Reforming Welfare Reform


This article is from the September/October 2002 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the September/October 2002 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Catrina Weber never made enough at her fast-food jobs to be able to pay her rent and still have enough left over to provide a good life for her three-year-old son. Without a high-school diploma, however, she found it difficult to land higher-paying jobs. Like many parents who are trapped in the low-wage labor market, Catrina often relied on public assistance for extra help while she was in between jobs or when she was working but simply earning too little to make ends meet.

Enter President Clinton, who, along with a Republican Congress, passed a bill in 1996 "ending welfare as we know it." In doing so, they replaced the decades-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with a new block grant to states called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. Unlike AFDC, which guaranteed a minimal level of help to all poor families, TANF requires low-income parents like Catrina to meet strict work requirements and subjects them to a new maximum five-year lifetime limit on assistance.

Last fall, Catrina was earning $8.50 an hour at a temp job when her 3-year-old son fell seriously ill. Since she had no choice but to stay home and care for him, she was immediately fired and was forced to reapply for assistance. Hoping to escape the low-wage labor market once and for all, she asked her caseworker about GED classes; she was refused and told she would need a doctor's statement proving she had "good cause" for not meeting the work requirement. A few months later, in August 2001, Catrina hit her lifetime limit and lost all her benefits.

Unfortunately, Catrina's story is not unique. Six years after welfare reform, caseloads have declined by more than half, but poverty rates—particularly among people of color—remain high. Now, Congress is considering changes to the 1996 law, which expires this September. Much is at stake in the legislative scramble: different reauthorization bills, if passed, could either improve the prospects of low-income parents or sink them even deeper into poverty.

In this new round of welfare wars, low-income parents like Catrina are making their voices heard. What's more, they are raising challenging questions about how our nation's public policies can and should promote justice, equity and opportunity for all low-income Americans.

The War Against Welfare

The conservative assault on federal entitlement programs climaxed in the mid-1990s when Republicans, led by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, won back control of Congress and made overhauling the welfare system the bedrock of their Contract With America. The notion of welfare reform was, however, nothing new.

Ironically enough, at the height of the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s, "welfare reform" actually meant making the system more accessible to greater numbers of needy families. Grassroots groups, many of whom organized under the banner of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), helped tens of thousands of low-income parents to enroll in AFDC. The low-income black women who comprised nearly 90% of the NWRO's membership insisted that the need for welfare was the result of an unjust economic system, not personal failure. At its peak in 1969, NWRO had more than 22,000 members and chapters in nearly every major city.

But the 1970s ushered in a series of dislocating events—the costly ongoing war in Vietnam, a faltering economy—as well as an increasingly effective conservative political movement. Together, these political and economic forces converged to weaken the public consensus about the need to combat systemic poverty that had flourished a decade earlier.

By the time President Reagan took office in 1980, public opinion about the poor had done a complete about-face. Now, welfare recipients themselves were the problem. Many Americans became convinced that the welfare system encouraged dependency on the federal government, and reform efforts were now aimed at changing poor women's behavior instead of attacking the real roots of poverty—systemic racism, sexism, and inequality.

Ending "Welfare as We Know It"

In this new era of welfare bashing, the debate centered on how to get welfare recipients off the rolls as quickly as possible. As a result, on August 22, 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), called welfare reform.

The law's passage did indeed end welfare as we knew it. It eliminated the 60-year entitlement to some minimal level of assistance for our nation's most vulnerable parents and children. The new system makes it extremely difficult to get help, even for people in desperate circumstances, and uses sanctions and time limits to push people off the rolls. The strategy is working. Since 1996, welfare caseloads have fallen by more than half. At the same time, poverty among single mothers—the population most affected by changes in welfare policy—has actually increased from 19.2% to 19.4% since the mid-1990s, in spite of the decade's booming economy.

The block-grant structure of TANF gave broad new authority to states to implement their own welfare programs, subject to little federal oversight. This has led to rampant lawlessness in welfare offices; in one notorious case, the State of Oregon told applicants to go "dumpster diving" instead of seeking assistance. And, as has been the case throughout American history, "states rights" has resulted in discrimination against people of color in access to services and benefits.

