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Ending welfare: were we wrong?

Now that welfare is officially gone, and some two million people have dropped off the public-assistance rolls, the sounds of triumph are echoing through the land.

President Clinton is blowing his own horn, calling the plummeting caseloads "definitive proof" that the welfare repeal he signed into law last year has succeeded. Despite dire predictions by the Urban Institute and the left generally--including The Progressive--no massive social crisis has erupted.

"Don't hold your breath waiting for confessions of error," writes the snide Jonathan Alter in Newsweek. Alter calls welfare reform a "huge success," and chastises liberals for predicting disaster.

If Alter is right that abolishing welfare turns out to be "the greatest social-policy achievement in a generation," making conditions for the poor better, not worse, and improving the lot of children, we'll be the first to eat crow.

But forgive us if we don't have our knives and forks out yet.

A few huge problems have been drowned out by the triumphant chorus. The first and most obvious is that it is too soon to make any meaningful evaluation. The law Clinton signed in August of 1996 abolished the federal entitlement to AFDC. What comes next is largely up to state governments, which are just now beginning to implement all kinds of new rules. The state that is furthest along in its welfare-reform plan--and which has received the most attention for cutting the welfare rolls--is Wisconsin. But the statewide welfare reform program known as Wisconsin Works, or W-2, just went into effect on September 1.

"We've just implemented a program, and we don't have any results yet," Nan Brien of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families points out. "Usually you celebrate results, not beginnings."

That brings us to the second huge problem with the "triumph" of welfare reform: We don't know what happens to people after they are cut off.

In Wisconsin, Governor Tommy Thompson has been getting a lot of credit for cutting the welfare caseload 60 percent over the last ten years. During that time, the governor has run a series of welfare reform experiments that prod people to leave the welfare rolls. But no one knows where those people went. Some have surely found jobs in an expanding state economy. But there is also evidence of real harm, including a 30 percent increase in the population of homeless shelters in Milwaukee since last year, when welfare rules were tightened. Perhaps the worst thing about W-2 is that, using his line-item veto, Thompson eliminated any method for tracking people after they are kicked off welfare. So the state can keep on declaring victory as it purges the welfare rolls, without ever checking on the long-term results.

Third, triumphant welfare reformers are ignoring the effects on children.

Again, Wisconsin is a case in point. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently ran a long series on the childcare crisis in Milwaukee, where welfare-reform is pushing parents of small children into work. One family day-care center, which was certified by the state to care for six infants and toddlers, had taken in thirty-four. The children's parents had been pushed into jobs through welfare reform. The conditions reported by the Journal-Sentinel were shocking--children left filthy and neglected.

"It's just astounding," says Brien. "This was state-subsidized care. The centers were collecting state vouchers. It's not like it was private money being paid under the table. The state should have been monitoring this."

But in the rush to create new child-care slots for the mothers it is pushing into jobs, Wisconsin has relaxed its standards. The only requirement for what the state calls "provisional" child-care providers is that they have a criminal background check. And even that minimal requirement hasn't been stringently enforced. The state recently had to revoke permits from several providers because they turned out to be convicted criminals. The state finished vetting their records only after it had entrusted children on welfare to their care.

Young children make up two-thirds of the nation's AFDC recipients. What happens to them should be the first concern of anyone who is serious about reforming welfare. Otherwise, there is no hope of ending the cycle of poverty. But cutting the rolls has become such a national obsession that the fate of children hardly merits mention. This bodes ill.

The final fatal flaw of welfare reform as we're coming to know it is the difficulty of finding permanent employment for all former recipients. So far, we've heard only good news about declining caseloads and rising employment. In an economic downturn, things are bound to look bleaker. With no guaranteed safety net, the poor will be hit harder than they have been in the last sixty years.

"The fear has always been, `What happens when a recession hits?'" says Jodie Levin-Epstein of the Center on Law and Social Policy. "We haven't reached the time limits on welfare in many places. When we do, people who are most vulnerable to layoffs will be the hardest to reach--what happens to them then?"

Welfare reformers hope private companies will fill the gap. And private companies can certainly help. Take the case of Tonya Rollins, a twenty-nine-year-old single mother, who got a job with help from Virginia's welfare-reform program. "In addition to working for State Farm Insurance, Tonya works at United Parcel Service as a package handler," a flier produced by the Commonwealth of Virginia declares. "UPS was one of the first businesses to partner with Governor [George] Allen to hire welfare recipients statewide. Ms. Rollins's motto is, `If you think positive, positive things will happen.'"

Unfortunately, in the wake of the strike at UPS, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that former welfare recipients will be among the first employees the company lays off to make up for lost profits.

Tonya Rollins is a remarkably dedicated employee. She works the 3 A.M. to 9 A.M. shift at UPS, followed by the 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. shift at State Farm, and is sometimes called in to work another shift, from 5 P.M. to 9 P.M., at UPS. That's a fifteen-hour day.

Rollins has worked two jobs before--at a hotel and a wholesale company in Orange, Virginia. "But those jobs weren't paying anything," she says. "I had to work two jobs, and I got Medicaid and food stamps for my daughter, and I still didn't have enough money." With help from the Earned Income Tax Credit, Rollins bought a car and moved to Charlottesville, determined to find a good job. Welfare kept her afloat, and her caseworker helped her find the UPS job.

During the recent strike, Rollins crossed a picket line to hold onto her job. "As a single parent, I had to do what was best for me and my child," she says. Nonetheless, Garrett Wilson, the human-resources director at the Charlottesville plant where Rollins works, says Rollins may now be in danger of being laid off. "If we don't make up the volume we lost during the strike she'd be one of the people with the least seniority, who will be the first to go," he says.

Rollins's success story is more complicated than Governor Allen's flier makes it sound. Like the majority of women on welfare, she has a history of low-wage work. She has worked extraordinarily hard without getting out of poverty. Today, she is proud to be off welfare, but she is still in a vulnerable position.

Under the new federal rules, no one can be on welfare for more than a total of five years. Even when welfare recipients are placed in jobs, their clocks keep ticking. There is no mechanism for helping people who work hard and play by the rules, like Tonya Rollins has, but are still on the losing end of economic upheaval.

"When the economy fails, and caseloads increase, are we going to say it's because welfare recipients weren't trying hard enough?" Jodie Levin-Epstein asks.

And then there are the hard-core unemployable--people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, who are disabled or are caring for disabled children, mothers with babies--all of whom are light-years away from Rollins in their ability to hold down two jobs. The federal government allows states to exempt 20 percent of their least employable welfare recipients from cutoffs. But as more people leave the rolls, the percentage of unemployable people remaining will grow. For these people, zero unemployment is not a reasonable goal.

Instead of counting how many people are collecting public assistance at any given time, we need to count how many family-supporting jobs we have, how many children are getting high-quality care, how many people have access to regular meals and reliable shelter. Ending welfare is not enough. We have to do something about poverty.
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Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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