Big bad welfare – welfare reform politics and children

Big bad welfare – welfare reform politics and children – Cover Story

Ruth Conniff

Over a free lunch, a group of experts gathered at a right-wing think tank this spring to talk about cutting off aid to the poor. The mood in the gracious, twelfth-floor conference center at the American Enterprise Institute on 17th Street NW, a few blocks from the White House, was positively festive. Participants–Republicans and Democrats alike who want to cancel Aid to Families with Dependent Children–agreed that their moment has come.

Doing away with welfare is the issue of the hour. President Clinton’s new welfare-reform plan, various competing proposals in Congress, and a plethora of workfare experiments in the states all aim to end “welfare as we know it.” According to the polls, a majority of Americans think the welfare system ought to be scrapped.

How to do this will be the subject of debate for at least the next year. But the American Enterprise Institute luncheon was a pep rally for the winning team. Whatever their quibbles with one another, the participants were on the same side, united against a common enemy. Who that enemy is became clear by the end of the afternoon.

“The act of getting pregnant if you are not prepared to care for a child is not morally neutral, it is a very destructive act,” sociologist Charles Murray told the group. “And much as we may sympathize with a young woman who finds herself in that situation … part of arranging society so that happens as seldom as possible is to impose terrible penalties on that act.”

The terrible penalties, he explained, include “severe social stigma” and poverty.

In the United States, according to Murray, the social order has been disrupted by welfare: “The only way we have lifted the terrible penalties–economic penalties–of having a child out of wedlock is by intervening using the power of the state.” In order to set things right, Murray said, we must restore the sanctions on single motherhood. “That means ending welfare in all its forms (even though I, for various reasons, say okay, we’ll keep Medicaid)…. And I have used the O-word, ‘orphanage,’ as a symbol for the kind of thing we must think about as an alternative.”

The other participants concurred. “Thanks to Charles Murray, I think those of us in the political world are now a little less bashful in talking about some of the pernicious effects of illegitimacy,” said William Weld, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Weld kicked off his keynote address with some snide remarks about a family in his state that had four generations on welfare, “including fourteen children of the matriarch, who came to Massachusetts in 1968…. Several sons among these fourteen children were on disability for anxiety, so the idea of work made them anxious.”

He went on to outline his proposal for welfare reform in Massachusetts, which, he says, would save the taxpayers money and drastically reduce unemployment simply by prodding people on welfare to get out of the house and do community service jobs and other “routine tasks.” (“We avoid the W-word, ‘work,’ which seems to inflame passions,” Weld said.) Under Weld’s plan, after sixty days, able-bodied welfare recipients would be pushed into the labor force. The state would convert their cash grants into day care and health care.

The rest of the panelists–Mickey Kaus, a neoliberal Democrat and an editor of The New Republic; Amitai Etzioni, a professor of sociology and the editor of the communitarian magazine The Responsive Community; Robert Lerman, chairman of the economics department at American University, and Murray–all praised Weld’s proposal. There was some back and forth about the details of the plan, but in principle and in tone, everyone agreed. (“I think Governor Weld is on the side of the angels,” Murray said. “Charles, let me say that I think you’re on the side of the angels, too” Weld replied.)

Talk about welfare reform these days revolves around a few common themes. Money is the first: It is now the conventional wisdom that AFDC is a massive, wasteful program, and taxpayers are fed up with paying for it. Work is the second: Most Americans don’t like the idea of idleness, and there is broad agreement that people on welfare ought to go to work. Illegitimacy is the third: Charles Murray and others promote the claim that the “culture of poverty” is transmitted through single mothers to their children, making welfare dependency a way of life. Poverty, in this view, is a problem of morality, not economics. If single mothers and their children tend to be poor, society must not encourage them by alleviating their suffering.

Murray first advanced this theory in his 1984 book Losing Ground, which earned him a place on the lunatic fringe of the welfare debate. But times have changed. These days, popular attitudes toward the poor have shifted to the Right. Murray’s scarlet-letter approach is currently being tested in states that cut aid to women on AFDC when they have more than one child. Under President Clinton’s new welfare plan, states would get an automatic green light to conduct more such experiments.

Rather than ending poverty as we know it, current welfare reform plans, including the President’s, simply focus on ending welfare.

Under the President’s proposal, women on welfare would be forced to go to work after two years. (The plan is aimed almost exclusively at women and dependent children, since it deals only with AFDC, the Government’s largest welfare program. Yet the combination of training and work requirements that characterize the plan would not lift families out of poverty.

