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Competition in cruelty.

Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are holding a contest to see who can get tougher with poor women and children on welfare. It is a competition in cruelty, and the losers are millions of poor children whom welfare is designed to protect.

Both Clinton and Dole are poised to strip away the federal guarantee that families with children can collect minimal cash grants from the government when they have nowhere else to turn.

Both are recommending absolute limits on welfare, so if a family uses up its allotted time, gets off welfare, but later falls on hard times, it will be out on the street.

Dole has attempted to distinguish himself with proposals that heap stigma on welfare clients, including mandatory drug testing, and denying aid to any teenage girl who becomes pregnant.

But aside from these gratuitously nasty gestures, the two candidates agree on the basic thrust of welfare reform.

Recently, Clinton and Dole raced to Wisconsin to have their pictures taken in the state that has concocted the most radical welfare plan yet advanced anywhere in the nation.

Republican Governor Tommy Thompson has promised to do away with AFDC altogether starting in 1997.

Clinton quickly announced that he is in favor of Thompson's experiment, which now awaits a federal waiver. Republicans rushed to criticize Clinton for trying to bask in the glow of a Republican idea.

Despite all the national excitement over Wisconsin's plan, people familiar with welfare experiments in this state are appalled.

Governor Thompson's track record on welfare is abysmal. Even as Thompson announced his latest program, "Wisconsin Works," the bipartisan Legislative Audit Bureau was releasing a report showing that Learnfare, one of Thompson's major welfare initiatives, is a failure.

The real story about Wisconsin's experiments with welfare is that they don't work. But the facts don't seem to matter.

Learnfire has had "virtually no positive impact," according to the audit bureau's report. This is only the latest in a series of reports, commissioned by the state, that gives Learnfare a failing grade. In 1990, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the program because it left hundreds of people in Milwaukee homeless and hungry, many of them victims of faulty record-keeping. But under the new Wisconsin Works program, Learnfare will be expanded statewide.

There is plenty of evidence that Wisconsin Works won't work, either. State officials brag that they have reduced the welfare caseload under a small-scale precursor to Wisconsin Works called Pay for Performance, which pushes welfare recipients into jobs. But the state has accomplished much of the caseload reduction just by tossing people out in the street. In the first month of the program, 20 percent of participants were removed from the welfare roles. Many of them missed an appointment with a caseworker because of their work schedules, and then were "punished" by being completely cut off.

More than 500 people in the Pay for Performance experiment were cut off accidentally because of a computer error on May 1. According to State Senator Gwendolynne Moore of Milwaukee, people who live in her district became homeless after the cutoff. "This is not a success story," says Moore.

The trouble in Wisconsin--and in other states where welfare--reform programs have had dire consequences--is that there aren't enough jobs around that pay enough to allow all single parents to go to work, support their children, and cover day-care costs. Getting people off welfare without causing enormous suffering would require a full-employment economy, as well as higher wages, benefits, and publicly funded child care.

But that would cost a lot of money. And it conflicts with the message both political parties are sending to voters: "You shouldn't have to pay taxes to support these lazy welfare bums."

People on welfare are not bums. Most are children. Child poverty in the United States is already close to the worst in the Western industrialized world. Under the welfare-reform plans supported by both President Clinton and Bob Dole, child poverty will get worse, as states are encouraged to run experiments that withhold food stamps, medical care, and other basic services from poor children in order to punish parents who don't work.

These experiments ignore the fact that most women who turn to AFDC already have a long history of low-wage work. They rely on the welfare system for support because jobs that pay little and provide no health insurance make them susceptible to job loss in emergencies, and because of the difficulty of finding safe, reliable child care.

To make matters worse, many welfare experiments are pushing mothers on AFDC out of community-college programs and technical training that offer hope for a brighter future.

Ironically, despite the cost-cutting rhetoric, taxpayers in Wisconsin are not saving money by cutting funds to poor people.

The Thompson administration has reduced by 24 percent the amount of money the state hands out in cash benefits to people on welfare since 1987, according to the Legislative Audit Bureau, but the administrative costs for welfare have skyrocketed during the same period--increasing by 126 percent. So Governor Thompson has created a bloated bureaucracy even as he squeezes the poor.

Other states are doing the same. In what amounts to a net transfer of funds from poor children to businesses and bureaucrats, New York, California, Texas, and Maryland, among others, are awarding lucrative contracts to private firms to screen and monitor welfare recipients, search for fraud, collect child support, and provide short-term job-training and job-search services.

"As incongruous as it may seem, poverty is big business these days," Jon Jeter of The Washington Post reports. Jeter notes that private contractors all over the country are scrambling to get a piece of the action as states dismantle the public welfare system. In many cases, the public is not getting a whole lot of service for its money. "Job-training" programs that amount to little more than a copy of the want ads and a kick in the pants are commonplace, as companies maximize their profits by offering "services" to welfare clients on the cheap.

More important, though, are the long-term costs to our whole society of abandoning a generation of children. In the current welfare-reform discussion, politicians seem to have forgotten that there are people in this country who are poor enough that they need some assistance just to survive.

Current welfare-reform experiments don't save money and they don't relieve poverty. They merely threaten to compound the misery of poor women and children. That is the real welfare fraud.
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Title Annotation:welfare reform politics
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:Chicken McPat.
Next Article:Get out the champagne.

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