Beyond Patching the Safety Net

A Welfare and Work Survival Strategy

By Chris Tilly

This article is from the January/February 1999 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the January/February 1999 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 221 cover

Rita Henley Jensen, a New York-based journalist who often covers welfare issues, tells the story of trying to track down the rationale for the 1996 welfare "reform" act, which could be more accurately described as welfare repeal. She started by calling up the Republican congressman who wrote the law, asking him exactly what was the problem that this law was supposed to solve. He told her that the rationale section was drafted by Robert Rector, the notoriously anti-welfare fellow at the right wing Heritage Foundation. Rector, in turn, referred her to a paper by another Heritage Foundation fellow. To Jensen's amazement, this document argued as follows: Single parenthood is a rejection of the child by one of the parents; therefore, support of single parents is a form of child abuse; and government should get out of the business of supporting single parents, and only support married parents.

Incredibly, this is the logical foundation to the most sweeping dismantling of the welfare state in this century. The logic is so bizarre that it seems easy to poke holes in it. Single parent families will continue to exist whether or not the federal government offers them a welfare program. Since they are at much greater risk of poverty than other families, pulling away federal support will plunge many more of them into poverty and despair, with children paying most of the price.

Yet both houses of Congress and the President are willing to ignore these simple truths, so it's going to be a long road back to a sane discussion of poverty programs. Recognizing this, let's consider a new strategy for returning the United States to a compassionate and sensible approach to welfare. One promising avenue incorporates welfare issues into a platform aimed at making low-wage work more survivable. This approach can help welfare advocates to consolidate broader alliances—especially with the labor and women's movements.

What's Wrong With Welfare Repeal?

As the term "welfare repeal" suggests, the 1996 welfare law didn't just "end welfare as we know it," but ended any meaningful federal assurance of aid to low-income families with children. It replaced a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with a block grant, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), to the states. This ends the 60-year-old federal guarantee of support for parents and children who meet program requirements, and replaces a single federal program with 50 state programs, leaving enormous flexibility to the states.

The law also planted a "time bomb" by capping federal funding through 2002. Right now the economy is doing relatively well—so well that Republicans in Congress are clamoring to cut welfare funding rather than keeping it level—but there will be another recession, and when it comes more families will need assistance. The state response may not be to yell for federal funds, but instead to make it harder and harder to get welfare.

At the state level, there are three main issues: time limits, work requirements, and "sanctioning." Sanctioning refers to penalties leveled on families who have allegedly violated program rules. But we should redefine it to include not just all the ways that states find to reduce or cut off the grant, but all the ways that they find to prevent people from getting a grant in the first place.

One problem for any strategy to repair the safely net is that time limits, work requirements, and sanctioning play out in vastly different ways across the states. Consider time limits: Connecticut has a 21 month limit; Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Oregon have 2-year limits; New Mexico says three years; Georgia says four; and California, New Jersey, and New York draw the line at five years.

Welfare Advocacy as We Know It

Given the new situation, we have to take a hard look at "welfare advocacy as we know it." Such advocacy focuses on TANF, seeking to make it a better program. Advocates' central principle has been the right of a mother to stay home to care for her kids. I still believe in that principle, but it won't get us very far in the next few years, because politicians widely view welfare repeal as a smashing success. People are rapidly moving off the rolls. As of March 1998, the caseload decreased by 27% nationwide, and by now the decrease has probably reached 30% or 40%. Some states have experienced stunning declines: as of March Idaho's caseload nosedived by 80% (from 22,000 to 4,000), Wyoming's by 74%, Wisconsin's by 68%.

Welfare caseloads fell at record rates for two reasons. First, the economy was hot, and it was easier to get a job than it had been for years. Second, local welfare departments are on the offensive, "sanctioning" recipients off the rolls for real and imagined infractions, and putting barriers in the way of new applicants. Nationwide, 30% to 40% of those leaving welfare are not doing so because they have an alternative source of income.

Unfortunately, there are no detailed statistics on what's happening to these families. In fact, the Massachusetts welfare department's response to the news that one in three people leaving the rolls did not have a job was to stop collecting information on why people are leaving welfare. But we do know from monitoring projects around the country—and from the record demand on food banks - that many of these families end up hungry and desperate. Unfortunately, so far politicians haven't been taking much heat for the fate of these families.

