to work. The PRA requires recipients to work thirty hours a week and penalizes recipients who do not conform to this requirement with reducing or terminating their grant. If a state does not meet the work participation rates, it loses a percentage of its block grant. Because states must enroll fifty percent of their caseloads in work outside the home, ever increasing numbers of recipients will have to seek employment immediately after receiving benefits.35 The law requires states to ease work requirements where child care is unavailable and a state must continue to provide benefits to a mother whose child is under six years of age if she can prove that she cannot find suitable child care within a reasonable distance from her home. But the state's definition of "suitable" and "reasonable distance" may not be the mother's definition.
Officials' preoccupation with making people work is obsessive. "Work First" is the mantra. "Any job is a good job," says the director of the DTA in Massachusetts. There is federal money for training people on the job, but not before they get a job. If states do pay for education and training, most states prefer short term training courses that lead to low paying jobs.
A few states use state money to support more education. Maine, for example, subsidizes parents to go to four-year colleges under their "Parents as Partners" program. But in Massachusetts, one of the most punitive states, funds for education and training through DTA have been largely redirected from substantive programs to résumé writing and mock interview "job readiness" programs. Recipients are discouraged from pursuing programs that might lead to increased skills and higher earnings and are instead pressured into taking any job that comes along.36
The job search program is sometimes used as punishment. In Massachusetts, for example, if someone is granted an extension of the two year time limit, she is required to spend 20 hours in a job readiness program, even if she already has a job! Here is the story of a woman living in a family shelter for the homeless. She has a part-time job, but the DTA complicates her life enormously by its housing and job search requirements.
I work as a home health aide and have to get up at 4:45 in the morning to be to work by 6:30, three days a week. I'm also trying to finish a program to get my associates degree in nursing, and find an apartment so I can get out of the homeless shelter where I live. I'm looking for a place, but it's hard to find anything. I only make $200 a week, and most two bedrooms are $700 a month. I tried to find a studio, but most landlords don't want kids in a studio. I also need to buy a car to be able to get back and forth to school (I've been borrowing a friend's car but can't for much longer) and they keep giving me a hard time, telling me I don't need a car and I should be saving money. But I live in Lowell and go to school in Lawrence, and I have a four-year-old! Do you know how hard that would be to get back and forth without a car and still do the housing search and all the other things we have to do at the shelter. We have to turn in forms that list where we looked for housing each week, and we have to have twelve, no matter what. If the landlord doesn't return your call, it doesn't count. Even if there are only six listings in the paper, they tell you that's not enough, that you have to try harder. It's so degrading. You know, besides being homeless, we have other issues, and we should be treated with respect. I have low self-esteem, and it's really hard to keep myself going, but they just keep piling more things on us. There are all these mandatory meetings --that you have to go to even if they don't have anything to do with you. Like going to these employment sessions -- on how to get a job. I already have a job! But I still have to go -- because it's mandatory. You know, anybody could end up in this predicament -- it's not because we made bad choices. That's the way life is. Some people are lucky, and some are not. And a pat on the back would be so much better than constantly putting us down.37Welfare recipients who have not found a job are placed in community service work (workfare) which is usually menial work such as raking leaves, picking up garbage, washing dishes in a school cafeteria. In some cities, workfare workers have replaced regular workers. Although the law prohibits the direct substitution of welfare recipients for currently paid workers, some localities have gotten around this by not renewing expired employment contracts with paid workers. In many localities, low-wage workers have been displaced by workfare "trainees" working off their welfare benefits at less than the minimum wage -- sometimes as little as $1.50 an hour.38 In Baltimore, a thousand workers had lost jobs to welfare trainees by mid-1997, despite the fact that city workers had only two years before won a city ordinance guaranteeing a living wage to anyone employed under contracts with the city.39 In New York City, thousands of workfare participants now do the work once done by higher-paid city workers.40
Much of the child care is low quality. A study by the General Accounting Office "found that 59 percent of low-income children attend early childhood centers that fail to provide the full range of child development, health, and parent services needed to support their school readiness."44 Some women put their children in informal care, for which DTA pays $2 an hour, and while some of this care is good, much of it is not. Lisa Dodson's study tells of one woman who cared for 11 children, ranging in age from 5 to 13, in a one bedroom apartment.45
Many of the older girls in families are pressed into service to care for the younger children while their mother works, which of course impedes their own schooling and development.
