|Number 158||May 31, 2002|
It is highly unusual for me to devote an entire issue of Nygaard Notes to one subject, and now I am doing it two weeks in a row. And this one is a "double issue" to boot!
Long-time readers know that one of my over-riding concerns is always the welfare of people "at the bottom." In this series, the focus is poor people. Simple compassion is sufficient motivation for people who are doing alright to care about poor folks, but I confess that I have a personal stake in this issue. I have many childhood memories of calls and letters from bill collectors, and I vividly recall my slamming the door in the face of the local sheriff's deputy who had come to repossess our furniture. (He went away.) Today I have a sister with persistent mental illness and chemical dependency issues who I am certain would not be alive were it not for the availability of public welfare and Medicaid. And I, myself, am not exactly in the upper-income bracket. So I am not "objective" about this, nor do I care to be.
That has nothing to do with my facts, however, the accuracy of which I stand behind. My list of sources for this series numbers near 100 at this point, and I welcome feedback that may point out things that I still may have gotten wrong, or don't know.
Next week I fully expect to be back to the variety and breadth that I think most of you have come to expect from the Notes. At least, I have come to expect it! The problem is, there is so much going on that is important, fascinating, and illuminating that I hardly know where to begin (or end). Ah, well, until Nygaard Notes goes to a daily publication schedule, I guess I'll have to live with that problem.
When talking about welfare in the past decade or so, the standard phrase has come to be "welfare reform." I use the phrase to avoid confusion, but readers will notice that I always put the word "reform" in quotation marks. That is because I don't think the motivation for the legislative effort is "reform" at all. Rather, the effort is part of a move to abandon any official public responsibility for human well-being in favor of an individualistic, market-based society in which each of us can rely for our survival on no one but ourselves. This is far more profound and sinister than a simple "reform," and the fact that this remains the standard phrase tells us how far we have to go in creating a public consciousness that values justice and sustainability above fetishized "freedom." (for more on this, see NN#146, "Fetishes, Cults, and Infinite Possibilities")
The "President" and his allies are pushing for a punitive and individualized program of "welfare" that wishes to force all United Statesians to fit a fantasy ideal of the "traditional" family. The reality today is that fifty percent of American children now live in something other than a married-couple family with both biological parents present, so isn't it time we acknowledge that fact and start trying to support people in the families that actually exist? I think it is.
The same individualist ideology that drives the misguided "War Against Terror" (the WAT?!) is driving the current debate on welfare. The individualist worldview holds that people are either inherently Good (e.g., Ozzie and Harriet, Mother Teresa) or else they are Evil (e.g., terrorists, welfare cheats, criminals, families who are not like Ozzie and Harriet). Good and Evil are constantly in competition, and the job of Government, in this view, is to identify and neutralize all the evil people and reward the good ones. That way, the Good Guys "win." This has predictable and important results. Internationally, we end up with an immense spy apparatus in order to identify the Evil Ones (just this month the FBI announced "a new terrorism-fighting team in Washington that will oversee all terrorism investigations worldwide"), and an immense military to Go Get ‘Em. Domestically, we are told that we need an immense "security" apparatus to identify the welfare cheats and the criminals, and an immense police apparatus to punish them.
Conveniently, in each case the people who decide who is "Good" and who is "Evil" are the people who have most of the money in the society, so all the expensive tools necessary for these jobs are sure to be fully funded.
An alternative ideology is a social and cooperative one, one which acknowledges the capacity of individuals to do good things or bad things, but understands that we all contribute to creating an environment which can bring out more of the good in people, or more of the bad. In regard to the current welfare debate (which focuses on the upcoming reauthorization of the TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, program), people of conscience would do well to heed the call of the National Council of Churches, who believe that "TANF reauthorization should focus on poverty reduction, not caseload reduction."
In Part I of this welfare series I talked about the Bush agenda in some detail, questioning the idea of "promoting work" and the limited idea of "family" being pushed by the powers that be. In Part II, I discussed The New Federalism , which is the context in which welfare is being debated. I also called into question the very idea that welfare caseloads have been reduced by "more than half" and pointed out that, however much they are down, it is likely not due primarily to welfare "reform." So, what's left? The third thing that promoters of "reform" want you to believe is that poor people are "better off" since welfare was "reformed." So, let's take a look at that.
