June 12 , 2000

Poverty in America:

Turning the Tables
Welfare reform face a time limit of its own.

Allied Forces
The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support

Poverty in a Gilded Age
An interview with Frances Fox Piven.

Out of Sight
In many cities, being homeless is against the law.

Leave the Kids Alone
Poverty is the real problem

The Union Difference

Down and Out on Polk Street

Other Features:

Star Wars: Episode Two
The Pentagon's latest missile defense fantasy.

"This Is Not Life. This Is Prison"
Kosovo one year after the NATO bombing.

Bosnian Serbs Still Look to Belgrade

News & Views

Memo to third parties: Face Reality.


A Terry Laban Cartoon

Marching On
Unity 2000 plans to disrupt this summer's GOP convention

The Other Side of the Street
Food workers target Goldman Sachs

Going to Waste
Health Care Without Harm cleans up toxic hospitals

Flour Power

Forgotten America
BY Juan Gonzalez
Bombs Away


Ancient Daze
FILM: Ridley Scott's Gladiator

A Class by Itself
BOOKS: David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise

A Different Point of View
TV: P.O.V. on PBS


Turning the Tables
Welfare reform faces a time limit of its own

By Neil deMause

Homeless shelters overflowing in Broward County, Florida. An increase of poor children seized from their families by protective services in Utah. Poverty rates up 200 percent in Springfield, Massachusetts. Stories like these are piling up in the fourth year since President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as "welfare reform."

Five million people have been dropped from the welfare rolls since then, leaving far too many deep in poverty. "In a time of plenty, you don't hear a lot about this sort of thing," says Jackie Ladd of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, one of a growing number of groups launching national campaigns to turn welfare reform around. "You just hear the numbers are down. That's it. But while getting a job is great, it doesn't mean you can support a family."

The end of "welfare as we know it" came with an expiration date: October 1, 2002. By then - five years to the day after states were required to have new welfare policies in place - Congress will decide whether to reauthorize the existing law or replace it. With this in mind, grassroots welfare activist groups are focusing their local battles on a national target: reauthorization.
A single mother at Hamilton Family Shelter in San Francisco.
Credit: Mark Ludac/Impact Visuals

When President Clinton handed over control of welfare policy to the states in 1996, he did more than dismantle a 60 - year - old federal safety net. He made "welfare reform" a moving target, with states running their own distinct welfare programs, each with its own tangle of regulations and requirements. "It put us all into our individual worlds of crisis," says Kate Kahan of Montana's Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL). "We don't have similar welfare programs anymore. Some of our states even have county - by - county welfare programs."

To help combat this confusing melange, groups in seven Western states, including WEEL, formed the Western Regional Welfare Activist Network (WRWAN) in 1997 to serve as an information and strategy clearinghouse. Last July, WRWAN officially declared welfare reauthorization as its main focus. Among the targets: lifetime benefit time limits set at five years nationally, but lowered to as little as 21 months in some states; denial of benefits to immigrants; and grant levels that fail to even approach the meager sums of the AFDC era. "Particularly in the northwestern states, where you have both a rural population and an urban population, people get lost," Kahan says. Child poverty is up, she reports, as is attendance at food banks and shelters. "All of that indicates that poverty is way too deep."

What WRWAN is doing for the Northwest, the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support intends to do on the national level (see "Allied Forces," page 17). A coalition of 100 groups in more than 40 states, spearheaded by the Washington - based Center for Community Change, the campaign's focus is to "advance a progressive agenda" in the coming welfare debate, according to campaign director Deepak Bhargava. "We're trying to establish a dynamic where the best work that folks are doing at the state level becomes the model for federal policy," he says, "and the worst stuff that's happening gets some visibility so there's a case for making changes at the federal level."

First up for the campaign: a national day of action this summer focusing on access to health care for the working poor and immigrants. "There really has been an upsurge in organizing among low - wage workers," Bhargava adds. "Doing this nationally five years ago would have been unimaginable."

It's not every day you see the president of the state AFL - CIO testifying how he got where he is today because of welfare. But at the March 24 kickoff of the "Welfare Made a Difference" campaign, Massachusetts AFL - CIO President Bobby Haynes 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.

Beneath a spray of colorful balloons stenciled with the campaign's motto, a procession of people, from elected officials to regular civilians, trooped to the microphone to tell their stories. Susan Moir, who works at the University of Massachusetts, noted that since entering the paid work force she has given the state four times in taxes what she received in her years on welfare. "I'm doing better than the stock market," she said. "I'm one of the best investments this state has made in its citizens."