The cost of child care is a major drain on a working parent's income. The average annual cost of child care in a day-care center for a four-year-old child in Boston in 1997 was $7,904.46 A woman earning only $10,000 a year can't pay that without a child care subsidy, and there aren't enough subsidies. Only one out of l0 children in the nation who are eligible actually receive them.47
Transportation is also a major problem for low-income working women. Two-thirds of all new jobs are in the suburbs, but three-fourths of welfare recipients live in rural areas or central cities. Ninety-four percent of recipients don't own a car.48 When they do own one, it is an old clunker that constantly breaks down and needs repairs. If they own a better one, it is counted as an asset which could disqualify them for welfare. A study of transit service from a point in Boston in which a high population of welfare recipients lived to the high-growth areas for entry-level employment found that more than 43 percent of the employers representing 66 percent of existing jobs could not be reached within two hours -- even though most of the city's welfare recipients live within one-half mile of public transit.49 Furthermore, public transportation services offer inadequate hours of operation and infrequent service. And it is expensive. For example, a one-way fare from Boston to a nearby city of Waltham via commuter rail costs $2.25 or $72 for a monthly commuter rail pass, a big bite out of the income of someone earning $6 an hour.
The "work first" philosophy of the PRA has meant that thousands of women have had to drop out of college and training programs in order to get a low paying job. Many had to drop out even when they were within a few months of completing a program that would have helped them to get a well paid job. In Massachusetts, which implemented in 1995 a harsher two year time limit on welfare than the federal five year time limit, 36% of welfare recipients who were in community colleges dropped out between 1994 and 1996,50 and an even higher percentage who were in four year colleges dropped out. (The state's welfare reform law only allowed two year programs, not four year colleges). Many women are even prevented from entering a GED program to get a high school degree, or an English as a Second Language (ESL) program where they could learn enough English to get a job. And there are not enough ESL programs to meet the need. Hispanic women face particular difficulties under welfare reform. Hispanics are the most undereducated of major U. S. ethnic-minority groups. Hispanic children are less likely to be enrolled in pre-school programs, and, by 1995, had a high school drop-out rate that was three times higher than whites and two times higher than African Americans.51
The jobs that welfare mothers get are often part-time and temporary, and do not provide health insurance. While they and their children are eligible for Medicaid for a year after they leave the welfare rolls, many of them are not aware of this, and even those who do get Medicaid for a year are left without any insurance after the year is up.
In 1999, about 42.5 million Americans -- 18.4 percent of the non-elderly population -- had no health insurance. About 90 percent of uninsured children are in families with a working adult. There are 13.9 children who lack health insurance.52
Some of the children dropped from the Medicaid rolls because of a parent's employment could get coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Plan, passed by Congress in 1997 to give health insurance to children in families whose income was too high to qualify them for Medicaid and too low to afford private insurance. But 40 states have failed to use all their funds under that plan and will have to turn the money back to the federal government. California and Texas account for more than half of the unspent money -- $590 million and $446.3 million, respectively. Together, they have 29 percent of the nation's 11 million uninsured children53
There are numerous studies, both national and state, that document the disabilities of welfare recipients. A report to Congress in 1999 highlighted the problem on a national level. While the Department of Health and Human Services admitted that "there are no completely reliable estimates of specific family needs among welfare families," they say that "recent studies suggest that as many as 27 percent of adults in the caseload have a substance abuse problem, up to 28 percent have mental health issues; up to 40 percent have learning disabilities or low basic skills; and up to 32 percent are current victims of domestic violence."56 An Urban Institute study showed that almost half of parents receiving welfare either said that they were in poor general health or scored low on a standard mental health scale. One-third said that their health limits their ability to work.57 Of those parents who were kicked off welfare because of failure to comply with rules, from one-fourth to one-half in various states say that they were unable to comply with the rules because of their health condition.58 In Wisconsin, where AFDC has been almost completely dismantled in favor of work programs, among those mothers who reported a personal disability or the disability of a family member, 23 percent were not employed, were not in a W-2 work training placement and did not receive either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or a kinship care payment.59
Many women who are kicked off the rolls for noncompliance with the rules simply didn't understand the rules. An Iowa study found that almost three out of ten people who were sanctioned for noncompliance cited their lack of understanding of program rules.60 This was assumed to be a mark of limited intelligence, yet even a rocket scientist would have trouble understanding welfare rules, which keep changing. Most of the workers don't understand all the rules.
