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The Failure of Welfare Reform Is 'Exhibit A' That the Right's Punish-the-Poor Philosophy Doesn't Work

Our welfare reform experiment is little more than a confidence trick in which poor people get shuffled this way and that while their lives remain essentially unchanged.

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A hand up? More like a slap down, say those who've been through the system. The famously touted welfare-to-work programs are little more than exercises in make-work and are often exploitative to boot. Childcare remains persistently scarce. Job training is poor to non-existent. And on the increasingly rare occasions when people do find jobs, these jobs are often low-wage gigs that fail to hoist them out of poverty.

Meanwhile, life on welfare has become shorter and harsher. Cash grants have stagnated or even fallen in a number of states, with the median benefit for a family of three now clocking in at $429 a month, just 28 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Time limits have also gotten shorter. And while caseloads have certainly plummeted, it's fairly clear that a hefty portion of this drop can be attributed to steep new barriers to entry -- and time limits, of course. How else to explain the fact that at the height of the Great Recession only 28 percent of Americans living in poverty received welfare assistance while 75 percent got welfare help in 1995? In 13 states, welfare rolls actually declined during the recession, according to an Urban Institute report.

All of which suggests that for all the braying triumphalism, our nation's great welfare reform experiment is little more than an elaborate shell game, a confidence trick in which poor people get shuffled this way and that while their lives remain essentially unchanged. Or get harder.

Take the case of Bill, the lone man at the Community Voices Heard gathering, who wore a charm bracelet of Catholic saints around his wrist and asked to keep his last name on the down-low since most of his family doesn't know his situation. Bill is a college graduate who spent years working in and around the computer world until the recession hit (he made only $6,000 in 2008). Eviction was followed by homelessness. Eventually he landed on Public Assistance, which immediately put him to work in New York's notorious workfare program.

The city's workfare program is the twisted, and nationally celebrated, brainchild of former New York City mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and a small cadre of conservative think-tank gurus. It requires public assistance recipients to spend 35 hours a week doing a mix of job search and work activities -- or face losing part or all of their benefits. These work activities, grouped under the condescending title of the Work Experience Program (WEP), include jobs like sweeping streets, cleaning parks, doing security, filing -- low-skilled, formerly union jobs for which the WEP workers are not paid, per se, because they are actually working off their benefits. Hence the comparisons to indentured servitude. Alternatives like education and training courses are generally forbidden, and exemptions for disabilities or disease are difficult to obtain. The reason: a "work-first" ethic so unrelenting that Giuliani's most notorious welfare commissioner, Jason Turner, famously explained, "It's work that sets you free." (Apparently he skipped the chapter in his high school history book about the Holocaust.)

"Work-first," however, has not set many welfare recipients free. It certainly didn't help Bill.

Bill is a man of many ailments, something that is apparent to the casual observer almost upon meeting him. Smart and sensitive, he is beset by the tics and torments of a man with serious depressive and anxiety disorders. He also underwent major surgery for a tear in his stomach in 2010. But within weeks of the operation, unable to bend, lift, or twist and suffering from pain and panic attacks, he was required to go back to his welfare-mandated job search and work activities. All so he could continue to receive $45 a month in cash assistance.

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