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National NOW Times >> Special Edition, 2001 >> Article

Conservative Version of Welfare Reform Flawed

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director and Irma Espino, Government Relations Intern

For the last several years, proponents of so-called welfare "reform" have been telling stories about poor moms living on welfare finally being pushed off dependency, finding gainful employment and now successfully making it on their own. We have also heard the statistics: the number of people receiving assistance fell dramatically from 5 million in 1994 to 2.5 million in 1999.

But what is really going on with women on the welfare-to-work path? Now that the five-year limitation on public assistance under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) is ending, it is important to look closely at the experiences of millions of low-income families. Congress will review the so-called reform effort and enact re-authorizing legislation next year. The National Organization for Women and other advocacy organizations are critical of the PRWORA's shortcomings and its failure to determine if poor women have moved safely into stable and sufficient employment situations.

Most states do not track welfare recipients once they move off the rolls, so it is difficult or impossible to know how many have in fact achieved economic success. Official reports fail to document, for example, that thousands of recipients have been kicked off welfare due to sanctions and not because they found employment. Caseload reduction, not poverty reduction, is the measure by which states are evaluated under the present system. Clearly, that has been a wrong standard of measurement.

Most likely, women who had education and skills to begin with--an estimated quarter of welfare recipients--found work and are moving forward. These were the relatively easy cases and they found success at a time when the economy was robust and job growth in the U.S. set astounding new records. But there are many more poor women still needing help, who have been unable to locate steady employment and who face significant personal barriers, such as a chronic health problem, few employable skills or domestic violence. Welfare "reform" has done little to help such women. Nor has it effectively dealt with the problems of poverty-level wages, a thin job market, poor educational opportunities and other inadequacies in the system.

Low Wages

For those who have left welfare and entered the work force, the struggle is just beginning. Full-time minimum wage employment does not provide for an adequate standard of living. To afford housing a worker must earn at least $12.47 per hour; many service sector jobs that welfare recipients have found pay somewhere between $5.15 and $10.00 an hour. Most of those jobs offer little or no benefits, such as health insurance, and are often not covered by state Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs. NOW has learned from personal stories, such as the following, how difficult it can be to support a family on these wages.

A 35-year-old mother supporting her two children with temporary jobs in East Orange, N.J.: "When I took the $7.00 an hour job and they got me off [TANF - Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] immediately, and that was not enough to pay rent and expenses for my kids, I lost my apartment and everything and had to move in with my mom to get back on my feet. They should have given you a probation period to make sure the job was going to last and give you partial benefits for a while." (From "Faces of Change: Personal Experiences of Welfare Reform in America," by the Alliance for Children and Families, Milwaukee, Wis.)

Depressed Job Availability

Even during the economic boom of the late 1990s, those most determined and best equipped for work had to struggle toward self-sufficiency. These same strong people will face even more challenges as our economy slows. The economic downturn has already begun to increase unemployment numbers and it is uncertain to what extent the low-wage, mostly service-oriented, job market will be affected. Most assured is that a system riddled with problems during an economic high is likely to be crippled by an economic low.

Job losses experienced by welfare-to-work recipients employed in the hospitality field following the terrorist incidents of Sept. 11 indicate the fragility of their economic situation. For the survival of those and other low-income workers affected by economic fluctuations, the welfare time clock must be stopped.

Education and Training Limits

Lack of education limits job opportunities and mobility: currently TANF limits education to 12 months of vocational training (and allows only 30 percent of recipients to participate). Of the states that have set a limit for on-the-job training, six months is the norm. Without access to post-secondary education or training, the likelihood for a career--as opposed to simply a job--is almost impossible. This fundamental need is painfully obvious in the story below.

A 46-year-old mother working and living with her two children in Pinellas Park, Fla.: "I think the Lockheed Martin WAGES program is good. The only complaint I have was they sent me to that Opening Doors to Work class and I couldn't keep up. I am on a fifth-grade reading level so it was hard to read all the papers they gave us."