The most common mental health problems are depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and general anxiety disorder. In Michigan, one-quarter suffered from major or clinical depression while in Utah over two-fifths did.61 Forty-eight percent of the mothers in California were depressed, and in Florida, 52 percent were. What appears to many people as "laziness" is actually a sign of depression.
Many parents have learning disabilities, up to one-half of recipients in Washington state. In many cases, women are not aware of their learning disabilities and in most states there are few attempts to diagnose and help women to overcome their disabilities.
Some disabled parents receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but the program has been cut back since the Reagan Administration, and eligibility rules are extremely restrictive. The SSI rules were designed to serve those who have the most severe disabilities. Most of the parents have disabilities that do not qualify them for SSI but still restrict their ability to work. If the TANF program used the definition of disability included in the Americans with Disabilities Act, many more women would qualify for assistance. The federal welfare law expressly provides that the ADA applies to all activities funded with TANF funds, and these standards are the ones that states should use. The definition of disability under ADA rules is: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of the person.62
The PRA is, then, a moral strait-jacket, conceived and enacted to disjoin rights from welfare and thus to intensify the disciplinary function of social policies affecting poor women. To accomplish both the economic disfranchisement and moral disciplining of poor single mothers, the PRA makes national government the source of rules governing intimate matters.63Charles Murray led the charge against unmarried teenage mothers, blaming them for all the ills of society and advocating cutting off support for them, including support from the fathers of their children, so they will finally learn not to have children. The man seemed crazed by thoughts of fecund teenagers. Congress did not go so far as to cut off all support for them, but the Personal Responsibility Act puts severe restrictions on the conditions under which they can receive welfare. They must finish high school and live with a relative or another responsible adult. Many are doing that, but many have taken themselves off welfare and disappeared from the official radar screen. Nobody knows how they are surviving. Advocates speculate that they fear having their children taken from them by the state and have gone underground.
The PRA gives bonuses to the five states that are most successful in reducing their illegitimacy rates. Conservatives feared that such a bonus might reward states with the most abortions, so they said that only states that do not have an increase in their abortion rate would be eligible for those bonuses. The bonuses were presumably to reduce "welfare dependency," but they are not targeted to welfare recipients or to any particular age group or economic background and there is no requirement that the states document what, if anything, they have done to reduce out-of-wedlock births. In effect, they simply reward demographic changes that would have occurred anyway, according to Michael Kharfen of the Department of Health and Human Services.64
To reinforce "family values," the PRA requires states to punish mothers who do not convince child support agencies that they have told everything about their children's fathers. If a mother fails to cooperate to the state's satisfaction, it must reduce her family's grant by at least 25 percent and may deny it altogether.65 Mothers have even been penalized when they don't know the father's Social Security number. States can exempt mothers who have been subject to abuse at the hands of the father from reporting his whereabouts, but not all states do. Even when mothers have cooperated fully with the state is obtaining a support order, the law does not obligate states to secure payments. Many mothers complain that the state does nothing to secure support, even when it knows where the man is. And the mother no longer benefits from the support that a father pays. Previously the law allowed mothers to keep $50 per month support money that would not count against her grant.
People disagree on the child support issue. Many people, including some middle class feminists, believe that the state should force all fathers to support, regardless of the mother's wishes. They assume that this would help to solve the need for welfare. "Screw the guys to the wall and make them pay for the baby they helped to create," said one advocate of this position. Others, including myself and most welfare recipients, hold the view that the choice of whether to enforce a support decree should be left up to the mother. "Let the mother wash that guy right out of her hair if she wants to," said one advocate of this position. Advocates of this position argue that it is the state that should be punished for not enforcing support orders when the mother wants support from the father, rather than punishing the mother for not giving information to the state.
