Toil and Trouble: Welfare As We Will Know It
I. The Wrathful Public, or Hell Hath No Fury Like a Society ScornedEveryone agrees. The old welfare system was bad. It cut bootstraps at the heel, unforgivably kept whole populations back.Last August, when President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 - the welfare reform bill - he said, "Today, we are taking an historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life."He also said, "We're going to take this historic chance to try to re-create the nation's social bargain with the poor. We're going to try to change the parameters of the debate. We're going to make it all new again."But in making it all new, we're really reaching back, way back, to debates that inaugurated the nation. We have returned to our Puritanical roots, celebrating the pure, the industrious, the chaste, castigating the corrupt and casting out the sinful.The ideas are so simple and beautiful, the lines are so clearly drawn, everyone is an expert. The issues of welfare reform are not of policy. They have nothing to do with laws and statutes and acts of Congress. Instead, they are of public morality, good and evil, God and the devil walking the Earth.In the 17th century, the issues erupted in Salem, Massachusetts. In a time of poverty and patriarchy, religion determined the order of events. The marked became witches, agents of Satan, intent on destroying the very way of life. In the 1990s, when a nation's financial ruin is the fear of the day, the issue becomes welfare and the demons three. We turn our moral wrath on the lustful and gluttonous welfare mother, the slothful and proud pauper and the greedy and envious outsider, the immigrant.Unlike the Calvinists, though, we have no quick and speedy trials, no mortal tests to determine the "validity" of our charges. In the information age, we don't need them. Anecdotes and shocking allegories try and condemn. Public policy carries out the sentence. Welfare reform - time limits, work programs and wholesale cutoffs - is much more than an overhaul of a 61-year-old social compact. The bill is a testament to our indignation. We draw the line here: we require morality; work or else; your days of freeloading are over.We turn our attention to these archetypes, the mothers, paupers and immigrants that give our ire shape. In the 1690s, we burned them at the stake. Three hundred years later, we leave them to perish in the streets.II. The Lustful and Gluttonous Welfare Mom, or Those Families Have No Value Though usually black, we're told, in California she's often brown. With more kids than she can keep track of, the welfare mom has a needy habit, too: if it's not crack, then maybe coke, or heroin. She's promiscuous and shortsighted, having babies for the money that will be added to her monthly check. Welfare reform deals with all these problems and adds a twist: this is her last chance to deliver herself. If she fails now, so be it.But as with the Salem witches, the myth is far from reality. In California, 20 percent of the country's welfare caseload, the average "welfare mother" is a woman in her early to mid-30s, with exactly two children - less than the national average. And though blacks and Latinos are represented disproportionately to their respective populations, the largest group of recipients in the country are white. And with more than 2.7 million collecting Aid to Families with Dependent Children in California alone, what's easily forgotten is that the majority of those - 69 percent in August of this year - are children. This point was not missed in Washington. Children were simply removed from the equation. By cutting them from the title and adding "temporary," welfare as we now know it was born: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.Here, our moral rage was directly converted into public policy. To the welfare mom's whorishness, we put the family cap - already law in California. From this point forward, women on the rolls who have additional children will no longer see an increase in their monthly checks. They will get nothing more for the diapers, formula, sitters or booties a new life needs. And states that achieve a true increase in unwed-women's chastity get a special bonus: those states where out-of-wedlock births decline and abortion rates don't increase are eligible for $20-$25 million in additional federal funds.But our wrath, like her corruption, goes further than her sexual liaisons. States can now take on her drug habit(s) too. Beginning in mid-1997, states can strike entire families from the Temporary Assistance program if a parent has ever been convicted of a drug-related felony - even if that conviction occurred decades ago, even if that former felon has successfully completed a rehab program.But it's the welfare mother's children that bear the brunt of our righteousness. Like the family cap - which, more than punishing moms, ensures their kids won't be adequately clothed, fed and sheltered - a list of new measures will dramatically affect children across the country.The most far-reaching are in the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides the nation's poverty-stricken disabled with subsistence grants. Under the old rules, children with mild mental handicaps and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder were eligible for SSI. Now they must have a "proven disability that causes severe functional limitations" such as paralysis or autism, conditions that are potentially fatal or will last more than a year, according to the California Department of Social Services. This effectively purges 16 percent of California's 91,000 children receiving a maximum of $533 a month in assistance.These changes, too, are clothed in the rhetoric of scheming parents, who, we are told, coach their kids to fake mental impairments. This "problem" caused the Social Security Administration to set up a hot line in 1994 so that teachers could turn in children - and parents - whom they suspected were fraudulently receiving benefits. But over the course of the 1994-95 school year, a grand total of six calls came from California. Nationwide, the number climbs to a whopping 230.Add to the SSI cuts reductions in nutrition aid. And though welfare reform increases child-care funding overall, the federal entitlement to those programs has been removed. Thus, the days of the Lustful and Gluttonous Welfare Mom are put to an end. By torturing her children, we force her to realize that she must change her ways.III. The Slothful and Proud Pauper, or Idle Hands Are the Devil's WorkshopUnlike the welfare mother, the Slothful