Inadequate Child Care

Further undermining the efforts of those attempting to find work is the lack of access to proper child care services. Even though federal and state spending on child care for welfare-to-work participants increased by 35 percent during the last five years and the number of children receiving subsidies increased from 1 million to 1.5 million, many families still lacked access to services. A review by the Center on Law and Social Policy found that in most of the states, less than a third of former welfare recipients who were working were receiving child care subsidy assistance.

Lack of Health Insurance

Studies suggest that nearly half (48 percent) of aid recipients were either suffering from health problems or caring for a disabled family member. The expenses of dependent care, health care and transportation often preclude employment outside the home as the following two cases demonstrate.

A 28-year-old unemployed mother living with her four children Tonawanda, N.Y.: "My health is good, but I have a 4-year-old son that has five severe delays in his development and I need to be home with him to take care of him. He needs a lot of attention and a lot of supervision. This is a necessity...therefore in order to get the care he needs, I have to be home with him." (From "Faces of Change: Personal Experiences of Welfare Reform in America")

A 49-year-old mother living with her child in an extended household in Newark, N.Y.: "I am afraid what me and my kids will do without Medicaid if the job has no kind of health of my pills costs $120.00 a month. How can I afford medicine and rent, food, doctor, without health care?"

As if the difficulty in obtaining adequate health care were not enough, under welfare "reform," screening for serious personal barriers--such as physical and/or mental disabilities or drug use--is nonexistent. The numbers of welfare recipients with one or more barriers is significant, perhaps as much as 30 to 40 percent of the population. This is a major failure of welfare reform.

Domestic Violence Response Weak

An exceptionally difficult and dangerous barrier to women in poverty is domestic violence. Many women must rely on the transitional assistance provided by welfare to help them escape abusive relationships. Numerous studies have estimated that anywhere from a third to more than half of the women receiving welfare have been victims of domestic violence as adults. Domestic violence not only threatens women's lives but also hurts their job security. Not all states have effectively screened and referred welfare recipients for waivers and support services under the Family Violence Option. The following personal stories are typical.

Joan told her caseworker that she could not assist the agency in collecting child support from her child's father because he had threatened to beat her and kill her if he was served with a summons for support. He had severely beaten her in the past. The caseworker did not refer Joan to a domestic violence liaison and told her that she had to comply with the child support cooperation requirement or she would be sanctioned.

Dahlia is a resident in a domestic violence shelter that keeps its location confidential to ensure its residents' safety. Dahlia obtained a partial work waiver barring her from work in the borough where her batterer resided. The Office of Employment Services, the part of the welfare agency that oversees work assignments, then assigned Dahlia to work in the park in front of the shelter. When Dahlia protested the location of the assignment, she was told that it was safe for her to work in front of the shelter because the shelter is located in a safe neighborhood. The office failed to consider the risk that the batterer might stalk Dahlia at her work placement and follow her back to the shelter, placing all the residents at risk.

(Both examples are from "New York City's Failure to Implement the Family Violence Option," NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, The Urban Justice Center, Legal Aid Society and The Women, Welfare and Abuse Task Force.)

Intrusive Social Policies

One of the stated goals of PRWORA is to promote marriage. Promoting a specific type of family violates recipients' privacy and their personal freedom. while doing little or nothing to move women out of poverty. Marital status by no means ensures a woman's economic stability. In a recent survey of social service facilities, over one-third of those surveyed were either married or partnered. Within that group, 78 percent were married yet still unable to get by without the aid of services such as soup kitchens. Given these statistics it is clear that poverty isn't solely a single-mother phenomenon.

The use of federal TANF funds for abstinence programs provides only a regressive and unrealistic solution to family planning. Some states have even created "incentives" to promote marriage and reduce out-of-wedlock births as a universal solution, without considering or planning for the risks associated with domestic violence.

Support Real Efforts To End Poverty

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, are working on legislation that would make important changes in welfare policy to ensure that poor women and their families are better assisted and protected. They need your support.

Click here to write to your congress members and request that re-authorization include real provisions to help women pull themselves out of poverty.

Also, if you have stories to share or ideas on how to improve welfare-to-work programs, please send the information to NOW Government Relations at NOW, 733 15th St., NW, #240, Washington, D.C., 20005 or email them to

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