“The Administration has designed its program to ensure that individuals who participate will be desperately poor,” says Mark Greenberg of the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The President is offering two years of training for people on AFDC, and additional day-care and health-care benefits after that to help them go to work. Those who don’t find jobs on their own after two years would have to join a work program comprised of Government-subsidized jobs. The penalty for not joining is that benefits to families would be cut off for at least six months. Participants in Clinton’s subsidized work program would only make the minimum wage, guaranteeing that they remain below the poverty line. Furthermore, states are not required by the Clinton plan to provide participants with full-time jobs, since to do so would cost vastly more than the current system. “So this is a program that requires work but makes participants no less poor than they were before,” says Greenberg.

All told, the Clinton program would cost significantly more than AFDC. The money to fund the program would come entirely from other emergency support programs for the poor. In other words, it would mean a net transfer of funds from poor people to bureaucrats. “We face the specter of cutting homeless assistance in order to fund an increase in welfare administration costs, and in order to increase the number of case managers,” says Greenberg.

Republicans have criticized the Clinton plan for sacrificing issue number one on the welfare reform priority list–money. A bill sponsored by 163 Republicans in the House of Representatives includes deeper cuts in emergency aid programs, and offers no guarantee of jobs after two years. But overall there is little difference between Republican and Democratic approaches.

The idea that people on welfare should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and that the government has coddled them too long, is promoted by both parties. When Congress finally gets around to debating welfare reform next session, the idea of maintaining Government support for poor women with children will have precious few defenders.

The lone dissenting voice during the whole American Enterprise Institute conference came from a woman at the back of the room, who spoke up during the question-and-answer period in a soft Southern accent. “I have had an experience that I’m sure none of you have had,” she said, “and that is that I have been a single, unwed, working mother and I started out as a poor woman. And I think my own experience makes me uncomfortable listening to five white men talking about what is going to happen to mostly poor, minority women and children in this country… I’m alarmed by the insensitivity of some of the statements made here today … and also by this notion that we should just take children away from women and put them in orphanages…. And I would like to ask you, each of you, if you are at all uncomfortable in this role of talking about what’s going to happen to so many poor women and children.”

There was scattered applause for the woman, who identified herself as Roxie Nicholson, a senior economist at the Department of Labor. The members of the panel looked momentarily shocked at being addressed so directly. But it didn’t take them long to recover and return to their jovial, fraternal patter.

“I have a feeling most of that is directed at me,” Charles Murray said, to appreciative laughter from the other panelists.

“It’s not politically correct,” Weld said, “and it doesn’t sound nice, and you’re going to hate it …” but, he went on to say, it’s bad for children to live with a parent who does nothing but hang around the house. “So no, I don’t have the hesitation or shame or whatever emotion it is that you queried us about.”

There was a sense of calm and rationality restored after that brief, hysterical outburst. At lunch, at the end of the session, a young woman at my table commented that Charles Murray had a lovely voice. The young man sitting next to her agreed, “He’s very rational.”

It is alarming to think that the voice of reason these days is that of Charles Murray–or of the other people who have declared war on welfare and single mothers. But somehow, perceptions of reason and morality have changed dramatically in this country–so much so that the suffering of children is acceptable, while maintaining emergency support for the poor doesn’t pass the political laugh test.

“People have decided, for some reason, that poor people are the enemy, and that single mothers cause poverty,” says Deborah Harris, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “Obviously, single mothers don’t cause poverty, but politicians are capitalizing on a mood that blames single mothers for all of society’s ills.”

Harris helped file a lawsuit against Governor Weld’s administration in 1992, on behalf of a group of women on welfare in Massachusetts. In order to save money, the administration had decided to stop guaranteeing child care to AFDC recipients in state-approved education and training programs. Instead, the children were placed on waiting lists. The mothers won in a lower court, and the state appealed the case. Eventually, Massachusetts’s highest court ruled that the administration was violating the Family Support Act’s guarantee of child care.

Since then, there have been no more such waiting lists. “However, there is still a substantial shortage of child care for families that are very low-income,” says Harris. Governor Weld’s latest welfare reform proposal does not solve this problem.

“One of the biggest shams in the Governor’s proposal is this–the Governor has repeatedly stated that the money saved by his so-called welfare reforms would be transferred into additional child-care slots for low-income families,” says Harris. “But the plan states that any new slots that would be created would be subject to appropriation. That means that only to the extent that the plan saves money would any new day-care slots be created. And the plan is extremely unlikely to save money.”

Indeed, there is something fishy about Weld’s claim that he can solve the problems of poverty and unemployment in Massachusetts just by telling welfare recipients to go to work. Under the Federal Family Support Act of 1988, a number of state governments tried this approach–setting out to reform welfare without spending any money, and without dealing with the concrete problems poor people face. The results have been predictably bad.

“The Federal rhetoric is, ‘Convert AFDC into education and training,'” Mark Greenberg told me back when the Family Support Act went into effect. “But if you’re talking about providing a service to people and you look at the dollar amounts, the number of people you can serve is minuscule. If you’re talking about just kicking people off welfare and telling them, ‘Go get a job,’ of course, it’s a lot cheaper.”

