The Common Good
March-April 1997

The Issue Is Poverty

by Jim Wallis, Sharon Daly, Peter Edelman, Barbara Howell, Wendell Primus | March-April 1997

A conversation on welfare reform.

In the aftermath of President Clinton’s signing of "welfare reform" legislation last August, three top administration officials—Peter Edelman, Wendell Primus, and Mary Jo Bane—resigned in protest. Two of them, Edelman and Primus, joined Barbara Howell of Bread for the World, Sharon Daly of Catholic Charities USA, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners in a December 19, 1996 discussion in Washington, D.C., on the social catastrophe this repeal of welfare may bring about—and what the churches can do about it. —The Editors

Jim Wallis: This panel has been convened for the sake of those who are concerned about the aftermath of the welfare reform bill, who care about what happens to those who are poor, and who believe it is a spiritual and religious issue as much as a policy question. Many religious leaders and service providers are organizing around the country already. This crisis may bring us together as we haven’t been together before.

Two of you were members of the administration until recent months. Your decision to resign in response to the signing of the welfare bill sent a very encouraging signal to many of us in religious communities.

Wendell Primus: When I couldn’t defend the principal decision of the president, I really had no choice. How could I go in front of friends and peers and colleagues and defend his decision? I couldn’t disown all the analysis my office produced. A million more children in poverty, at least, and no additional money for work. This is a very bad bill.

Peter Edelman: I found myself waking up in the 48 hours after the president said he would sign the bill and viscerally feeling I couldn’t be associated with a bill that is going to have a terrible effect on lots of children in this country. If we work very hard, we can reduce that effect somewhat. But this is not welfare reform. It doesn’t promote work in a constructive and effective way, and it doesn’t protect children. This bill was a very, very serious step in the wrong direction.

Wallis: There has been much talk during and since the campaign that this bill will now be fixed. It was even suggested that we should support Clinton because he would fix this bill. Could you respond to that?

Primus: There are a lot of state decisions that can make it even worse or undo some of the federal reductions. But I don’t think the political will is there to fix it. If the president is willing in the budget debates to place a very high priority on the immigrant reductions and the food stamp reductions, for instance, he can get it fixed. But the real question is, Is there the political will to put that much capital on the line for this particular group of individuals? There is very little evidence on either side of the aisle in Congress to suggest that we’re going to see that happen.

Edelman: The welfare so-called reform is the dynamiting of a structure that has been there for 60 years. The president will make some kind of a proposal on immigrants and food stamps, but you’re talking about cuts in that area that were close to $50 billion, and he’s only going to propose restorations on the order of $13 billion over five to six years. Congress is likely to be unwilling to do even that, so if there is a "fix" it’s a very small one.

Wallis: How would you summarize what this bill has done, what it means, and what we’re going to begin to see in places around the country?

Barbara Howell: Being an anti-hunger movement, we were particularly distressed when nutrition programs were brought into the discussion of "reforming welfare." We have a childhood hunger problem of enormous proportions in this country. More than one in four children under 12 are hungry or at risk of hunger—before the cuts in nutrition programs that Congress and the president passed.

Sharon Daly: This bill was reckless and wrong, and we urged the president to veto it. The tragic thing about the bill is not that people have to work or that there are time limits; we didn’t object to either of those things. The problem is the bill gives no safety net for the people who are not able to find jobs, for the people who are not able to get into day care. Their children are just left in the lurch.

It’s now the law of the land, though, so we are trying to make it so that the fewest people possible get hurt. We’re trying, for example, to make the states not have any shorter time limits than the five-year federal limit. We’re trying to make sure that Medicaid continues for immigrants. We’ve been urging agencies to help family day-care providers be trained and licensed, and to take the experience our agencies have in resettling refugees and immigrants and having them help folks find and create jobs for people. We’re trying to make sure the states spend as much as they’re supposed to. We’re also trying to figure out what more churches and charities can do to support people who are getting off welfare.