and Proud Pauper is not so easily reduced to type. There is no predominant race, sex or other obvious social mark. Of this group, we know only this: they are poor. They are lazy. Work is one of the few four-letter words that does not pepper their speech. And what's worse, the government enables their slothful ways by paying them to sit on their asses. Welfare is a euphemism for work avoidance, which lasts as long as the government allows it to continue: entire lifetimes.And here's the astounding part: these undeserving poor think they deserve more. Unlike the Irish, the Italians and Jews, who came to this country ready to work and look at them now, they think they're too good for the bottom-of-the- barrel jobs that supported and elevated the underclasses of yore. "The minimum wage is too low!" they cry. "Those jobs have no dignity!" The nerve.For the good of the republic, welfare reform takes care of them. Unlike the AFDC program before it, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families requires work. And enforces it. Any state that doesn't meet specific target goals for "work activities" - ranging from actual jobs to vocational training to community service - will lose federal money. Granted, there are exceptions for areas with high, chronic unemployment, but if California can't put 75 percent of the two-parent families now receiving welfare to work by October of 1997, it will lose $187 million in federal funds. That "involved in work" percentage increases to 90 in 1999, and for each additional year the state misses the mark, add $75 million to the penalties, which max out at $784 million per year.And because that's not incentive enough, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families is just that: temporary. Every family, every individual - no matter their situation - has five years to get off. Likewise for food stamps: all able-bodied, single adults between the ages of 18 and 50 who can't find work will now receive food stamps for only three months of every 36. Fortunately, California has a program to deal with this, and truth be told, welfare as we knew it had work requirements, too. Through the Greater Avenues Toward Independence, or GAIN, program, California has been trying to get people off the rolls for years. And sometimes it has actually worked.The New York-based think tank Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC) studied six GAIN programs - which vary from county to county - and found that the welfare-to-work model can be successful. By emphasizing low-wage, low-skill job placement over education and skills training, GAIN has both moved people off the rolls and saved the state significant money. Over the course of the three-year study, MDRC found that Riverside County's GAIN program, by forcing workers to take bottom-of-the-barrel jobs, was able to save the government almost $3,000 per welfare recipient and net each worker $1,900 more than welfare alone would have.But there are still questions about GAIN, the largest of which revolves not around moving people off assistance, but rather moving them out of poverty. GAIN was most successful in pushing recipients into the ranks of the working poor. Even if welfare reform re-creates those achievements, whether the state will see a decrease in poverty is very much debatable. A family of three must make $12,981 a year to rise above the federal poverty line. For California's typical welfare family of one parent and two kids, that's 40 hours a week at $6.25, a full 50 cents more than the minimum wage.Add into the equation flooding the labor market - especially the low-skill labor market - with hundreds of thousands more people looking for jobs. This despite the fact that federal economic policy tries vigorously to maintain around 7 percent official unemployment. And when those who have given up looking for work, those who never receive unemployment insurance and those part-timers hoping to pick up more hours are factored in, the underemployment rate in Los Angeles County hovers around 20 percent.One of the biggest barriers to gainful employment is a profound lack of adequate, affordable child care. Yet far from aiding welfare-to-work efforts, Temporary Assistance removes the guarantee that people in work programs receive subsidized child care - child care that, without help, can run as high as $150 a week. Now, they have to battle waiting lists like the rest of the poor, waiting lists that can run over six months at a typical low-income child-care center. (It's an ironic departure from days of old: AFDC's creators thought mothers at home with their children would be the formula for social success.)But that is not our concern. How they manage to survive does not matter. If they work hard, we hold, they will succeed. If they have ambition and drive, they are unstoppable. With the correct motivation - motivation we are generous enough to provide - the paupers will no longer be slothful or proud.IV. The Greedy and Envious Outsider, or Society Is Under Siege The outsiders have always been among us, scheming and plotting to do away with the Good Life, the American Way. The original outsiders were the indigenous, the sometimes hostile Native Americans who threatened at every turn our forefathers' divine way of life.Today, though, the Greedy and Envious Outsiders are the immigrants, who covet our high standard of living, our good schools and jobs, and, more to the point, our handouts. They come to our shores, our borders, and with no intent to join in, no plan to work or vote - or even speak English - they head straight to the welfare office. They suck down tax dollars from the honest and hard working - the real Americans - and give nothing back in return.No more. Welfare reform deals the harshest, most immediate blows to these smug, assuming sinners. One of the largest groups benefiting from the Supplemental Security Income program, their elderly, their blind and their disabled, will be the first removed from the rolls. Similarly for their "hungry" - all immigrants, legal or otherwise, are ineligible for food stamps.There are, of course, some exceptions. Not every immigrant is greedy or envious. Some do come to our country to work, and some truly are of the tired, huddled masses simply yearning to breathe free. There are exceptions, too, to welfare reform: those who have worked more than 10 years, served in the military, or are political refugees can still receive aid. But for the latter, only for enough time to situate themselves, only for five years.As for the rest of them: off. Though not a federal mandate, as with SSI and food