Even more important for the long-run prospects of a stronger safety net, the constituency for "welfare advocacy as we know it" is very limited. The idea that mothers can and should hold jobs is taken for granted now in a way it was not in 1935 when AFDC was passed, or in the late 1960s when the welfare rights movement peaked. In addition, working families who are struggling to keep their heads above water see it as unfair that single mothers who aren't working for pay get assistance from the government. And these families are half right, because they should be getting help, too.

Even most welfare recipients agree with these views. An early 1990s survey in Wisconsin asked welfare recipients why they were on welfare -- were they solely responsible, was it circumstances beyond their control, or a combination. Eighty-two percent blamed circumstances beyond their control, 6% claimed sole responsibility, and 12% chose a combination of the two. But when these welfare recipients were asked, "why are people on welfare?", a full 90% said those on welfare are partly or fully to blame for their problems.

Focus groups of past and present welfare recipients and the fathers of children on welfare, conducted in Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago between November 1996 and November 1997, found similar results. A majority favored time limits on welfare, work requirements, and family caps (which hold the welfare grant fixed when a woman on welfare has an additional child)—although they also talked about the need for some exceptions to these rules.

To counteract these attitudes, we must frame an agenda that stresses that most working people in this country are under increasing pressure—with wages falling behind inflation, work hours rising, and job security diminishing. To address this pressure, we have to improve the work lives of the lowest paid workers, the great majority of whom are women. So for at least the next several years, welfare advocates should be joining with others to propose programs that will help people survive work, especially low-wage work. Such programs will speak to most workers and most women, and can potentially unite a vast constituency.

A Program to Help Survive Work

A "work survival" program would have to start with fair, living wages for all. That means more cities must require their contractors to pay a living wage well above current minimum wages—enough to earn a family a decent living. Also, while current laws require equal pay for equal work regardless of gender and race, in an economy where predominantly male beekeepers get paid more than predominantly female child care workers, workers need equal pay for comparable work. This is not just a low-wage worker issue. It also challenges the glass ceiling faced by women and minorities at the top levels of U.S. corporations. To achieve fair, livable wages for as many workers as possible, we must also level the playing field for unions. Women are more likely than men to want to join unions, and women get more of a wage payoff from unions than men, but women are less represented in unions than men. Part of the reason is that some unions have kept women out, but an increasingly important factor is that employers are fighting dirty to keep unions out, and getting away with it.

Work survival also depends on job flexibility without an accompanying penalty. Currently, those who want flexibility can get a part-time job -- but they will earn half as much per hour as a full-timer on average, and will be one quarter as likely to receive health benefits. With worker-friendly flexibility, part-time and temporary workers would get equal pay and proportional benefits. Just as important, every job should give workers the flexibility they need for a life outside of work—which includes family, but also friends and community.

To survive work, many workers need added supports. For instance, the federal government should financially support universal, affordable child care. Middle class tax breaks are not enough, since they only help the middle class. Another key support is real education and training for decent jobs. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota proposed an amendment to the 1996 welfare law, allowing up to 24 months of education to meet federal work requirements—not long enough in a work world where a four-year degree is the key to upward mobility, but a good start. Maine and Wyoming recently established state-funded programs to support single parents attending college. Even broader, more universal assistance with education and training is well worth pursuing.

In real life, almost no one can work for pay without interruptions—whether from unemployment, babies, illness, or career changes. So a last, critical form of support is sustaining people through such interruptions. Currently, only one unemployed worker in three gets unemployment insurance (UI), down from half in 1970. Part-time workers and others with low wages often don't earn enough to become eligible for unemployment aid. That's why so many low income women have used welfare as their UI program. Widening eligibility for this state insurance program could pick up a great deal of the slack in the safety net. Another effective change would be mandating longer, paid family leaves, instead of the 12-week unpaid leave currently required by federal law.