Edelman: There’s a little ambiguity in terms of time limits. We could all support time limits that are connected to an assurance of employment, and continued cash assistance if the person is unable to find work. That’s not what this bill provides. This bill provides an arbitrary time limit. Under this program, at the end of five years you can never get any more federal assistance for the rest of your life. Nor could your children. The states can put their own money into having longer time limits or into not having any time limit at all.

A competition is set up here between the child care that the working poor now receive—which some of them may lose—and the new child care for people going into the work force. We need to urge each state legislature and governor to have a real system of child care with affordable co-payments.

It’s very important to have maximum commitment from the private sector in creating transitional jobs for people. People who have been on assistance for a period of time, who maybe read at a third- or fourth-grade level, don’t just get up one day ready to work without some kind of assistance.

We’re lacking any national standard. A state can either have a reform program or it can give people a ticket on the next bus out of town. They’re equally free to do either thing. All of this is dependent on what the state decides to do.

Primus: Under prior law if a state spent more dollars, they received more federal dollars. That was the nature of the matching-rate system. Now, if the state spends more money on its residents, low-income families in the state will actually get less money from the federal government. It’s a very perverse incentive.

Despite all the rhetoric around the subject of work, there isn’t one additional penny in this bill that accomplishes that aim. We’re really going to see the effects of the bill the next time recession hits, first in food stamps and then with immigrants, children, and SSI [Supplemental Security Income, assistance for the aged and disabled]. The block grants don’t reflect economic reality. They don’t adjust for inflation, for economic change, or for demographics. Some states have significant increases in child poverty over time, some have declines. The block grant is fixed.

Wallis: What kind of "time line of tragedy" can we expect?

Edelman: Number one, any immigrants legally in this country—and future legal immigrants—are cut off from food stamps and SSI as of April 1. The first five years that they’re in the country, they’re eligible for no means-tested benefit of any kind. Second, food stamp cuts begin to go into effect immediately. Food stamp benefits are to be cut by almost 20 percent by the year 2002. Two-thirds of the people who are hurt by that are children, mostly of the working poor. There are approximately 900,000 disabled children on SSI at the present time. Depending on how the cuts are implemented, from 100,000 to 200,000 of those will lose their benefits. The biggest effects will be felt when the time limits hit.

Primus: There have always been tough questions in welfare policy. People are poor for a whole variety of reasons, and some of them engage in bad behavior. I think we have to recognize that up front. But the real question is, Do you try to get better behavior from parents by denying assistance to children? Should you take away food, clothing, and shelter from children in order to force parents to do the right thing?

Wallis: An enormous percentage of our budget-balancing deficit reduction comes at the expense of those who are least able to bear it—93 percent of all the entitlement cuts have been borne by poor families and individuals. Equity and fairness would say that the burden should be shared more by those who can bear it more effectively. Fundamental theological issues emerge in this debate.

Daly: In Catholic theology we talk about the preferential option for the poor; the last place you’d look to make cuts is on the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. What this bill did was turn that on its head, so that the first to be hurt are the poorest and the most vulnerable in the country.

The first people most Americans are going to see on the streets, made destitute because of cuts in programs to the poor, are people who qualified for the SSI program because they were disabled by previous alcohol or drug use. Those people were no longer eligible for SSI as of January 1. A lot of those people are mentally ill, and they only survive in their little single-room occupancy because they get an SSI check and a Medicaid card to pay for their prescriptions. This bill doesn’t provide any money for treatment, and so the very first group we’re going to see on our streets are the new "lepers" of society: alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill.

Next you will see immigrants who’ve lost welfare benefits. Then people who don’t have children and don’t get food stamps any more because they can’t work. Finally, a year or two from now we’ll begin seeing families with children on the streets, people who’ve lost their benefits because they couldn’t work and they came up against a time limit.

