Welfare Reform vs. Employment: A Permanent Solution or a Temporary Band-Aid?
Welfare: handouts to the lazy, or a helping hand to those facing hard times? The debate continues, even in the face of sweeping welfare reform, which, for all of its sound and fury, has not helped or changed much. What’s wrong with welfare and how can we fix it? This is not a simple question, and there is no simple answer. However, one thing remains eminently clear. Welfare desperately needs to change. Directly correlated with welfare is work. Welfare reform would not be complete without work options and job training programs in place so that recipients may eventually get off of welfare and support themselves and their family independently. Isn’t that the purpose of welfare? To give the poor and underserved an opportunity to have government subsidizing only to boost them into the world of the working class in a reasonable amount of time? There have been many changes that have come with welfare reform, along with the many adverse opinions, publicity, and stereotypes that have come with it.
Of course, from a less human standpoint, welfare is a group of entitlement programs aimed at helping the poor. What most people are referring to when they say “welfare” is Aid to Families With Dependant Children (AFDC), a program which provided monthly checks to families in which all adults in the household are unemployed. Most, but not all, of the recipients are single mothers. AFDC recipients were often eligible for many other programs, including Medicare, food stamps, Aid to Women with Infant children (WIC) and subsidized housing. While not all AFDC recipients received all of these benefits,enough did so that they are considered part of the welfare equation. (Trattner) Actually, it would be difficult to find a time in America when welfare was not a part of society. In colonial times, towns or churches often took responsibility for their poor. Some towns required residents to house the homeless; most towns and churches had charity programs to which members were required to contribute. While community support of the poor was a concept as old as time, welfare as we are familiar with it did not begin into 1935, when Roosevelt incorporated it into his New Deal legislature. It began as a small part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security Act. (Trattner) In addition to AFDC, the Act consisted of the programs we now call medicaid, medicare and social security. It originally included several other programs, which have been incorporated into the others over time. The Social Security Act was meant to help Americans who had been hurt by the Great Depression get back on their feet during hard economic times. Even critics of the Act never imagined how far-reaching its programs would become. Critics did, however, say that the entire Act was a breeding ground for waste, fraud, and misuse. Roosevelt answered them by saying, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in the spirit of charity, then the constant omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”Indeed, the Social Security Act was originally created in the spirit of charity. For quite some time, AFDC accomplished its mission– to allow single mothers who had been widowed or deserted by their husbands to stay at home and raise their children. However, much has changed since 1935. No longer are single mothers pitied for their predicament. Instead they are blamed for getting pregnant too soon and for having babies that they knew they could not afford. No longer are women expected to stay home with their children. Instead they are urged to go to work in order to provide for their children and become better rolemodels. Those women who claim that it is too hard to work and raise children are often scorned by the many single professional mothers in America, most of whom are products of the country’s increasing divorce rate. (Gordon)
Despite the change in views of welfare, welfare itself had barely changed at all. How long could a program aimed at keeping women at home survive in a society that was pushing women out of the house? The answer was not very long. However what had formerly been viewed as a charity program aimed at supporting helpless females, was now seen as a waste of money aimed at giving able-bodied women an excuse not to work. The new view of the stay at home single mother, coupled with America’s increasing diversity, caused great resentment toward welfare programs and their recipients. White middle class America did not like the idea of their tax money going to poor minority women, especially once many of “their” women had full time jobs. A few sensationalized reports of welfare fraud was all it took to convince the middle class that all welfare mothers were lying, cheating, lazy women. (Gordon & Zucchino) Americans who felt overtaxed had a new culprit to blame. Forget the fact that they received all kinds of tax breaks for owning property and having children, that their tax money paid for well-maintained schools and communities. That money must have come from somewhere else, because suddenly, all of their tax money was going to support welfare mothers. The more welfare mothers were resented, the worse the stereotype became. Soon, they were all drug addicted minority teenage mothers, who never intended to work. In addition to collecting welfare under four or five false names, they were being supported by rich drug dealer boyfriends. The only reason their children were starving was because they were spending their money on flashy cars and jewelry. ( Zucchino) Look at the testimony in Rosa Lee. Though in the end the lifeof her and her family was put on a riotous road, most stereotype are formed from the beginning of the story. This is of drug addicted mothers who can’t keep a lid on their own children because of their addiction. Her son a drug dealer with her hustling the streets and the system to maintain her costly addiction and keep her children fed. Each new incident of fraud, fueled the growing resentment. While most of the stereotypes were untrue, and most of the hatred was undeserved, America needed someone to blame for crime, poverty, and the breakdown of the American family, and welfare was a sitting duck. It was in this resentful climate that the widespread call for reform blossomed. It came from all sides, it seemed the welfare system was almost universally hated. However, reform meant different things to different people. To conservative Republicans, welfare was the root of all evil. Therefore, the thing to do was kick everyone off welfare, thus ending the system, and all the problems associated with it. (Crabtree) Those involved in the system, however, doubted that this approach would do anything but create more problems. Their idea of reform was job training, and less red tape. When President Clinton was elected and vowed to come through on his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” liberals and welfare recipients breathed a collective sigh of relief. Clinton was on their side, his reform would help them. Congress was still a majority