Better Off? Not Everyone
Perhaps most telling in the age of "compassionate conservatism" is the fact, reported by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, that as of last year, about 20 percent of former recipients had "simply ‘disappeared'—not working, not having a working spouse, and not receiving government benefits." No one seems to care too much, as this comment from Associated Press writer Pauline M. Millard indicates: "Although thousands of people were taken off the rolls and stopped receiving benefits (starting in 2001), very few studies exist to determine what happened to them. Where are they?"
We do know a little bit about where "they" are, and a lot of "them" are living in pretty serious poverty. A bare-bones living wage for a single parent with two kids in my own state of Minnesota, for example, has been calculated at $18.83 per hour. The median wage for people leaving welfare in Minnesota is $8.47. You can do the math. The story is similar or worse around the country, where the typical wage for "welfare leavers" (as they are called in the literature) is less than $8.00 per hour, with the living wage (one parent, two kids) calculated at anywhere from $10.57/hr. in rural Mississippi to $23.37/hr. in the urban East.
Even using the official definition of poverty, according to which the income limit for a family of three is a ridiculous $6.56/hr, estimates are that 41 percent of people who have formally left the welfare rolls are still living below the poverty line. Low wages are only part of the explanation for this; lack of benefits is the other part. Fewer than a third of "welfare leavers" have jobs with health insurance, fewer than half get paid sick leave, two-thirds or fewer get paid vacation, and most states don't even track how many get employer-sponsored pensions ("Work now, live in poverty later," one might say.)
A report from the Economic Policy Institute from March of this year showed that "Among families that left welfare between 1997 and 1999 for full-time employment, nearly half experienced hardships such as going without food, necessary medical care, or housing."
As I pointed out last week, reducing poverty was never one of the goals of welfare "reform," so it should be no surprise that the "reform" can be called a success by its advocates in spite of these disgraceful numbers.
There are many, many aspects of the welfare disaster that have been given short shrift (or no shrift) in the mainstream media and, thus, in the public discussion of the issue. Each of them is deserving of much discussion, but I don't have room for those discussions in this small newsletter. So I will attempt to give brief mention here to a few of the more important points, with references included for those who wish to pursue them further.
Race and Welfare
Since 1996, some states have used their increased "flexibility" under the welfare law to provide more funding for child care, job training and education, and case management. Limited though they are, these are good things. It has been little noted, however, that these good things are less accessible to people of color than they are to "white" people. Professor Susan Gooden took a look at this issue and, in an article published in the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pointed out that "Black welfare recipients report significantly less discretionary transportation assistance and receive less caseworker support in increasing their formal education than their white counterparts."
Another report, in the Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, looked at the treatment welfare recipients receive when they do enter the paid workforce, saying that, in contrast with "white" workers, "Black respondents reported shorter interview lengths; an increased number of required pre-employment tests; increased differences in the positions described at the interview and the tasks actually performed; more evening working hours; and a negative relationship with their supervisor."
For a broader look at how U.S. welfare policy conflicts with international standards of human rights, go to the "Race, Racism, and the Law" website at http://academic.udayton.edu/race/index.htm and search for "Welfare Policy."
Race and Drugs and Welfare
One of the things that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) mandated was that anyone convicted of a drug felony be banned from receiving welfare benefits for the rest of their life. A report published by The Sentencing Project this past February gives the shameful details, but suffice it to say that some 92,000 women and 135,000 children are affected by this ban. As is so often the case, the report points out that "The lifetime welfare ban has a disproportionate impact on mothers of color." States do have the power to "opt out" of the ban, but only 8 states have done so. To find out the details of this draconian aspect of the law—and how your state is dealing with it—visit the Sentencing Project's site at http://www.sentencingproject.org/policy/policy.htm and click on "Life Sentences: Denying Welfare Benefits to Women Convicted of Drug Offenses."