The result is a patchwork of state policies that have done little to address the root causes of poverty in America. Volumes of data and anecdotal evidence gathered since 1996 paint a sobering portrait of joblessness, low wages, lack of support and increased hardship for parents who have left the welfare rolls. Approximately one-third of former welfare recipients do not leave welfare for work at all, and those who do often work low- or minimum-wage jobs without paid vacation, sick leave or health benefits. Many are single mothers caring for young, sick or disabled children, who are forced to make impossible choices between being with their children when they are most needed and doing what the welfare system demands in order to keep their meager income.

Now, as the economic boom of the 1990s sputters to a halt, the safety net for low-wage workers is in tatters. Unemployment Insurance, our nation's first recourse for laid-off workers, reaches at most 40% of unemployed workers. Due to antiquated eligibility rules, low-wage and part-time workers are least likely to qualify when they become unemployed.

Moreover, under welfare reform, legal immigrants can no longer qualify for most federal public-benefits programs if they arrived in the country after 1996. Yet immigrants comprise a growing portion of the low-wage workforce; currently, one in four poor children lives in an immigrant family. While some states have picked up the slack and created their own programs for immigrants, millions of hardworking, taxpaying immigrants still have no safety net to rely on.

Welfare reform 1996-style raised a lot of questions about work, family and immigration that it is simply not equipped to answer. Rather than advocating for a return to a system that provided a limited safety net but otherwise did little to address the problem of poverty in America, progressives are fighting for a new framework for our nation's anti-poverty policy—one that promotes meaningful wages, job opportunities, and supports for all low-income Americans.

A New Grassroots Movement for Economic Justice

For decades, grassroots organizations of low-income people have been fighting for living wages, affordable housing, adequate health care and decent jobs in their communities. In the mid-1990s, as welfare reform spread out into the states, poor people had new battles to fight.

Many groups got actively involved in shaping the way welfare reform was implemented in their states. Groups like the Philadelphia Unemployment Project organized low-income workers and welfare recipients to press their states to create publicly-funded transitional jobs programs that provide welfare recipients with wages, training, and supports as they move from welfare to work. These programs have proven successful in giving low-income parents with little education or work experience the tools they need to get and keep good jobs.

Others have fought to break down some of the barriers at the state and local level that prevent millions of otherwise eligible families from accessing safety-net programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and child care. Employing a model pioneered by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, grassroots organizations around the country launched highly visible campaigns to simplify and improve the way these services are delivered. Victories include improved benefit levels, less burdensome application procedures, and greater accountability in local welfare offices.

Some focused on making welfare policies more responsive to parents with young children. Members of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, a welfare-rights group in Montana, succeeded in pushing their state to create a model At-Home Infant Care program, which allows low-income mothers with infant children to receive child care grants to stay home and care for their children. This innovative program so impressed Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chair of the committee that oversees welfare programs, that he is now pushing to create a similar program at the federal level.

In May 2000, hundreds of these organizations came together in Chicago to launch the first national grassroots movement of low-income people fighting for economic justice since the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s. Building on dozens of local and state victories, they are now working under the banner of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support to make federal policy more responsive to the needs of low-income communities.

Together, in 2001, the members of the National Campaign teamed up with other national organizations like the Children's Defense Fund, RESULTS, and the National Council of La Raza to extract a partly refundable child tax credit out of President Bush's otherwise disastrous tax cut. The tax credit, which will deliver approximately $8 billion a year directly to low-income families, represents the largest federal investment in poor families since the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit in the early 1990s.

Most recently, in the spring of 2002, grassroots activists worked with allies in the anti-hunger and immigrants' rights communities to restore food-stamp benefits to all legal immigrants. This victory represented the first major crack in the architecture of the punitive 1996 welfare reform law, and set the stage for the battle over TANF reauthorization this summer.

The Next Round of Welfare Wars

The 1996 welfare reform law is set to expire this September, and a bitter debate over the next phase of welfare reform is underway. President Bush threw the first punch earlier this spring, when he introduced a welfare plan that would drastically increase work requirements for recipients, restrict access to education and training programs, provide no new money for child care or work supports, and do nothing to restore benefits to legal immigrants.

The Bush plan sparked outrage even among Republican governors and state welfare officials, who argue that it would force them to abandon successful job training and education programs in favor of costly "workfare" programs. These programs, which force welfare recipients to work off their benefits in unpaid jobs with no training or benefits, have never been proven to improve recipients' long-term earnings or employment. Moreover, because workfare workers do not receive a wage for their labor, they cannot qualify for Unemployment Insurance benefits or the Earned Income Tax Credit and are not protected by worker and civil rights protection laws. In one instance, a federal court recently ruled that a participant in New York City's Work Experience Program, the nation's largest and most notorious workfare program, was not protected by federal sexual harassment laws because she was "not a real worker."