The first people that Americans are likely to see on the streets are the least sympathetic-appearing people to society. The social service systems and emergency benefits are going to be so totally wiped out by the first groups that by the time we get to the families with children, the Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services, the food pantries, the soup kitchens, the shelters are going to be so full to overflowing with such lines that there’s not going to be anything left. It’s going to look like the Depression.

Wallis: When Marian Wright Edelman spoke at the Call to Renewal conference last fall, she said we must now make welfare repeal into genuine welfare reform. States have to turn in their plans by July 1. How can the religious community and service providers be involved together in shaping both policy and climate at the local level?

Primus: There are a lot of opportunities. Half of the cuts involved help for immigrants, most of whom are eligible to go through the naturalization process. So 60 to 70 percent of those cuts could be alleviated if local groups help people—particularly the elderly and disabled—become naturalized. States have a lot more flexibility now in how they design Medicaid and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the new cash assistance program].

Local communities can provide community work experiences. Even if these are unpaid, if the individual can work off the benefit they don’t have to lose their food stamps.

Daly: This is a hard pill to swallow for many church organizations who’ve always opposed workfare. Instead of giving somebody a job with a paycheck, you continue giving them their welfare check and get them to work in exchange. Almost anybody in the world would rather have a paycheck and a real job.

If you have soup kitchens or shelters or other programs that can use a lot of volunteers, you can offer volunteer jobs to poor food stamp recipients so that these folks don’t lose their food stamps and wind up worse off. There are hundreds of thousands of these people. There’s not room in the social service system for all of them, but there is some, and just because we can’t save everybody doesn’t mean we shouldn’t save some. This may in a funny way turn out to be good thing. This might actually forge some relationship and give people some dignity that they didn’t have before, and maybe lead to some jobs.

Wallis: What should people in the churches and service providers be focusing on around those state plans?

Daly: It’s a case of "follow the money." Make sure that the state legislature retargets resources into day care, job placement, and other services, and segregates money off for those people who are not going to make it during the time limit. The most important thing is to look at the total spending. That’s more important than any other single decision.

Edelman: People who are experiencing this themselves have to be a big part of arguments to the legislatures. I was in Allentown, Pennsylvania, yesterday with a group of welfare recipients in job training. They were their own best witnesses. They talked about their concerns about decent and affordable child care, about health coverage, about the cost of rent and transportation. If they hit a time limit, they may have to take a job where they are worse off than when they were on welfare. Welfare has never lifted anybody out of poverty in this country, even along with food stamps. When we say they are going to be worse off working, we mean they are going to be deeper in poverty.

Howell: We’re helping to link people and organizations so they can develop a plan on how to lobby the legislators and monitor what’s happening on the state level, as we do in the national Congress.

Daly: Local governments need to be central in those coalitions. Yesterday the U.S. Conference of Mayors was in town talking about how they’re going to be left holding the bag when people drop through the cracks. Local county executives and local mayors’ offices have been the ones to convene these local task forces on welfare reform implementation. Those can be powerful coalitions if you bring together local governments, service providers, the poor themselves, religious and immigrant groups, and other folks to agree to four or five priorities that they would all push for, instead of each group doing it on their own. This bill would not have been so dangerous if those kind of coalitions had come together on a handful of priorities at the national level.

Wallis: What would be the elements of a positive welfare reform package within the context of this law?

Primus: The states are going to be under pressure to run work programs or to try to move individuals into self-sufficiency. They need to design good welfare-to-work programs that aren’t punitive, that reward work. If individuals are going to do community work, they should turn the AFDC benefit check into a wage, and then that family would be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Daly: Turning the welfare check into a paycheck gives people dignity, it makes them part of the community, and they can say on their résumé they had a real job. That’s one of the most creative things that states can do.

Wallis: What are some practical things the states can do on child care?

Edelman: One of the major constraints is that there isn’t enough money in this program. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill is cumulatively $12 billion short of what would be necessary to do adequate job training. The child care is short, too. People should advocate that the state use enough of its own money so that there is a seamless system of affordable child care.