Voicing her opposition to mandatory paternity establishment and child support provisions, Gwendolyn Mink says that they "mark poor single mothers as a separate caste, subject to a separate system of law. The system of law under which they live penalizes their moral choices, prescribes intimate associations that may be unwanted, and infringes rights guarded as fundamental to the personhood of all other citizens."66
Being required to establish paternity is very risky for many mothers, for whom association with the father of her children can be dangerous both for her and for the children. Since legal action for child support often precipitates or exacerbates abuse, the state forcibly exposes poor mothers to violence. A very high proportion of welfare mothers have been subjected to domestic violence. Several studies have found that between 50 and 80 percent of welfare recipients nationwide were current victims of domestic abuse.67 Children are also likely to be abused when the mother is abused.
In her study of poverty-stricken African-American families' treatment of their children, Carol Stack68 found that families helped each other out with child rearing. Even when the father of a child was very poor, he generally maintained loving contact with the child and gave it whatever he was able to. Furthermore, his relatives helped to care for the child and provided both emotional and financial resources when the mother needed them. Stack argued that mandatory reporting requirements would destroy the resources that the child got from the father and his relatives. Fathers who are not able to support their child on a regular basis would be likely to break all contact with the mother and child if they feared punitive court action.
Child support is not an alternative to welfare when fathers are themselves poor. In 1989, the average annual child support award for poor mothers was only $1,889.69 One analyst commented that, for poor fathers, "child support collection has turned into an income transfer program (for) lawyers and welfare bureaucrats."70
In their zeal to make fathers pay, Congress and the President subjected all welfare fathers to a police state, "where they are subject to liens, withholding of wages, credit investigations, and exposure to employers, among other sanctions. They further indenture poor fathers (as well as irresponsible ones) in work programs ordered by courts and state agencies."71 Depending on what state he lives in, a delinquent father may lose his driver's, occupational, and recreational licenses.72 If he owes more than $5,000, he may lose his passport.73
In her survey of 42 community-based social agencies in 18 states and the District of Columbia, Ann Withorn found that agencies were having a hard time dealing with the effects of welfare reform. They report that more of their constituents are employed, but they see them still poor and struggling. One respondent said, "current policy forces people into dead end jobs; once the welfare supports are gone, these jobs are NOT sufficient to provide for any family with more than one child. Much of the work is dangerous and has adverse health effects."74
Some agencies described being swamped with requests. Education has become an unallowable activity in many areas, prompting a number of agencies to lose constituents who were attending programs such as GED and literacy classes. There is less demand for life skills and parenting classes and one mental health agency representative said that they do not know what to do because so many people fail to show up for therapy appointments. Although constituents might be employed, many still want and need services such as substance abuse counseling, parenting assistance, literacy courses, and mental health services, but have a harder time accessing and prioritizing these services.75
One agency reported, "people are asking more and more of us at a time when we can do less and less."76 Respondents spoke of frustration that funding is directed only to employment related services. One person said that the state is subsidizing companies in an effort to increase job slots instead of giving money to service providers who could give people education and training and help with personal and family problems so that they are able to work.77
There is an increase in worker burnout because of frustration over not being able to meet people's needs. Some agencies are triaging clients, serving only those they deem "most likely to succeed." Agencies report great frustration in working with the welfare department and in getting accurate information from the department.
Withorn concludes that "even with the full effects of welfare reform as yet unknown, it is becoming clear that community services as we knew them may have ended along with welfare as we knew it."78 Only a handful of programs have organized politically by taking constituents to meet with legislators, or to attend hearings or conferences aimed at responding to the changes. Many are fearful of losing their local or state contracts if they organize. Several are faith-based, with a reluctance to become involved in controversial actions. The organizations that are most likely to organize are those with a more community development, as opposed to a service approach, and with a strongly expressed "empowerment" philosophy.79
A survey of agencies in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a low-income section of Boston, also found an increase in need for service. The director of an after school program in a settlement house reported an increase in hunger among the children she cares for. They have instituted a new policy of providing big snack days on Mondays and Fridays. "Mondays because the kids are just coming off the weekend at home, and Fridays because they are storing up for the weekend."80 A food pantry is getting so many requests for food that his agency has capped the number they will serve, and refers to other food pantries. Elders often line up 6 am in the morning to get food.
