Poor America: Does the New Welfare Reform Act Mean We've Given Up Caring?

It's easy to get lost in the welfare muddle.There are papers to puzzle through and acronyms to decipher. Competing charts pop up on the screen, numbers scroll by; information streams past the eye. I try to decipher the debate and arrive at a fresh conclusion or some new insight. I fear there isn't one. The numbers get a little blurry, the estimates of just how bad it is or might be swim in my head.Finally, I conclude, this is not a numbers story. This is not about the estimated welfare reform "savings" of $54 billion from the federal budget.This is a people story. This is a remarkable story of the American people turning their backs on one another, sadly refusing, as a national community, to care anymore. The abolition of federal welfare guarantees last year has exposed a very simple and obvious truth: We have given up on ourselves. Senator Edward Kennedy was right when he called the bill that will effectively condemn millions of Americans to a poorer future "legislative child abuse."With its Orwellian doublespeak title -- the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 -- this bill shattered a social contract that had held imperfectly true in this country for 60 years. During that time, ever since the Social Security Act of 1935 created the foundations of a social safety net -- an "entitlement," in current parlance -- Americans have held that poverty should not be tolerated, that those at the very bottom of our society deserve not to starve or freeze or perish simply because they have fallen through the cracks. That is no longer the case.With the stroke of his pen, Clinton allowed a Republican-engineered bill to sweep aside a legacy of a certain kind of national decency. The rhetorical question is this: Have we grown so mean as a people that we now turn on the weakest members of our society in a search for someone to blame? The answer is yes.This is now policy: Poverty isn't the enemy, the poor are the enemy. As a nation we have come close to the bitter irony of George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote, "I hate the poor and look forward eagerly to their extermination." We've given up."Americans have always been pretty hostile to poor people," says historian and political scientist Francis Fox Piven. "And with this reform, there is a kind of heritage being invoked of hard work and standing on your own. Those slogans are now used to grab the money and single out the poor as the scapegoats in American society today." Queen of MythRepeat a lie often enough and loud enough and with enough power behind it and it will come to stand for the truth. So it is with welfare. Ever since Ronald Reagan brought us images of "welfare queens" getting rich off the federal tit, we have been moving toward a culture of greed that allows us to abdicate responsibility for social ills such as poverty and homelessness. If you are not rich, if you are not making it, then you are the only one to blame. The myths of welfare are easily debunked, but that has not stopped them from motivating policy. Take just a few:* Irresponsible women have babies in order to get more money. Repeated studies have shown there is no correlation between benefit levels and having children. A mother on the old welfare program -- Aid to Families With Dependent Children -- received about $90 in additional benefits if she had a child. The average AFDC family has 1.9 children, about the same as the national average.* Welfare is way of life for most recipients. Not true. Government studies show that 50 percent of welfare recipients are off the rolls within one year. 75 percent are off within two years. Only 15 percent of welfare recipients stay on the rolls continuously for five years or more.* The middle class stands on its own. Not true. Additional children born into middle class families earn their parents an annual $2,450 tax deduction. Is that not a form of public assistance?* Anyone who wants a job can get one. This is a comforting myth, but unemployment in this country -- by virtue of federal monetary policy -- will not dip below 5-6 percent. When it reaches those levels, as it has recently, the federal reserve bank raises interest rates to keep the economy from "overheating" and to prevent rising wages. Everyone currently on welfare and due to lose benefits if they do not find a job is not going to find a job. It's just not going to happen.Fueled by myths and pabulum about lazy good-for-nothings who need to be taught to get out of bed in the morning, welfare reform has been sold as a kind of national tough-love program. Sure it will hurt, but you'll thank me later, seems to be the attitude. In this way, the new welfare reform debacle is a perfect program for modern America.Ultimately, no one will be responsible for increased homelessness and poverty. Federal responsibility is eliminated by transferring authority to the states. The nation is off the hook. The block grants that go to the states will result in a crazy quilt of regulations and benefits, with funds going to all manner of programs. States can cut benefits, lower benefits, eliminate benefits. No one will want to give greater benefits than the state next door, so it will be a race to the bottom. If the states so desire, counties may administer aid programs; private companies may even go into the welfare business.Crime that may result from greater poverty down the road can then be blamed on moral laxity. We'll build more prisons to teach the poor a lesson. Jail, prison and parole is already the social program of last resort for many of the 5 million people caught up in the criminal justice system With fewer benefits than ever available to the needy, expect more jails. In some instances, the new law even allows welfare block grants to be used on juvenile justice programs. What it's comes down to is this: people will lose, children will go hungry; Americans will suffer. But nobody will really be responsible. Congress and the president have washed their hands of it.Clinton To Poor: Drop Dead!A study by the Urban Institute, using federal guidelines, concluded that the impact of the reform will be shattering. Assuming that two-thirds of welfare recipients find jobs -- an optimistic assumption at best -- the study found that 2.6 million people will move into greater poverty, including some 1.1 million children. This study showed that 11 million families, some 10 percent of all American families -- would lose income under the measure, mostly through food stamp cuts.Those cuts are especially staggering because they have nothing to do with reforming anything. They are simply punitive. An able-bodied, unemployed adult under 50 who is not raising children will now be limited to just three months of food stamps out of every three years. The Center on Budget Priorities called this "probably the single harshest provision written into a major safety net program in at least 30 years." Let me paraphrase a famous New York Post headline: CLINTON TO POOR: DROP DEAD!But the food stamp limitations are no worse than cutting off legal immigrants from public assistance. Legal immigrants -- got that? These outrages have been repeated so frequently since the bill was signed last August that it takes a moment to focus on what this means sometimes. Legal immigrants. Not sneaky, no-account, drug-peddling, wetbacks creeping across our borders, but folks with green cards who have done everything they are supposed