Federal guidelines specified that states should provide child care and transportation to welfare recipients compelled to take jobs or training under the Family Support Act. But the money to fund such supports was not forthcoming from the Federal Government, and the states were already strapped for cash.

Massachusetts was not the only state government that was sued–and lost–for cutting corners under the Family Support Act.

Wisconsin’s governor Tommy Thompson, another welfare-reform star, made headlines with his Learnfare program, which withheld aid from families whose teenagers missed too many days of school. Learnfare was a disaster. In the first year of the program, drop-out rates actually increased in Milwaukee, where most of the Learnfare sanctions occurred. Errors in record-keeping and lack of follow-up meant that many families lost their benefits for no reason at all. A Federal judge issued an injunction against the program in 1989. In the injunction order, he wrote, “This is a situation where the survival and dignity of individuals and families are involved. [These people] should not be made homeless and hungry in the name of social experimentation.”

Wisconsin is a case study in the bad planning and poor results that characterize quick-fix welfare reform programs. Welfare recipients who participated in the state’s job-training program were less likely to find and keep jobs over a two-year period than those who had no job training at all, according to a study by Wisconsin’s Employment and Training Institute. Yet the program became a model for Federally mandated job training all over the nation.

Despite the failures and the lawsuits, programs that treat poverty as an attitude problem have survived and flourished.

Last December, The Wall Street Journal ran a story roundly condemning Federal job-training programs, entitled Ticket to Nowhere: Job Programs Flunk at Training, but Keep Washington at Work. The article took a close look at a program in Baltimore County, Maryland, which helped fewer than 1 per cent of participants find jobs.

“Two things are clear,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “First, the program is a sham. Second, it isn’t going to be eliminated.”

Around the nation, the outlook isn’t much better. The Job Training Partnership Act, the Government’s biggest training program, actually led to lower wages for poor young men compared with a control group, the Journal reports. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation has found that people subjected to a combination of government job-search programs and work requirements are only slightly more likely than nonparticipants to find work. But job-training programs are the darlings of the politicians and bureaucrats who run them and who jealously guard their turf regardless of the programs’ ineffectiveness.

Part of the problem with job training is the patchwork administration of these programs and the fact that they are poorly funded. And part of it is that, rather than pursuing meaningful reforms, government officials have doggedly stuck by the idea that the only thing poor people need to become employed and independent is a little encouragement. Thus, by law, every state must run “motivational seminars” for people on AFDC.

The seminars, which are part of the Federal JOBS program, go by a variety of snappy acronyms. If you collect welfare in Dane County, Wisconsin, your case worker may push you through the Gateway to Opportunity, Advancement, and Lasting Success.

During the first week of GOALS, about a dozen women and two men sit around a conference table at the Dane County job center. The instructor, who introduces herself as Kelly, shows flashcards. One flashcard says, You’ll never amount to anything.

“Has anybody ever heard this in your life?” she asks.

No response.

“Good! Because it’s not true!”

She holds up another flashcard: You can do anything you set your mind to.

“How about this one? How often do we hear this?”

No one says anything.

This is day three of the two-week GOALS session. The topic: communication. From Kelly’s point of view, things aren’t going so well. “People aren’t talking a lot,” she says.

Several participants are clearly trying, though. Kelly holds up a flashcard that says I’m so proud of you. “How do we feel when someone says this to us?” she asks.

“Good?” one participant offers.

“Yeah!” says Kelly. She hands out pieces of paper and asks everyone to write down the names of two people who have had a positive influence in their lives.

“It’s the person who believes in you,” she says.

She writes “believes” in magic marker on a flip chart, then crosses it out and writes “believes.”

“Don’t tell her,” the woman in front of me whispers.

“What?” Kelly asks. “Don’t tell me what?”

“You still spelled ‘believes’ wrong,” someone says.

Kelly stares at the flip chart.

“It’s I before E except after C'” another participant explains.

“That’s okay,” the woman in front of me says. “That’s a hard one.”

After a short break, Kelly lists some more rules for good communication. “Here are two of the hardest things to say in the English language,” she says, and writes “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” on the flip chart.

At the end of class, she has the group play telephone. Then she invites them to discuss communication in their personal lives. “Remember I told you that my husband won’t talk to me for days sometimes?” she says.

Several of the women in the group nod sympathetically. A few people leave early to catch the bus.

I interview some participants after class. “I don’t want to knock the program or anything–maybe someone is getting their self-esteem raised,” says one participant, Zedvie Santos. “But today I got to rush home to sign for food stamps. If I’m not there when the mailman comes, I lose.”

Santos had a job working at the university, but out of the $425 she took home every two weeks, she says, $328 went for day care. So she quit and went on welfare.