Domestic Violence and Welfare
Despite the fact that 90 percent of welfare recipients are women, the 1996 "reform" law barely mentions the unique issues facing women in poverty, except for repeated concerns about "the negative consequences of an out-of-wedlock birth." The Bush proposal builds on this fixation, proposing to spend millions to get women to marry some man—any man!—in order to reduce costs to the public. Rarely mentioned is the fact that as many as 60% of women receiving welfare have been victims of domestic violence as adults (compared to 22% of women in the general population), and as many as 30% reported abuse within the last year. Beyond the human suffering implied in these mind-boggling numbers, research shows that domestic violence makes it extremely difficult for women to get and keep paid jobs, for a variety of reasons. (And WHO's getting "sanctioned?") For more on this subject, look at the website of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund at http://www.nowldef.org/html/issues/wel/index.htm.
Public Opinion and Welfare
Those who only look at the mass media can be forgiven for thinking that everyone supports cutting the funding for so-called "welfare." Not so. In a March 2002 survey by Peter Hart Associates, strong pluralities of Americans said they believed we are spending "too little" public money on child care and job training programs for low-income families. Asked whether Congress should spend more money on "programs that encourage people on welfare to get married or for programs that help people move to good jobs, such as job training, education, and child care," a full 86 percent went for the jobs, and only 8 percent thought the government should be promoting heterosexual marriage (the only kind there is, after all). Asked specifically about Bush's proposal to increase the welfare work requirement from 30 hours a week to 40, 71 percent rejected the higher requirement. The whole survey is full of surprises. Find it at: http://www.nationalcampaign.org/publications.asp. (Look for "TANF/Welfare Poll Finding")
Child Care and Welfare
When I speak of the "good things" coming out of welfare reform, I don't mean to imply that they are good for all recipients, even all "white" ones. Bush's emphasis on giving states "flexibility" has resulted in wildly different program implementation from state to state. Take Louisiana, for instance. Welfare recipients in the workforce there get $16 per day for child care. This is nearly 40 percent below market rates, by the state's estimates. As an excellent report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune of March 24th explained, "Low payments discourage day-care centers from accepting children, so the state has dropped its staffing standards for qualified centers. [Ed. Note: That's one solution!] Louisiana approves day-care centers with as many as eleven 2-year-olds for each adult supervisor. The American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend one adult for every four or five 2-year-olds. The Louisiana standards are ‘ridiculous,' said Judy Watts, director of the Agenda for Children, a New Orleans area advocacy group. ‘That's not quality child care.'" The National Women's Law Center has a ton of information on this subject. Find them at http://www.nwlc.org/. Look under "Child Care."
Beyond the effects on the lives of people who are already poor, the part of welfare known as "workfare"—in which welfare recipients are required to work for the benefits they receive—threatens the wages currently being earned by workers in the public sector. According to a March story in the excellent labor newspaper Labor Notes, "State, city, and county governments have saved money through workfare by placing welfare recipients in jobs formerly and currently held by union members, such as trash collection and cleaning of parks and offices." Labor Notes adds that "Workfare workers are not covered by many labor laws, and their low pay makes them a continuing threat to public employee union wages and jobs." For more on this issue, see the Jobs With Justice "Welfare-Workfare Organizing" website at http://www.jwj.org/community/welfare/welfasweknow.htm.
Those of you who wish to take individual action to oppose the Bush approach to welfare "reform" may want to contact your Congressperson and encourage them to support H.R.4669, the "Racial Equity and Fair Treatment Act of 2002." It was introduced earlier this month by Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas "to provide for racial equity and fair treatment under the program of block grants to States for temporary assistance for needy families."
This is a remarkable bill (no mention of which will be found in the corporate media) that goes far beyond "racial equity" to address many of the worst features of the 1996 "reform." Among many other things, the bill would mandate that states: improve their notification to applicants and recipients; simplify application, reporting, and verification rules; and forbid states from terminating benefits to an entire family when one family member breaks the rules. The bill would also forbid states from "sanctioning" people who are unable to work due to a lack of access to decent child care or an unresolved "mental health problem, disability, substance abuse problem, or sexual or domestic violence situation."
