Welfare Reform: Lost In Space


Many U.S. government policy makers seem to be getting their information on the lives of welfare recipients from science fiction television rather than real life. Their welfare reform proposals appear to be something straight out of the ‘twilight zone.’ And there appears to be a ‘lost in space’ mentality when it comes to financial and food assistance, training and education, housing, childcare and health care.

The legislators who are proposing new welfare reform laws seem to be under the impression that welfare reform has been a big success. They even have convinced much of the country.

By September 2002, the U.S. Congress must again pass, or “reauthorize,” the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in order to continue funding the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare-to-work program. But residents of public housing and other low-income families know better. Poor Americans know that welfare reform has been a flop.

When I started working at Residents’ Journal, I was receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare benefits. When officials at the Department of Public Aid told me I was on a five-year clock to get off welfare, I felt motivated but worried. I was motivated to go and search out a job. But I was worried about whether I could make ends meet in the long run.

It did not make any sense to me when public aid officials put me on a time limit for how long I could receive the much-needed medical, financial and Food Stamps benefits to aid in my family’s survival. I was blessed to find employment that offered me on-the-job training and an income on which I can support my family. But no one’s job is promised them, and to say that a person can only receive the benefits for 5 years is not a sensible solution in helping people become self sufficient.

What happens to those who exhaust their five years of benefits? Most welfare recipients need more than motivation to find a job to support their families. They need training, education, flexibility, healthcare and an income level that allows them to take care of their immediate needs, and also to put some funds away for a rainy day or emergencies.

Some of the nation’s top advocates for the poor agree with me and other residents. These advocates do not expect that the new welfare reform law will be any better than the current one. Many are saying the soon-to-be-revised welfare reform law will limit the opportunities for the poor – mainly mothers with children – to better themselves.

These advocates are concerned about cutbacks for housing, child care and health care in many states. The advocates warn that menial pay from jobs found by those who transition from welfare to work is still not enough to pay for rising prescription costs, utility bills, rent and other daily living expenses.

What will become of the poor, the sick and disabled and the downtrodden of America in the years to come?

Foundation Report
The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation’s April 24 report on “The Effects of Welfare Reform in Seven Midwest States” finds that welfare caseloads were down in many states. But the drop in welfare participants does not mean that families who were on welfare are now in jobs that help them meet their needs.

The Joyce Foundation report did find an increase in working families but also finds that the families remained poor. Jennifer Phillips, a program officer for the Joyce Foundation, said during a mid-July interview that the loss of food, health care and child care benefits is a major factor why the former welfare families remained poor.

Philips said the 1996 Welfare Reform Act’s policy was to get people into any job instead of focusing on skills, training and education that could get people into higher paying jobs. “Most people were in part-time jobs, jobs that didn’t last very long and were working at low wages,” Phillips explained. The Joyce Foundation’s research also shows that a large number of the working poor do not know that they can still qualify for Medicaid and Food Stamps benefits because states do not do much outreach.

Included in the Joyce Foundation report were surveys with 112 social services agencies in six Midwest states. The surveys indicate that low-income families were hit hard by the recent economic crash, otherwise known as the recession. The survey results indicate that the organizations which serve the working poor are experiencing difficulties as funding from state budgets and personal donations is cut.

The 112 social service agencies which responded to the survey reported that more than $2.5 billion has been cut from their state budgets. Forty-three (43) percent of the social service organizations surveyed have lost their state revenue to provide critical services needed by families. And more families are seeking assistance than in the previous year to help secure basic needs such as housing, food, utilities, child care and medical coverage.

In mid-July, the Joyce Foundation reported that since publication of the report, welfare caseloads have gone up in five of the seven states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa.

A Welfare Reform Critic
During a May interview, welfare reform critic Peter Edelman, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, agreed with the Joyce Foundation’s findings regarding working families remaining in poverty since the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. “There were about 40 percent, if you look around the country, of former welfare recipients…(who) don’t have a job, ” said Edelman, who quit his position in protest of President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Welfare Reform Act in September 1996.

“What that means is that over 3 million women and children – over 1 million women, over 2 million children – are actually worse off than they were when the law was enacted. And so, I think that’s a very bad result that we don’t hear about very much,” he said. Edelman said that President George W. Bush’s new welfare plan will only make matters worse.

“I think it’s a very bad plan,” said Edelman. “It’s going to require a very high percentage of people currently on welfare to be in work programs. And the only way states can comply with that requirement is to run workfare or make-work programs, which have been demonstrated not to be successful in helping people to actually find employment in the regular labor market.

“So, (Bush’s plan) is actually going to reduce the flexibility that’s available to states and result in more welfare recipients being treated in unfair ways,” Edelman explained. “One big problem here is this is up to the individual states. This is a block grant. So you’ve got states that have some really negative policies. States like Idaho, Utah and Mississippi have really very unfair policies. And they’re perfectly legal under the federal law. What this law is, it tends to have a lot of requirements on people without really helping them.”

Edelman said he hopes that federal lawmakers improve the welfare law so the situation will not get any worse for the poor. “The recession that we’re having is pretty mild. And so, as long as there are jobs out there, and people are able to work, they are not going to go back on welfare. The big problem is going to come when we have a serious recession and people need help because they lose their jobs. I hope there will be some improvements in the law. And I hope there won’t be ways in which it gets even worse,” he said.

Poverty and Housing Facts
Poverty is on the rise once again in the state of Illinois, according to Sid Mohn, president of the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. In Mid-June, Mohn explained the major findings of the Illinois Poverty Summit’s report on poverty in the state of Illinois.

The report states that while poverty dropped in Chicago, it increased in the Chicago suburbs and throughout the state. The report gives five primary reasons why people are or will remain in poverty: Inadequate or no health insurance, the shortage of affordable housing, the lack of food, poor or inadequate education and low paying jobs.

The report projects that in Illinois, a person must make $14.92 per hour in order to afford fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. To illustrate this point, the report includes a scenario for affordable housing in the Chicago region:

A family of four, two parents and two children, whose total earnings are $20,000 per year, or about $10 per hour, has a monthly income of $1,667. Their rent is $500 and their estimated costs for other living expenses such as the cost of food, transportation, utilities, child care and health care, is $1,500. So each month, the family will be short $363 for their basic needs.

During a June 20 press conference on the report, Mohn said that the lack of affordable housing and rising health care costs keep the poor in poverty. “The lack of affordable housing is in a crisis proportion in Illinois,” Mohn said. “Health insurance in Illinois (costs) more than 10 years ago. Those poor people struggling to pay for rental housing and health care further impoverishes them,” Mohn declared.

Mohn said the relocation of residents under the Chicago Housing Authority’s $1.5 billion, 10-year Plan for Transformation also contributes to the increase of poverty in some suburban areas. But he said there was no data to date as to how much of a factor the CHA Transformation really is.

DuPage, Lake and McHenry are the counties that experienced a significant increase in poverty from 1990 to 1999, according to an analysis by the Illinois Poverty Summit of recently released figures from the 2000 U.S. Census.

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