Agencies report a significant increase in foster care and in child abuse. The child welfare department reported a 10% increase in reports of abuse and neglect in 1997. Demand for child care has increased, and there is an increase in dependence on informal, unlicensed child care.81 Women are dropping out of programs due to lack of child care. Some use teen drop-in centers for child care. A staff members reported that more children were hanging out at the club for as long as possible, because the "parent know at least the kids are in a building." She also reported that many teens who used to come no longer do, because they are at home caring for younger siblings.82 Youth workers report a disproportionate decline in participation by teenage girls and young women. More and more children can't afford the modest $15 membership fee of one youth center, and no longer have the money to go on camping trips and other weekend and day trips that required minimal fees.83
Despite the overwhelming evidence that the thousand points of light are flickering and some have gone out, George W. Bush is still enamored with them. He praises private initiatives and character building to deal with welfare. He has appointed as his domestic advisor Steve Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, who sponsored a program called the Front Porch Alliance. This program seeks out local organizations in Indianapolis which provide social services, but go beyond that to build character. It reflects the philosophy ... that the most effective poverty fighters were those that not only delivered services, but imparted values such as personal responsibility -- values that produce character change in individuals and families."84 Their organizations are given mini-grants from $500 to $5,000, and they have to search out further funding for themselves from foundations or community development block grants. Most of the organizations are faith-based groups such as churches.
Both Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, and George W. Bush want to implement the Front Porch Alliance elsewhere. Jeb Bush has initiated Front Porch Florida, an attempt to implement some of the Indianapolis program's ideas on a larger scale. And George W. Bush picked a Front Porch rally in Indianapolis last July as the site for the first major policy speech of his presidential campaign. In that speech, Bush pledged that as president, he would look first to value-based groups to help needy people, and he would try to replicate Front Porch nationwide.
It is not likely that this will have any major impact on relieving the vast need that welfare reform has created. In fact, many churches have opposed welfare reform and are among the strongest allies in fighting it. A coalition of 59 Catholic social service agencies, calling themselves the NETWORK Welfare Reform Watch Project, did a two year study of people affected by welfare reform. Their study, Poverty amid Plenty: The Unfinished Business of Welfare Reform,85 is a devastating report of the misery caused by welfare reform. The Unitarian Church has a welfare monitoring project which documents the misery that welfare reform has created, and sponsored a conference about welfare reform in September, 2000 where they developed strategy around TANF reauthorization and lobbied Congress.
While officials crow over their success in reducing welfare rolls, they are beginning to realize that the rolls have reached a plateau and the people remaining on the rolls have multiple problems that prevent them from getting or keeping a paid job. In his campaign speech, Bush called for the "next bold step of welfare reform -- a greater reliance on religious groups and charities to save and change lives." He also proposed to improve access to health care, expand home ownership, and encourage savings.86 Al Gore's proposal to fight poverty is to compel absent fathers to pay child support and to change the tax code in order to eliminate the "marriage penalty" and allow married couples to earn more money but stay eligible for the full earned-income tax credit. He has also proposed giving a five-year Social Security credit to women who leave jobs to raise children.87 This may help with their retirement, but it won't help them while they are caring for their children. Neither Bush nor Gore seems aware of the deeper problems of welfare reform. During last winter's presidential primary debates, Gore said, "We passed tough welfare reform, which I think has worked."88
Some states have used the funds to help people. Some states have used TANF funds to establish programs to provide housing assistance to families attempting to make the transition from welfare to work. Twelve states have expanded health care for the working poor, and some others have spent federal dollars to increase education and transportation opportunities for the poor. Most states, however, have done little, except get tough.89
The 1997 White House Conference on Early Child Development publicized research that showed the importance of spoken language on infant and child development. The conferees urged parents to spend more time with their children and to seek stimulating providers if they must work outside the home. Some advisors to President Clinton, citing the findings, called for tax incentives to make it easier for parents to stay home.92 But no one called for incentives for poor mothers to stay home. Quite the opposite; "one Clinton official insisted that when it comes to welfare families, wage work is more important than care-giving, the moral discipline of mothers more important than the intellectual growth of children."93
Liberals have argued for more supports to make it possible for welfare mothers to work, but "except for welfare rights activists and a handful of feminists, no one has defended poor mothers' right to raise their children, and no one has questioned the assumption that poor single mothers should have to work outside the home."94 In 1973, a task force convened by President Nixon's secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, recommended that subsidies to AFDC mothers could be justified as payments for non-market work rather than as a dole in lieu of "work," since they found that family care-givers, usually women, routinely spend an average of 40 hours a week on housework.95 Despite this recommendation, "Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Southern Democrats, and others drummed up hostility toward caregivers who need welfare because they are poor and parenting alone."96
Gwendolyn Mink sees a crack of hope in this discourse. Republicans recently tried to pass a bill to require work of public housing tenants. Democrats voted to exempt from this requirement single parents with children under age six. Some argued that compulsory work constituted involuntary servitude and that it disrespected the work performed by care-givers. One Democrat, who had supported workfare the year before, said, "The truth of the matter is I think we should be encouraging mothers and families to take care of their children in their homes and valuing that as a society...."97
As Gwendolyn Mink says, we do indeed need to end welfare -- "but as poor mothers experience it, not as middle class moralizers imagine it."100 The means tested AFDC/TANF program has always been stingy and punitive. As the late British welfare scholar Richard Titmuss said, "Programs for the poor are poor programs." Whatever programs we work for should be universal programs, inclusive of all people, not just poor people; otherwise the programs take on the stigma that is always directed at poor people.