to do -- except get rich and lucky in the land of plenty. This is someone's old Ukrainian grandmother stuck in a nursing home on SSI who is too feeble to comprehend the law, let alone apply for citizenship despite a lifetime of paying taxes, and "playing by the rules" to borrow an empty Clintonism.Poor women going to college. There's another group that gets the ax. Under old federal guidelines, recipients could meet their "work" requirements by going to college, something literally thousands of welfare recipients, mostly women, did, according to researcher Erica Cates, who works with poor students at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Cates has been studying college students on welfare for a decade, and she says that under the new law work is work and going to school doesn't qualify. She is seeing the hopes and dreams of poor women shattered after years of attempting to better their lot the old-fashioned American way: by going to college."There are thousands and thousands of women going to college on welfare," said Cates. "This is a disaster. It's devastating. This will drive many women deeper and deeper into poverty."That is the fear of Diane Dujon, a onetime welfare mom who used her benefits to put herself through college and now works at the University of Massachusetts with similar non-traditional students. A bad relationship and an infant child left Dujon on welfare some 15 years ago, she recalled, and the benefits were the only things that allowed her to keep going and finish her degree, something that would not be possible under the new rules going into effect in Massachusetts and elsewhere."To be called the scourge of the earth because you are poor is so discouraging," said Dujon. "The reason these women are on welfare is because they are good mothers. They are caring for their kids. Our kids need us. You know, this is a capitalist society, and there are never going to be enough jobs with decent wages for everybody. We are going to have all these people living in abject poverty, and they are going to get sick and desperate. This will lower the quality of life for everybody in the country. This is really a very harsh and mean society we are living in."Sub-Minimum WorkOther fears seem no less compelling. In New York City, Bill Henning is an organizer with the Communication Workers of America Local 1180. He worries that "workfare" jobs designed to force welfare recipients to work in exchange for benefits will have the effect of pushing all wages lower. In New York City, Henning says, as many as 100,000 people will soon be forced to pick up trash, work as file clerks, or tidy up the parks as part of a strict workfare program. The problem, he notes, is that these jobs don't even pay the minimum wage; they are simply a kind of indentured servitude in exchange for meager welfare benefits, allowing local governments to avoid paying a fair wage for a fair day's work.Some 22,000 workers have lost their city jobs in New York since a Republican administration started cutting back services after coming into office in 1994, Henning says, and those workers are being replaced by workfare. "This is a built-in sub-minimum-wage work force that will threaten the standards and wages of all workers," according to Henning. "We don't object to the work they are doing. All work is good work, but we think it should be fairly compensated."In New York and elsewhere, Henning notes, there are now proposals to use workfare workers as an investment incentive for factories looking for lower labor costs. A community could, under some programs being proposed, supply free labor to private investors by forcing workfare recipients into industry."I think welfare reform is a way of getting at working people," Henning said. "When push comes to shove, this is a way of lowering the wages for working people. It appears to us they are trying to take us out of the 20th century with the same working conditions we had at the beginning of the century."I was reminded of Henning's words a few days later when I came across a Business Week story about the compensation packages of America's top corporate executives. Remember the robber barons of 19th-century America? Here they are again. The average pay of a CEO in a large corporation went up 54 percent in 1996, according to Business Week, after a 30 percent jump in 1995. At the same time factory workers earned an average 3 percent raise, making a 209 times less than a CEO. The head of the Chrysler corporation, Robert Eaton, made $12.6 million. Donald Trump made $7 million. Lawrence Coss of Green Tree Financial Corporation made $102,449,000. How much is enough, I wondered? What do these guys do to deserve that kind of money? What does it say about our country that we can pay untold millions of dollars to a relative handful of senior executives and we cannot afford to maintain a safety net for the poor?Why Hate The Poor?I asked everyone I interviewed for this story. "That is one of those imponderables," said Erica Cates, the Brandeis University researcher. "It's this rugged individualism. If you succeed here, it's supposed to be because of your hard work and if you fail, it's because of your own inadequacy."Political scientist Francis Fox Piven said, "A lot of people are living on the edge now, working harder than ever just to stay even. That anger is easy to direct against poor people."Diane Dujon, the former welfare mother added, "Nobody is asking the right questions in this thing. Nobody is really making it anymore. If you're not in the top 10 percent, you're in trouble. We all need child care. We all need a decent wage. It's not just welfare. We all feel like we are in trouble or could be in trouble. It's crazy."The ultimate effect of the welfare law is hard to gauge, of course. Many analysts have pointed out that the real impact will be felt when people are thrown off the rolls for good when the five-year limit -- or less, if a state chooses -- for benefits kicks in. Maybe the death knell will be the next big recession when unemployment goes up again. Maybe then we will see what we have done.Scan a selection of newspapers, though, and it is already possible to find the evidence of worsening conditions. In Chicago, a 4-year child died in a fire because his grandmother had to go to work. She had been on a waiting list for child care for two years. In Washington, D.C., some 20,000 people are on a waiting list for public housing and funds for shelters are exhausted, pushing people into the street with nothing. In Philadelphia, 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and in one building, there was no water and no heat. A woman used a bucket for a toilet while a neighbor hauled water into the building from a fire hydrant down the street. Eventually, the tenement burned down due to faulty wiring, leaving six people dead and dozens more homeless.In California, a city council, faced with property owners angry over the accumulation of homeless around Loaves & Fishes, a Sacramento Catholic charity food kitchen and homeless center, chose to suspend negotiations with the organization in favor of a lawsuit to curtail parts of the feeding program. What happens when the homeless population takes another big jump in Sacramento and elsewhere? More lawsuits? Debtors' prisons? Orphanages?The stories are there. We know what is happening. This wealthy country is losing its heart as we turn our backs. What has become of decency?

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