stamps, states can cut legal immigrants from Temporary Assistance. Likewise for Medicaid, though immigrants will still receive emergency medical care. Forget that they pay taxes, and forget that they use welfare at a rate less than the general population. As California Governor Pete Wilson is accustomed to saying, we need to eliminate these services, cut off those here, as an example. The rest will see their suffering and be dissuaded from coming to our land.As for the illegals, they were already ineligible for welfare. But now they're kicked from the few services they could receive: nutritional aid for their children, prenatal care for pregnant women. And for those who say it's mean-spirited, remember, this is a sacrifice for us, too: numerous studies show that for every dollar spent on prenatal care, the state saves three resulting from unnecessary, complicated births.But it's the example that's important. The government no longer supports such wretched refuse. Your homeless, your tempest-tossed - keep them. The lamp has been put down, the Golden Door closed and locked.V. The Bureaucratic Solution, or All Eggs, One BasketBut there is a place where the rhetoric breaks down. There is a place where outrage meets policy, and outrageous policy meets human need. A war of words, welfare reform does fine as speeches and sentiment, records and reports. But when vengeance reaches the local level and it's time to implement the programs, welfare reform becomes more than an attack on the archetypes."We're looking at disaster on an overwhelming social scale," says Jeff Farber, programs director for the Los Angeles Family Housing Corp., a nonprofit providing emergency shelter. "If kids don't have food, how can they learn? If adults don't have food, how can they go to work?"Welfare reform in California is largely the responsibility of the counties, which are charged with implementing the Health and Welfare Code. They are the safety net of last resort: if people have no place to turn, the county, by state mandate, must be there for them.California's welfare reform begins and ends in Los Angeles. Home to more than a third of the state's AFDC and food stamp recipients - a caseload that ranks just behind the states of California and New York - it is also home to a quarter of the country's legal immigrant population. Of the $20 billion in federal savings over the next six years resulting from the cuts in immigrant aid, $5 billion will come straight from L.A.Yet welfare reform here seems motivated more by self-preservation than by any kind of overarching humanitarian concerns: "We're looking at fiscal meltdown," says Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In California, all counties must provide General Assistance, or General Relief, to their most destitute inhabitants. In Los Angeles, 91,000 receive a paltry $212 a month. That translates to $268 million a year, which could almost double to $530 million because of the legal-immigrant cuts alone. Add the hundreds of thousands pushed from the Temporary Assistance program when time limits kick in, and the tab for G.R. could reach into the billions.This is not a joyous prospect for a county emerging from near financial collapse just over a year ago. And it could get worse. Pending state decisions, legal immigrants could also lose Medicaid, their non-emergency medical insurance - which could endanger the $364 million federal bailout of the county's health-care system.It is this crisis that moves mountains. The county has already launched an unprecedented outreach to legal immigrants, hoping to naturalize thousands before the cuts take effect. As citizens, they will keep their benefits and keep off G.R., saving the county millions. Concurrently, the county is aggressively seeking legislative solutions to remove much of its responsibility. In recommendations passed by the Board of Supervisors, the county suggests a "re-evaluation" of Section 17,000 of the Health and Welfare Code - the state statute that makes counties the safety net of last resort. Los Angeles prefers the creation of an "integrated safety net," a pooling of all federal, state and county moneys into one comprehensive, state-run bureaucracy responsible for all work, welfare and child-care programs."There is a lot of state discretion," says Phil Ansell, the county's welfare reform specialist. "At least one area where the rhetoric of this legislation matches the reality is that a whole lot of discretion has been delegated to the states." In this legislative session, California must make welfare reform a reality. Lawmakers will decide how long Temporary Assistance time limits will be, whether to lower grant levels from the current $565 a month for a family of three, what programs will most efficiently move people to work, whether legal immigrants will still be eligible for Temporary Assistance and Medicaid, as well as dozens of other options determining the real scope of "reform." In addition, the state can choose to exempt up to 20 percent of all welfare families from the work requirements and time limits due simply to their "economic hardship."But with California the launching pad for many politicians' national ambitions, the distance between state and county is often the same separating rhetoric and reality. We see it time and time again: from Governor Wilson's presidential pipe dreams and his war on the immigrant to the state Legislature's policy of slashing benefit levels and implementing draconian policy before the federal government allows it. The dialogue on welfare - libidinous and addicted welfare moms, lazy and smug poor folk, scheming and selfish immigrants - is endemic to Sacramento and rarely trickles down to the level of the humble bureaucrats."We're not inevitably headed toward a dystopian future," maintains the county's Ansell. "There's a lot of room. The devil's in the details." Where Los Angeles goes, where California allows it, will be decided this winter and spring. What happens when rhetoric determines reality, when archetypes shape social policy, will be witnessed across the country shortly after that. As the rolls thin out, as the state saves money, as moral outrage is sanctioned and vindicated, what happens to the poor, the mothers, the immigrants is left to the mercy of God. Whatever happens, it is not our fault. We abdicate all responsibility.We enter the next century avenged. We enter the next century with a new social compact: succeed or be doomed; prosper, or else. Failure is unacceptable. The new compact, though, looks a lot like the old. Sixteenth century values still apply, we insist, in the 21st.