There are 3 million children receiving Social Security because a parent (usually a father) worked and retired, died, or became disabled. Their mothers also receive Social Security. Most people aren't even aware of these numbers. Nobody pays attention to how the mothers are behaving and certainly nobody suggests that they should be kicked off Social Security if they don't find work. If caretaking were defined as work, single mothers (and fathers) could be included in the Social Security system and paid for their caretaking work. The family allowance (sometimes called children's allowance) in most European countries approaches this system as it is paid to every parent, not just poor parents.
At the same time, we need to work on improvements for all workers including an increase in the minimum wage, paid family leave, guaranteed child care, comparable worth policies, decent unemployment compensation, universal health care, a full employment policy, investment in education and vocational training, and aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. As Gwendolyn Mink says, "This end to welfare will take us down many paths, all leading to gender justice."101
In the present political climate, wages for caretaking seems like a utopian goal. Even many people on the left do not support it. A member of Democratic Socialists for America writes in his defense of voting for Al Gore that Gore might support school credits to be counted as work requirements, and is also "likely to support further expansion of the earned income tax credit which could serve as a basis for a more redistributive and universal guaranteed income program than AFDC."102 The Earned Income Tax Credit is only for parents who are in the paid labor force. While welfare activists agree that it should be expanded, it is not payment for caretaking work in a parent's own home.
Ralph Nader has proposed a guaranteed annual income, a proposal that was first put forth in the 1960s by Robert Theobald. While Congress is far from supporting it, Nader deserves credit for keeping it on the national agenda. President Nixon proposed a version of a guaranteed annual income called the Family Assistance Plan, which would have given $1,600 to every family if it had been passed. George McGovern was called hopelessly utopian for proposing a $600 guaranteed annual income. Europeans have been discussing a Basic Income since the 1980s. It would be a universal allowance to every member of the society, unattached to employment status. No country has adopted it, but it is still under discussion.103
People will not even begin to change their attitudes until they are made aware of what is happening with welfare reform. Newspapers are beginning to run a few articles about it, but in general they have ignored welfare under the assumption that the welfare "problem" has been solved. A study of coverage of welfare issues by California newspapers found that welfare reform is not deemed newsworthy by California's major dailies. Welfare reform was often heralded as a success and the main measure of success is declines in caseloads.104
However, the myth of welfare reform's success may be beginning to erode. A national poll conducted for Jobs for the Future reports that only 19 percent approved moving people off welfare into jobs as quickly as possible if the jobs offered little chance of advancement. If people were still in poverty after leaving the welfare rolls, 52 percent would not feel that welfare reform had been a success. And 69 percent said that a family of four needs at least $35,000 a year to make ends meet. The public might be ready to support stronger job supports and removal of time limits that are forcing large numbers of people into poverty if they are better informed about the effects of welfare reform.105
Welfare activists have been trying to get the truth out to the public as much as possible by speeches, articles and books, letters to the editor, and talk shows on radio and TV. The welfare rights organization that I belong to, Survivors, Inc., is collaborating with Sojourner, a feminist newspaper, to try to get more media coverage. Sojourner publishes a regular column called "Welfare Beat."**
Most middle class feminists have not supported the struggle against mandatory work for welfare recipients. They have struggled to get equality in the work place for themselves and assume that all women should be in the paid work force, even single mothers who are forced to be in the low paid work force at the expense of caring for their own children. Most of the women in Congress who were supported by the feminist Emily's Fund voted for the PRA.
