Questions: The urban institute on five years of welfare reform

Questions: The urban institute on five years of welfare reform

Valentine, Victoria

The Urban Institute on Five Years of Welfare Reform

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, commonly referred to as the “welfare-to-work” bill, was signed into law on August 22, 1996. Five years later, according to the ILS. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the welfare caseload has fallen from 12.2 million recipients to 5.8 million – the sharpest decline in history. HHS reports that “families are also faring significantly better financially.” The Census Bureau reports that poverty is also down, at an all-time low for Blacks – 23.6 percent – but it is still more than three times the rate of whites. Early next year, The Urban Institute will publish a book examining the realities of welfare over the past five years. Kenneth Finegold, a senior research associate at the institute is co-writing a chapter on race, ethnicity and welfare reform for the book:

After five years what progress has welfare reform made moving people off of government assistance and into living wage jobs?

Things look better for low-income people, but it is difficult to say how much of that was welfare reform and how much was the good economy. The economy is certainly better than anyone could have expected in 1996, when you would have guessed it could go up or down. Instead we had sustained prosperity and incredibly low unemployment. So overall there are a lot of indicators that things have gotten better for low-income people– higher employment; poverty is down.

According to your data, how are African Americans faring? When we’ve disaggregated by race/ethnicity, drawing particularly on the National Survey of America’s Families that we’ve done in 1997 and 1999 [the Institute’s next study will be in 2002], Black people seemed to have shared in the gains much less than the overall population.

If you took at whites you see improvement in a lot of different areas. Hispanics, there are some areas of improvement. For Blacks, indicators don’t really show significant change. At a time when the economy, overall, is pretty good, you don’t see major benefits, especially compared to other Americans. Certainly, if we go into a period when the economy is not as good, the harmful effects of the new policies would fall disproportionately on Black people.

Black progress basically remained flat across all indicators?

Well, we look for statistically significant changes between the two rounds, and in our range of indicators we don’t see much. Some things are slightly better; some things are slightly worse. For example between 1997 and 1999, a higher proportion of Black people were reporting hardship in paying for housing, something that went down for white people. People worrying about food dropped for whites; Blacks, we don’t see much change.

Have you been able to determine why Blacks haven’t fared as well?

Part of the story is differences in where people live, by state and within states, whose urban, whose suburban, whose rural, and the survey was also done during a period when housing prices were going up in a number of metropolitan areas, so that might be part of it. We have found that wages among people who’ve left welfare seem to be tower for Blacks and for Hispanic former recipients than for white former recipients.

Family structure: Black and Hispanic children are much more likely to be living in single-parent households or certainly have other than two married parents, and that has implications in terms of resources available to those families. There have been findings from other research that Black women who go off welfare and get jobs do better in some ways than their white counterparts while they’re working, but are more likely to return to welfare [if they lose a job], and that may be because they are less likely to have someone else’s income they can draw on.

Is there any other evidence of why the disparity between Black and White welfare recipients exists?

There’s also the possibility of patterns of bias in implementation of policies by case workers and in how employers regard welfare recipients. A lot of the evidence about this is from relatively small-scale studies, but troubling in that it shows differences in the proportions of welfare recipients who got particular services. There’s also some evidence that some employers treat white former welfare recipients differently, spending more time on interviews, for example. I don’t think we have the information to say how much discrimination there is, or how much of a role it plays in the larger patterns, but I think there is enough to suggest there may be problems that should be paid attention to in terms of enforcement of the civil rights laws, or simply training staff members and outreach to employers.

– interview by Victoria Valentine

Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Sep/Oct 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.