Democrat institution, they were likely to side with Clinton. After the bleak eras of Bush and Reagan, who purposely fueled the hatred of welfare, Clinton seemed to be a blessing. However, in the four years between Clinton’s election and his delivery of his promise, the country, the Congress, and Clinton himself, had changed drastically. Two years earlier, America, fed up with Clinton’s inability to come through on his promises, had taken it out on Congressional Democrats. Now both houses were controlled by Republicans. Clinton’s approval ratings were dwindling, afternearly four years in office, there was not much that he could take credit for. Not only was a reform like the one that welfare recipients envisioned unlikely to get through congress, it was unlikely to go over well with voter’s who, largely thanks to Clinton, seemed disgusted with liberalism in general. Clinton had to come through on at least one of his major campaign promises. He had to reach he knew, middle of the road voters. He had to prove that he could work with Republican controlled Congress, especially after two major disputes that resulted in costly government shutdowns. (Heim) Welfare was a hot topic before being overshadowed by other issues and the events of September 11th. Reform would provide him the opportunity to address all of the complaints about him. It would make him appear less of a liberal in a time when being a liberal was not a good thing. It was his ticket to a second term. True, he was deserting welfare mothers, but welfare mothers were not the most vocal voter group in America, and besides he was also supposed to be helping the working poor, who had become one of the groups most resentful of welfare. So, Clinton said he favored welfare reform. Clinton always favored welfare reform, but not as tough of a version as TANF. Politicians, journalists, and the American people spent a summer debating welfare. Republicans gave long-winded speeches about family values, personal responsibility, and the like. Liberal Democrats spoke of the social evils that attacked the poor. They argued that a reform like what the Republicans wanted would only increase society’s problems. (Heim) Sound bites came from everywhere from Capitol Hill to Main Street, USA. The only group conspicuously silent during all of this was welfare recipients. Somehow , their voices never rose above the shabby neighborhoods they lived in. So, their future was decided without them. Politicians from both sides spouted heartfelt rhetoric. They claimed to know everything that went through welfare mothersminds, while the fact remained that few of them had ever met a welfare mother, let alone been one. The result of a summer’s worth of talk was a bill that revoked sixty years of welfare. It sailed through congress, and was signed by a beaming Clinton, who according to close sources, had been agonizing over the decision to sign it only hours earlier. As Clinton promised, it ended welfare as America knew it. As advisors hoped, it got him elected again. However, what else The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) did was questionable. The Act was heralded by some as what the country finally needed: less federal government, and a way to get people off of welfare. To others, it was like laying down a welcome mat for increased homelessness, crime, and poverty. It is somewhat ironic that the key legislature regarding personal responsibility is a bill that basically absolves the federal government of all responsibility. All American people heard was that the people got off welfare because that was all America cared to hear. In fact, it turned over control of welfare to the states providing them with block grants of money to be spent with few restrictions. However, in order to receive the grants, states were required to meet new federal regulations. These regulations limited a welfare recipient to a total of five years on welfare in a lifetime, and no more than two years at a time. The bill also started programs to find deadbeat fathers, and created new restrictions for legal immigrants hoping to receive federal aid. (Heim & Trattner)
Had welfare recipients really been able-bodied people who had available jobs that they were capable of doing, but refused to, then this bill would have been exactly what they needed. However, the average welfare recipient had more complex issues to deal with before finding employment. Who is the average welfare recipient? Contrary to popular belief, she is not a minority teenager. The average welfare mother is a white woman in hermid-thirties. She is usually not a high school graduate, and very rarely has a college education. However, it is very hard to narrow down such a diverse group of women into a “typical” profile. (Zucchino) Welfare mothers face a wide variety of obstacles when trying to find work. Some are illiterate. Others do not even speak English. Some are recovering drug addicts or alcoholics, and, although it is considered illegal according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers may hold that against them. Most are only qualified for minimum wage jobs, such as working in fast food restaurants, or being maids. Many would rather work these jobs than be on welfare. (Winner) However, once they accept the jobs, welfare mothers face yet more obstacles. They must somehow pay for transportation to and from work, pay for safe day-care for their children, and pay rent, out of a minimum wage check. Whatever is left must feed and clothe an entire family. Then, because many minimum wage jobs have little, if any, insurance coverage and benefits, welfare mothers must deal with the constant fear of impending disaster or medical emergency. Without training, it is almost impossible for many of these women to find and keep jobs that pay enough and provide enough benefits to keep there families housed, fed, and clothed. They wait for openings in local job training programs, hoping to find a job that pays enough to get them off of welfare. Few people enjoy depending on someone else’s support, especially when it involves wading through red tape. (Zucchino) Welfare recipients still live below the poverty line. However, few people enjoy living on the street with their children either; and until they are trained and educated, those are the only choices available to many welfare mothers. Why did they not go to Capitol Hill and tell their sob stories, and offer explanations? Most were busy dealing with daily issues. They were busy stretching measly checks to cover food and expenses for their families. They were busy being evicted andfinding new places to live. A few Welfare Rights Unions were busy fighting for local reform, but were so bogged down in individual cases of lost welfare benefits that they did not have time to deal with the national proposal. Not that no one fought it. There were many critics, among them liberal Congresspersons, and directors of many programs that somehow involved welfare. Some of Clinton’s closest advisors and favorite appointees stepped down in disgust after he signed the law. Yet, the law passed.