“They’ve given me an ultimatum: You either go to this class or it’s your check,” she says. “Now, while I’m here, they give me four hours of child care. If I wasn’t so afraid that I would get busted, I’d run to McDonald’s or Wendy’s across the street and work for four hours and then go pick up my kids…. I got really frustrated today in that class because I know damn well I should be somewhere trying to make some money and this is doing nothing for me.”

The average AFDC recipient who gets a full-time job through Dane county’s JOBS program makes $6.74 an hour–about $14,000 a year. Day care for two children can easily cost $12,000 a year in Dane County It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out the jam that program participants are in. Yet the government is heavily invested in trying to convince them to go to work anyway.

“We try to point out that there are benefits to employment beyond the obvious ones,” says Dan Kittle, Employment and Training Program manager for Dane County. “Self-esteem is an important one. Once a person is employed, as a rule, self-esteem goes up. So employment isn’t just a financial benefit.”

Dawn Rees, who has three children, isn’t buying it. Rees objected when her case worker told her to begin searching for a job as soon as she finishes GOALS. “I’m not going to apply for a $5-an-hour job because I can’t afford to take it,” she says. Instead, Rees wants to go to school to improve her prospects for a well-paying job.

“I told her, if I do a job and go to school at the same time, I’ll never see my kids. And my case worker said, ‘Well, it can be done.’ I said I know it can, but who would my kids be eating dinner with? Who would put them to bed if I were to work nights and go to school during the day? Even AFDC recipients’ kids need their moms.”

This is not a point that comes up in GOALS.

The problems Rees and Santos face are simple: They are caught in a low-wage job market, and they have children who need their care. But the Government has not produced a plan to deal with these problems.

While Congress debates the relative merits of Clinton’s program and others, the states are moving forward with their own welfare reforms. As Christopher DeMuth, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, points out, what may end up being most significant is “what the states are doing while Washington fiddles.”

Governor Weld says his plan would send women to work, while the state pays for child care for their kids. Of course, Weld lacks credibility on the child-care issue, given his track record. But let’s say the plan works. The beauty of the program, according to Weld, is that it would not only get women working by putting their kids in day care, it would create jobs–in day care–for those women.

Herein lies one of the strangest aspects of welfare reform. It costs about $116 a week to keep a toddler in day care, and $122 for an infant. Child-care workers average $6.70 an hour. So the cost of infant care is 45 per cent of the average child-care worker’s gross wage. For an infant and a preschooler, the figure is 81 percent. Obviously, child-care workers cannot afford full-time child care. Why is the Government willing to spend more money for day care and job creation, so that women on welfare can go to work and take care of other people’s children instead of being at home with their own?

Weld’s answer is that it’s good for children to see their parents going to work every day. But surely it’s more important to society in the long term that those children get good care.

This is something we really have not worked out in the United States. As a nation, we have mixed up the values of money, work, and family. If we want to do something about the cycle of poverty and the future of poor people in America, when we talk about welfare reform, children should be at the top of the list.

But the welfare-reform discussion indicates that what happens to children doesn’t matter to Americans, so long as mothers are forced to work. When I asked Charles Murray about this, he had a simple answer, based on his utter contempt for poor women. If he’s so concerned about family values, I said, wouldn’t it make sense to let mothers stay home with their young children? No, he said, “because they’re lousy mothers.”

But what will really happen if we cut off AFDC?

“I think the main model we should look at when we talk about time limits for welfare is the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill,” says Deborah Harris. “We had a system that was certainly flawed, but it provided for a lot of mentally ill people. Since we eliminated it, we have increased homelessness and increased destitution. Society has gotten used to seeing mentally impaired homeless people on the streets, and I am very much afraid that we’ll get used to seeing homeless children on the streets.”

Nine million American children receive AFDC, and two-thirds of AFDC recipients are children. “This is a program to protect poor children from hunger and homelessness,” says David Kass of the Children’s Defense Fund.

AFDC costs 1 per cent of the Federal budget, which seems a small price to pay. Even if some welfare recipients never go to work, AFDC seems preferable to placing millions of children in orphanages, or letting them starve.

Of course, most women on welfare–like the frustrated women in Wisconsin’s job-training program, or the Labor Department economist who challenged the men at the American Enterprise Institute conference–aspire to get off welfare and to have a better life. For them, the Government could do a lot more by providing meaningful education and training, and real opportunity.

“We should be looking at how to lift poor children out of poverty,” says Kass. “That involves a lot of things–the minimum wage, unemployment, the tax system, health care. And, of course, we’re the only country in the world that doesn’t have a family allowance, tax support for poor children.”

But right now, it is a radical notion to think that we might reorganize society to put the welfare of children first.

Ruth Conniff, the Associate Editor of The Progressive, writes frequently about welfare and poverty issues.

COPYRIGHT 1994 The Progressive, Inc.

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