Some people are promoting steps toward a broader goal of good jobs for all. Senator Wellstone proposed a public service job creation system that would spend $20 billion over four years, and some states and localities are exploring similar plans. We also need programs to help families deal with two of the most devastating budget-busters: housing and health care. At present, Congress is avoiding dealing with the country's housing needs and just nibbling around the edges of the health care problem. Until we take on comprehensive solutions to both, many families' finances will remain precarious.


Some coalitions are beginning to cross state lines to strive for reform of the harsh federal TANF legislation—with Wellstone's education amendment one recent example. Others attack welfare laws as violations of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims rights to shelter and food. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee runs "Welfare and Human Rights Monitoring Projects," which document welfare sanctions that violate human rights. The National Welfare Rights Union took the issue on the road with a "human rights bus" that crisscrossed the country last summer, holding hearings and rallies.

Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), an advocacy group based in the nation's capital, is working with partners in eight states (including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Texas) to calculate "self-sufficiency wages" and use them to educate and agitate the public. WOW looks at actual living expenses, including the expenses of going to work, city by city, and then estimates how much full-time workers have to make per hour in order to support families of different sizes. For example, a single parent with one infant and one preschooler living in Los Angeles needs to earn $16.23 an hour to survive at a basic level. WOW and its partners ask whether there are enough jobs that pay $16.23 for single moms in Los Angeles—and if not, how do we either create those jobs, or close the gap by providing help with child care, housing, and so on?

There are also efforts to craft more ambitious cross-state coalitions. ACORN, a national community-based organization, convened a National Welfare Summit of 100 people from 30 groups around the country in July 1998, and began discussing possible joint strategies. Separately, over 70 welfare activists from ten western states met in August to begin hammering out a cross-state strategy. They chose to focus on welfare time limits, livable wages, and education and training, seeking to win over public opinion by projecting a vision of human rights and putting a new, more accurate face on poverty to replace widespread stereotypes. Both summits brought together energetic, diverse groups—multi-racial, multi-age, and multi-issue—making them coalitions to watch.

Creating Power

The main point of focusing on ways to survive work is to build coalitions with the labor and women's movements, since work and family issues are among their central concerns. It's a very good time to work with the labor movement. There are new forces ascendant in the AFL-CIO, which represent a lot more women and people of color, and are much more sympathetic to work and family issues than the old line leadership. Other key allies include many churches, community groups (such as ACORN), and providers of social services and public higher education.

With a "surviving work" program, we can enlist the pro-labor wing of the Democratic party, including such stalwarts as Congressman Richard Gephardt and Senator Ted Kennedy. Even the Clinton administration, for what it's worth, is open to talking about job creation, a higher minimum wage, unemployment insurance reform, and added child care subsidies. Some businesses—those that want workers who have the supports they need to succeed, and don't want competition from other businesses that are just using up workers and throwing them away—will also get on board.

Framing the issue in terms of surviving work instead of saving welfare may make the difference between having the AFL-CIO write a position paper that has the right position, and having the AFL-CIO spend $50 million on TV time. It may make the difference between having Dick Gephardt vote the right way, and having Dick Gephardt campaign on some of these issues.

Winning Arguments

I started by describing the far-right nuts at the Heritage Foundation who wrote the welfare law, whose basic belief is that "Only one kind of family is OK." This idea is one of the two big ideas of the U.S. right wing. The other big idea is that "If you're not thriving in the market economy, it's your own fault." But if you look closely, the right wing is split between the people who believe Big Idea #1 and those who believe Big Idea #2. You can see this by looking at what happened in the 1996 Republican presidential primaries. Steve Forbes was a free marketeer, but supported gay rights and fudged on abortion. Pat Buchanan was a social conservative, but an economic populist who condemned corporate abuses of workers. Bob Dole split the difference, and managed to win the Republican nomination, but got creamed in the general election.

The coalitions coming together around welfare and work are assembling a program that says no to both of these ideas: many kinds of families are OK, and the economy is unfair and needs to be reformed. These are the wedge issues that will split the right. So let's get hammering!

Resources: This article is adapted from a speech given to the Western States Regional Welfare Summit in August, 1998. Parts of it are based on Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Women's Work, Women's Poverty, Randy Albelda and Chris Tilly, South End Press, 1997.
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