Turning the Tables
reform faces a time limit of its own
By Neil deMause
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
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:
single mother at Hamilton Family Shelter in San Francisco.
Credit: Mark Ludac/Impact Visuals
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."
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,"
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."
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.
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."
deMause is a writer in New York.
In These Times ©
Vol. 24, No. 14