This may be changing. When the Legal Defense Fund of the National Organization for Women first sent out a solicitation for funds for their welfare rights work, they received so much hate mail that they did not send out another solicitation for a couple of years. When they tried it again, they found a much more sympathetic response from their members. There is a group of academic and professional feminists who call themselves "The Committee of 100" that has been active in the struggle, and is currently developing strategy around the Congressional reauthorization of the PRA.
Activists have been struggling to improve their own state's welfare system and have sometimes been able to win small victories. There are several campaigns on welfare reform on both regional and national levels. Groups in seven western states formed the Western Regional Welfare Activist Network (WRWAN) in 1997 to serve as an information and strategy clearinghouse. In 1999, they declared reauthorization as its main focus. Among its targets are: the federal five year time limit and some states' shorter time limits; denial of benefits to immigrants; and grant levels that don't even approach the meager sums of the AFDC era.106
The Welfare Law Center in New York City sponsors an internet discussion list on welfare which links welfare rights activists nation-wide. They share information and advice and strategize together on how to combat welfare reform. The Welfare Law Center has compiled a list of all the activist groups that they can find. Dirk Slater, their circuit rider, meets with low-income groups across the nation to give them computer information and advice.***
Working Massachusetts,**** a coalition of labor unions and welfare activists, sparked a campaign called "Welfare Made a Difference." They plan to spread stories of people's experiences with welfare via speakouts, lobbying and a published collection of stories. The campaign now involves 80 groups across the country. Liz Accles, national organizer for New York's Community Food Resource Center, says that the goal of the campaign is to "challenge the notion that if you provide welfare, you're doing bad things to people. We're trying to say if you do it and do it well, the government could eliminate poverty."107 One of the speakers at the "Welfare Made a Difference" speakout in Boston was Bobby Haynes, the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. He told of how he'd risen from poverty with the help of government programs, from the GI Bill to public housing to welfare. "I can't imagine, in my wildest dreams, having that happen if you grew up in the '90s," he said.108
On a national level, a coalition of 100 groups in more than 40 states has formed, called the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. Spearheaded by the Washington-based Center for Community Change, the campaign's focus is to "advance a progressive agenda" in the coming welfare debate.109 They held their Kick Off meeting in Chicago in May 2000 for over 1000 grassroots activists from across the nation.
If we are unable to persuade legislators that caretaking work deserves a living wage, as seems likely in the foreseeable future, they might at least be persuaded to remove the requirement for mothers of children under six years of age to enter the paid work force, and to remove time limits. Before the PRA was passed, the AFDC program did not force those mothers into the paid work force, and this policy received widespread support until the conservatives began their demagogic campaign to demonize welfare mothers. In the two years we have before Congress reauthorizes the bill, we need to educate legislators and the general public about the many barriers that single mothers face in entering the paid work force, and about their continuing poverty even when they get a job. At the same time, we need to educate them about the importance of caretaking. They are beginning to recognize the need for middle class parents to receive some recompense for caretaking. Now we need to show them that poor women also deserve this choice. Our goal must be to eliminate poverty, not to eliminate single mothers and their children from the welfare rolls, and to make it possible for single mothers to care for their own children.
* Survival News is a welfare rights newspaper published by Survivors, Inc. For information about subscribing, write to 95 Standard Street, Mattapan 02126, phone 617-296-4276, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. return
** Their Web site is: www.sojourner.com. return
*** The Center's e-mail address is email@example.com; web pages: www.welfarelaw.org and www.lincproject.org. Slater's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The e-mail address for the discussion list is: email@example.com .com. return
**** Their e-mail address is: WkgMass@aol.com. return
In its report, "Child Poverty in Rich Nations," UNICEF argues for using a measure of "relative poverty," i.e., 50% below the national median, rather than an absolute poverty standard. Using a "relative poverty" standard, 22.4 percent of all children in the U.S. are poor, while using the absolute standard, 13.9% are poor. (John Williams, "Look, Child Poverty in the Wealthy Countries Isn't Necessary," International Herald Tribune, July 12, 2000, p. 8.) return
Contents of No. 30