Working Massachusetts, the group behind the campaign, began in a meeting of the women's committee of the state AFL - CIO, says Sharron Tetrault of the Women's Statewide Legislative Network: "They went around the room, and with one exception, everyone in the room had been on welfare themselves. And they realized, 'Welfare saved our lives.' And they brought this to the state AFL - CIO and said, 'This is labor's issue. It's not a separate issue; it's our issue.'"

"Welfare Made a Difference" plans 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, says national organizer Liz Accles of New York's Community Food Resource Center. The goal of the campaign, she says, 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."

"Statistics, in my experience, never change the way people think," Tetrault adds. "Stories alone don't either, because people say, 'Oh, you're the most amazing welfare recipient out there! You're special!' But when they come together, all of a sudden people start noticing the ways in which welfare, and welfare recipients, and welfare policies have a direct impact on their lives."

One of the most frustrating elements of welfare reform for activists has been the dearth of solid information on the effects of the new policies. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which replaced the old welfare program, not only turned over control of welfare programs to the states, notes Eileen Sweeney of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it turned over tracking as well. The result has been a hodgepodge of unrelated studies that have shed little light on the well - being of former welfare recipients.

What national data have been collected is not encouraging. A report by the Urban Institute on the early impacts of welfare reform found that up to half of women who've left the rolls report serious problems feeding their families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the poorest 20 percent of single - mother families, after years of rising income, saw their incomes plummet between 1995 and 1997 as welfare reform kicked in. The poorest tenth lost a seventh of their incomes, which dropped from 35 percent to 30 percent of the poverty line.

To fill in the information gaps, activists have been conducting their own studies. Jackie Ladd's Welfare and Human Rights Monitoring Project is one of several nationwide efforts being brought together under the umbrella of the National Welfare Monitoring and Advocacy Partnership. Her findings paint a picture unlike the success stories that populate the mainstream media: welfare rules that conflict with each other or openly sabotage recipients' efforts to comply, abuse victims who are revictimized by the welfare system, and work requirements that force them to quit school. "And finally," Ladd says, "we found that the jobs available, when forced off of welfare by time limits, didn't allow them to become self - sufficient."

The Washington Welfare Reform Coalition's "Reality Check Survey," released last year, echoes Ladd's findings. People who left welfare in that state were earning a median wage of just $7 an hour ($6 an hour for part - timers); even full - time workers often had difficulty paying for groceries and utilities. And conditions appeared to be getting worse as more and more families were forced off welfare: During the first year of TANF implementation in Washington State, families who had gone without food increased from 27 percent to 43 percent, and those with no health coverage rose from 30 percent to 45 percent.

So far welfare really hasn't been an issue in this year's election campaigns. While the architects of the 1996 bill push for even stricter standards, candidates have remained mum, save for the occasional one - upsmanship between Al Gore and George W. Bush over who cut more people from the rolls. "I don't think it's on many radar screens in the House," says Stuart Campbell of the Washington, D.C. - based Coalition on Human Needs. "There's a general perception that we dealt with that in 1996, why is it an issue again?"

Complicating matters is that plummeting caseloads have left many states racking up huge TANF surpluses, or even diverting welfare money to offset spending on other budget items. "It looks pretty damn good superficially," Kahan worries. "All these states have all this TANF surplus money, and Congress could easily look at that and say, we don't need to allocate as much money to these states."

One goal of the new welfare campaigns is to change all that. WRWAN has sponsored public hearings in Montana and has more planned for other states. Bhargava says the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support anticipates holding candidate forums in as many as 50 cities, challenging prospective members of Congress to respond to concerns about deepening poverty.

The welfare reauthorization fight promises to be a battle on many fronts: time limits, education, child care, health care - not to mention even more divisive goals like wages for stay - at - home moms and ending workfare outright. But the first step, organizers agree, is to change attitudes toward the poor. "The fundamental idea behind welfare reform is that poverty is personal responsibility: Poverty is an individual problem, it's your fault if you're poor," Kahan says. "But poverty is not an individual problem, it's a systemic problem. We need to shift the way we're talking about it, because as long as we continue to blame people who are poor for being poor, we're dismantling our society."

Neil deMause is a writer in New York.



In These Times © 2000
Vol. 24, No. 14