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WELFARE REFORM

New Rules Would Only Tighten Poverty's Grip

September 29, 2002|DAVID HILFIKER | David Hilfiker has worked as a physician in Washington, D.C., providing health care to the poor for 20 years. He is the author of "Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen."

WASHINGTON — Connie, a 25-year-old ex-welfare mother, will soon be earning $14 an hour as a chef and cake decorator at a local Safeway. This will be enough, at last, to support her two young boys.

In 1996, hoping to get her high school equivalency diploma, she came to Academy of Hope, an adult education school my wife founded in Washington, D.C. But by 1999, she was ready to drop out under the emotional strain of trying to go to school full time and make ends meet. Her welfare check and food stamps added up to a yearly income of only $7,440, about half the official poverty level for a family of three.

Connie was a gifted cook and had long dreamed of becoming a chef. She knew that the $7-dollar-an-hour jobs available to even a high school graduate (which she wasn't) don't bring small families out of poverty. Since she was intelligent, had worked hard in school and seemed utterly determined, my wife and I began offering her some modest financial support so she could continue her studies. She received her GED a year later.

Soon she had secured a scholarship, gotten a federal loan and enrolled in a 15-month culinary arts program. We continued to offer financial support. Noticing that Connie was now able to pay her bills on time, welfare officials grew suspicious. Everyone knows you can't live on a welfare check, so if she was able to make ends meet, she must be receiving other income, which is strictly forbidden. As a penalty, her food stamp allowance was reduced.

In late 2001, she finally graduated as a chef, near the top of her class. In the deepening recession, it then took her a while to find a daytime job as a chef and to arrange for child care. She's not out of the woods yet, and still needs a little help from us, but Connie will make it.

She is the lucky exception. It has been six years since Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act, promising to "end welfare as we know it." This promise now threatens to become a far grimmer reality than legislators dreamed possible in the boom year of 1996. Congress is now supposed to reauthorize the act before it expires tomorrow. You will be forgiven for not having noticed this, as poverty has long been off the national agenda. But struggling families and poverty are still very much with us.

Connie's story, while inspiring, is far from typical. Yes, there are many mothers "successfully" moving from welfare to work under welfare reform, but most won't be earning nearly enough to bring their families out of poverty. Although welfare reform has been declared a smashing success because it has more than halved the number of families receiving financial assistance, the overwhelming majority of those who have left the rolls do not earn enough to leave poverty behind. Connie would probably not have made it, either, without extra financial help.

The 1996 welfare reform bill wiped out the 60-year-old entitlement to financial assistance that federal law had promised poor families, replacing it with a program accurately titled Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Under the new system, any financial assistance, however temporary, requires the recipient's participation in 30 hours per week of "work-related activities," which can include education and vocational training. After 60 months (less in many states), financial assistance is cut off. Recipients who do not meet even the most technical requirements of the program can also be "sanctioned" by having benefits reduced or, more commonly, eliminated.

The 60-month limit and sanctions have been devastating for many. Despite the economic boom of the '90s, the average income of those who remain poor has fallen since passage of the bill. For women who have left the welfare rolls and are working, the median wage is a mere $7.15 an hour and--because most cannot find full-time, year-round work--annual earnings are around $10,000, not enough to bring the smallest family out of poverty.

The Welfare Reform Act did have one truly positive innovation: It gave states great leeway in designing education, training and work support programs. Some--like California and Michigan--used this flexibility well to provide things tailored to the needs of the recipient, like child care, transportation assistance, substance abuse treatment, continuing Medicaid coverage and some welfare benefits while working. It was child-care support and the flexibility to attend classes in lieu of work that enabled Connie to get her training.

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