Under this bill, people could not be sanctioned for refusing to take a job that pays less than the minimum wage! 4669 would repeal in its entirety the lifetime ban for drug use mentioned above. Finally, Johnson's bill would require that states report on outcomes in employment, wages, education, support services, and sanction rates among various defined "racial" groups, and, if there is a 5 percent or greater discrepancy between any of the groups, then a state would be penalized.
If you go to the THOMAS site at http://thomas.loc.gov/ and search for H.R. 4669, you can read the entire bill. While you're there, check out the list of 39 co-sponsors, which in my mind reads like a sort of "Welfare Honor Roll" of elected representatives. Is your legislator on the list? (Mine is not, and got an energetic phone call from me this past week for that reason.)
As usual, there are a range of things you can do to affect the decisions being made about welfare and poverty in this society. You can join or donate money to your local welfare rights organization, contact your elected representatives, talk to your friends about the real issues in the welfare debate, write letters to the editor saying what you know, and raise the issue in your churches, unions, and community groups. The important thing to remember is that poverty is not a moral failure but a social failure. Another thing to remember is that the richest nation in the history of the world continues to allow roughly 30 million people (officially) to live in poverty. THAT is a moral failure.
As always when responding to an issue that is "on the agenda," be careful that your thinking doesn't become as narrow as it is portrayed on the news. While it's important to defend against the attacks on welfare and support whatever welfare rights organizers you may have in your area, it's equally important to support policies that will strike at the root problems that make the program we call "welfare" necessary in the first place. Some of the policies and programs we should support include high-quality and affordable child care, better tax breaks for families with children, family-friendly work policies, job training, child support enforcement, national health insurance, high school programs in child development and community service, and a combination of income support and jobs programs for single mothers. And others. Make your own list!
Having said that, here are some specific ideas for places to go to educate yourself about some of the important issues, as well as organizations to join or support that are organized specifically to work on these issues.
First of all, self-education. Much of the discussion about welfare in this country is based on fantasy and paranoia. For a dose of reality about the nature of families in the United States, I recommend two books by the author who is quoted throughout last week's Notes, Stephanie Coontz. In 1992 she wrote "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap," and she followed up in 1998 with "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families."
Anything written by Frances Fox Piven would serve you well, with the 1971 classic "Regulating the Poor; the Functions of Public Welfare" remaining one of the best books ever, in my view.
For those who prefer a more personal approach to looking at the issue, LynNell Hancock just published a book this year—"Hands to Work : The Stories of Three Families Racing the Welfare Clock"—that comes highly recommended by Nygaard Notes reader Laurie M. (I have not read this book, but it's gotten excellent reviews and I trust Laurie's judgement.)
Another book on the broad subject of how a nation deals with poverty—going far beyond any sort of "welfare as we know it"—readers would do well to get their hands on Martin Luther King's last published book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?"
Internet and Community Resources
There are folks organized to work on welfare and poverty issues all over the country. Without a doubt, the place to check for groups in your area is the Low Income Networking and Communications Project (LINC), found at www.lincproject.org. Their site includes listings for 189 groups in 44 states and as well as for 6 groups in Canada. Call them at 212-633-6967.
For readers here in Minnesota, the latest info on developments on the state level can be gotten from the Welfare Rights Committee at 612-822-8020. Or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps the best brief summary of the issues at stake in the current TANF reauthorization battle can be found on the website of the Women's Committee of 100. They have a project called "Project 2002 - An Immodest Proposal: Rewarding Women's Work to End Poverty." Find it at www.welfare2002.org/. No phone number available.
An excellent group called the Center for Third World Organizing has a special project going called the Grass Roots Organizing for Welfare Leadership (GROWL). Find them at: http://www.ctwo.org/growl/links.html. Or call them in California at 510-533-7583.
For a look at the individualist and competitive—often called the "conservative"—viewpoint, visit the site of the Family Research Council at http://www.frc.org/.