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Welfare reform reaches the terrible twos.

I don't know how many other people were as relieved as I was two years ago this month when President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act into law. Finally, something was going to be done about those lazy single mothers and children who were sucking the life out of the federal treasury with their incessant demands for food and shelter.

While the savings and loan debacle set the nation back a mere $300 billion or so and $100 Navy toilet seats still ruled the seas, it was good to see that at least these fiscal miscreants were finally being called to account for the 1 percent of the federal budget they were squandering. After all, since globalization offers American corporations a whole planet of impoverished folk to turn to as a "natural" downward press on domestic wages, our homegrown poverty pool really was no longer necessary for the job. It was time to get these folks out on their own, working for a living.

And the nation's ex-welfare recipients have been put to good use. In New York City, his taciturnity, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was able to lay off almost 1,000 unionized hospital workers after hiring on welfare-to-work "trainees" at city hospitals. The care New York hospital patients receive might suffer a little during the transition, but if these people wanted first-class treatment, they should have gotten themselves private health insurance in the first place or moved to Canada before they got sick.

Wisconsin has enjoyed "amazing success," according to Governor Tommy Thompson, since it began reforming its public-aid recipients out of the system. In Milwaukee, as many as 1,800 people have been falling off the welfare rolls each month. This may be good news, but no one's really sure. The trouble is, the state has shown a reluctance to discover precisely what is happening to its ex-welfare recipients once they leave the system's statistical sights, preferring to rely on anecdote and the lack of an obvious social-service meltdown as evidence of its "amazing" success. It's nice to declare a virtual victory in the campaign against welfare dependence; it would be even nicer to achieve an actual victory where real people find real work that results in real human dignity.

In New York, city officials have shown an equal reluctance to find out what's been happening to one-time welfare recipients. But a report from the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance released this spring indicates that only 29 percent of the 480,000 people removed from New York's welfare rolls in 1996 and 1997 found full- or part-time work. (Anyone who earned as little as $100 in three months after their "reform" out of the system was counted as employed.) What is perhaps most disturbing is that such a poor result could occur while the state's strong economy has provided the best opportunity in years for the most employable among one-time welfare recipients to find work.

The study suggests that the vast majority of the people who have left New York's welfare system--and let's recall that most of these are children--are not receiving support from any formal source. While some critics of the state's workfare system called these results "alarming," the report cannot come to any firm conclusions about what has actually become of these ex-public aid recipients. Some folks may have moved out of the state; some may have become self-employed or found work off the books. The report's ultimate importance may be that it exists at all during a time when legislators and bureaucrats prefer not to look too closely at the actual results of welfare reform.

Luckily there are some efforts afoot to ensure that welfare reform does not continue to be built on anecdotes, wishful thinking, and upbeat statistical blips. Just in case welfare reform turns out to be a cynical exercise in political three-card monte instead of a worthy program of personal rehabilitation, the folks over at that meddlesome Catholic lobby, NETWORK, are teaming up with a group of religious communities to keep track of the collateral damage of welfare reform. They've organized over 450 folks from three different religious communities and Pax Christi USA into "welfare reform watchers," tracking the results of welfare reform in their communities and states. (Order a $15 "Welfare Reform Watcher Packet" from NETWORK by calling 202-547-5566 or writing NETWORK, 801 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, #460 Washington, DC 20003-2167; e-mail:

So far the results from the first six months of NETWORK's study suggest that reform's success may be something less than amazing: almost 50 percent of the study's respondents report having less to eat; nearly 40 percent report that their children are eating less or skipping meals; a little over 20 percent have been dislocated from previous residences; and nearly 10 percent report sleeping most often in a shelter or on the street. Only about one third of respondents discontinued from public aid have found employment.

Welfare reform may or may not be working as it passes its second anniversary. Liberals may be surprised to discover that conservatives had it right about the crippling dependency engendered by the system, and conservatives may discover that more is required of government to really reform people permanently off welfare. For now, however, these assessments remain impossible to make until government worries a little less about simply reducing the numbers of people on its welfare rolls and a little more about what happens to them after they're gone. What are we afraid of finding out?
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Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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