Proponents have hailed it as the force that has cut the welfare rolls by 25% since 1994. However, it is a little too soon for praise. The welfare law did not take effect until the summer of 1997, while welfare rolls have been dramatically dropping since 1994. The dropping rolls are most likely a result of the good economy, and not the reform bill. Meanwhile, welfare mothers and individual states have struggled to adjust to the new system. States have expanded their job search programs, in hopes of finding work for their welfare recipients. Some states have put emphasis on reducing federal aid to immigrants. Others found creative measures to force fathers to pay child support. Some have put more emphasis on workfare. In workfare programs, welfare recipients are required to do some sort of work in order to receive their benefits. However, many criticize this, claiming that it is basically slave labor, and lets businesses and corporations get work done for nothing. (Winner) Some states have been successful in finding work for those who want it, but others continued to fear the summer of 1999, when welfare recipients were cut off for the first time. It remains unclear what will eventually become of welfare. Economists agree that it will take a minimum of two to five years to gauge the effects of the act. In the meantime, 14,225,591 lives hang in the balance. (Katz) In the aftermath of the PRWORA, welfare faces as many problems as it did years ago. There is no universal agreement as to how toapproach the welfare problem, because there is no universal agreement as to whether welfare recipients are victims or criminals. Many would like to say that the welfare problem has been solved, that we can now put it in the back of our minds. However, if critics are right about the direction in which welfare is headed in, in five years we will have homelessness, crime, and starvation as we have never seen before. Few are heartless enough to be able to put starving children in the back of their minds. So where is the balance between middle America and welfare America? Is it our responsibility to let working Americans take home as much of their money as possible, or is it our responsibility to protect the jobless from destitution? If raising taxes a little bit now could save us a lot later, once welfare recipients became educated, taxpaying citizens, then should we aim for quick cash, or invest funds in our countrys future? Will we ever find an agreeable balance? If we do eradicate our welfare rolls, can a capitalist society function without an underclass? These are the answers that will, in time, become clear, and will probably lead to even more questions. However, perhaps the most pertinent question is the one asked in the introduction. Does anybody really care?
To answer that question I can offer a few of the speakers that we have encountered in class. Those such as Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen are the heroes for those left behind by the welfare system. Those who are homeless can come through his work program and get job training in the culinary arts by preparing food for the homeless. Thus, killing two birds with one stone. The homeless are fed daily through the Kitchen while the dedicated homeless can develop job skills, work ethic, and have a liaison through the program to obtain substantial jobs in today’s society. This gives the poor empowerment to provide for themselves by helping others. Then there is the Pilgrim A.M.E. Job Connectionran by Rev. Lois A. Poag-Ray, Ph.D. The program is faith-based welfare work initiative where their professional team committed to engage their customers in individually tailored plans of activities designed to lead them to placement and meaningful full-time employment in the public and private sectors. Programs such as these give the people who fall through the ever so extensive holes in the welfare systems a chance to become productive and contributing citizens in their communities. Whether drug addicted, underserved, poverty stricken, or situational befallen, only through extensive remodeling of the welfare system and more job training programs can this nation tighten its seams as a strong, working nation. Only through self-sufficiency can a person appreciate what they have and what they have and can accomplish. The key to self-sufficiency is work. Work is the key to better living, self pride, economic status, and options. The option to release themselves from the bureaucracy chains of welfare traded for pride and the luxury of options. The one thing most of them never had.
Crabtree, Susan. “Ending the Welfare State as We Have Known It.” The Washington Times, August 26, 1997.
Eversley, Melanie and Tony Pugh. “12 of 13 Cities Say They Won’t Have Enough Jobs to Meet Welfare-To-Work Requirements.” Knight Ridder/ Tribune News Service, November 21, 1997.
Heim, David. “Welfare Measures: Tracking the Impact of Reform.” The Christian Century, December 10, 1997.
Gordon, Linda. Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. New York: The Free Press, 1994.Jacobs, Nancy, Jacqueline Quiram and Mark Siegal, eds. Social Welfare: Help or Hinderance?, Texas: Information Plus, 1996.
Katz, Jeffery and Elana Mintz. “Long-Term Challenges Temper Cheers for Welfare Successes.” The Congressional Quarterly Weekly Reporter, October 25, 1997.
Lindgren, Amy. “Things to Consider as You Leave Welfare.” Knight-Ridder Newspapers, November 11, 1997.
Trattner, Walter I. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. Fifth Edition, New York: The Free Press, 1994.
Winner, Karen. “The Workfare Solution: Worthwhile Work Experience or Cheap Labor Pool?” Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 26, 1997.
Zucchino, David. Myth of the Welfare Queen. New York: Scribner, 1997.Words
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