In March, just one week after the President released his plan, the National Campaign convened 2,000 low-income parents in Washington, D.C. to push for a very different kind of welfare plan. There, grassroots activists from around the country rallied for education and training, benefits for legal immigrants, fair and flexible time limits for working families, racial equity and due process in welfare offices, and family-friendly policies that allow parents to balance the competing demands of work and family life. After rallying on the National Mall, the group marched to the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services to protest President Bush's punitive proposals.

Minutes later, the group boarded dozens of buses and headed over to the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing social policy think tank, to pay a surprise visit to Robert Rector. They demanded that Rector, the nation's leading conservative scholar on welfare and a primary architect of the Bush welfare plan, spend a day "walking in the shoes" of poor parents to see first-hand what it's really like to live in poverty in America. He consented, and a month later joined National Campaign leaders in Little Rock, Arkansas, to learn about their struggles to balance work, school and their families without adequate support from the system.

Maybe coincidentally—or maybe not—the very next day after the D.C. rallies, the Bush administration publicly recanted an earlier proposal to allow states to pay workfare workers less than the minimum wage.

Low-income activists are not just making waves in Washington. In more than 40 states, grassroots organizations are pressuring their senators and representatives to support a progressive anti-poverty agenda. By sharing the stories of their struggles—through lobbying, media work, coalition-building, and creative direct action—these leaders are changing the very way decision-makers and the public think about the problem of poverty in this country.

Congress Revisits Welfare Reform

Clearly, a fierce debate is underway. In May, the House of Representatives passed a welfare bill that mirrors the President's punitive plan. It increases work requirements for welfare recipients from 30 to 40 hours a week. It severely limits parents' ability to build skills that will lead to better jobs, trimming the amount of time education and training activities can count as "work" to only three months—down from twelve months under current law. It does nothing to address the strict five-year lifetime limit on assistance, which has already caused more than 150,000 parents to lose needed benefits. It provides for only a $1 billion increase in funding for child care—compared to the additional $9.5 billion that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would be needed to meet the 40-hour work requirement without cutting services to families already receiving child care assistance.

Not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled House passed its bill on a highly partisan basis. Fortunately, moderates from both parties are leading the debate in the Senate. Under the leadership of a "tri-partisan" group of Finance Committee members, including Senators Snowe (R-Maine), Hatch (R-Utah), Jeffords (Ind-Vt.), Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Breaux (D-La.), the committee voted out a welfare bill that is much closer to the principles for which grassroots leaders have been organizing.

The Finance Committee's bill maintains the current 30-hour work requirement and significantly improves parents' ability to get an education while on TANF. It adds $5.5 billion in new money for child care, restores TANF benefits to legal immigrants and Medicaid benefits to immigrant pregnant women and children, and provides much-needed flexibility for parents with disabled kids. It creates a new federal fund to support local transitional jobs programs and a pilot program that will allow parents with infant children to stay home and care for them.

The Finance Committee's plan is an important step forward, but a number of important issues remain unresolved as the bill moves to the Senate floor in September. If they are serious about helping families move out of poverty, activists contend, senators must add still more money for child care, further expand opportunities for education and training, and address the persistent problem of strict time limits.

The Next Chapter

A significant challenge still lies ahead as the two sides come together to hammer out a compromise that the President is willing to sign before the current law expires this fall. This is no small task and a great deal is at stake; the 1996 law caused untold hardship for millions of low-income families, and the House bill, if it prevails, will only push many of them deeper into poverty. No one can predict what will happen if action on the bill is delayed until next year, as the two parties vie for control of Congress this November and as the fiscal environment—both federally and in the states—continues to deteriorate.

Whatever its outcome, the welfare reauthorization campaign has been a victory for thousands of low-income parents who have, for the first time, been able to speak out at the national level about the policies that affect their lives. It's unlikely they will succeed in constructing an entirely new paradigm on poverty in 2002—largely because many Washington elites are stuck in the tired welfare-bashing debates of the 1990s—but a new platform of ideas and a new constituency have emerged for the long-term fight for economic justice.

Beth Brockland is a Communications & Research Associate at the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. She can be reached at bbrockland@