Daly: Under the law, the idea is that you get day care for one year when you go off welfare. One year later you’re still making the minimum wage, you still have to pay rent and buy groceries and put new brakes in your car. Day care for one year is not going to do any good. People who are entering the labor force from welfare are going to need day care subsidies for five or six years minimum.

Primus: We have 1.5 million mothers who are going to be asked to move into the labor force, and a million 18-to-50-year-olds on food stamps. If they all went into the labor force, they would further depress our lowest unskilled wages by an estimated 15 percent. If these mothers are to work, they’re going to need child care. There’s not near enough. The welfare recipient next door might have to be trained to care for a child or two, which would also translate into better parenting skills. Child-care advocates have concerns about quality, but I think it still has to be on the table.

Edelman: There aren’t enough jobs out there for this massive infusion to the labor force. Over the last six years, for example, the New York City metropolitan area lost 260,000 jobs. There are slightly more than 300,000 adults on AFDC in New York City. That just doesn’t add up. You’ll find a similar situation in just about every metropolitan area in the country.

This is the hardest part of our population to get into jobs. A lot of people who’ve been on welfare are taking care of chronically ill children or chronically ill relatives. A lot of these people have poor skills. A study from the state of Washington shows that 30 percent of the welfare case load is learning disabled.

Wallis: We can’t really be active on this issue without bringing the larger structural questions, such as the loss of jobs that pay a living wage, before the public consciousness.

Primus: Studies done at Michigan State found that in inner-city New York there were 14 applicants for every McDonalds job. We’re going to have to do some public job creation if we’re going to meet this demand.

Daly: I don’t think we should kid ourselves that even if we did that, it would fix anything. Seven out of 11 people that come to Catholic Charities now come for emergency services—they don’t have a place to live, they don’t have food for that day. Most of those people are not on welfare.

The president talks about these millions of people who’ve gone off welfare and the governors announce all their great successes. Many of those people who’ve been pushed off welfare aren’t working. They got jobs for a little while and then they couldn’t get back on welfare. There are people working full time who can’t get by without coming to the church for a bag of groceries, who can’t pay their electric bills, who can’t put gas in the car or get it fixed. Those people are still very poor, and their children are suffering. Way beyond welfare, we have a much bigger problem in this country.

Primus: Our welfare system is very sexist in the sense that we’ve expected the mother to do everything: the parenting, the caring for the child, as well as the breadwinning. We need to be more concerned about the male population that has been divorced from their families.

Howell: A large percentage of the women who are on welfare have experienced domestic violence and other abuse. In many instances they have had to leave a partner to get away from that and have had to depend, for a time, on welfare—sometimes for an extended time. What happens now, when there is a time limit?

Wallis: The problems that we’re talking about often have economic and cultural causes: work, public jobs, family breakup, violence against women. Apart from the policy questions, what are the other economic or cultural questions that we need to address, societally and culturally?

Edelman:: We’re talking about the wrong subject out there. The subject should be ending poverty, not welfare. That’s where we should start. Talk about employment policies that relate to everybody, including young people coming up. Start talking about how we make schools work, about safe neighborhoods, about dealing with the violence in our society—in the home and in the media and on the street. Start talking about health coverage for everyone, about child and youth development. We really need to be talking about safe passages into adulthood, surrounded by caring adults and supportive parents and a context of community responsibility.

Those are the more fundamental issues than the question about welfare. We’ve been tricked into this debate; welfare is what you do when everything else fails. We’ve never done all the other things that are necessary to prevent people from going on welfare in the first place.

Wallis: A lot of people, liberal and conservative, are saying that government programs by themselves aren’t always the best way to solve social problems. What can the religious community do that addresses the larger questions of how to eliminate poverty in this country?

Daly: The first thing is to educate the religious community about what it can’t do. We’ve all heard speeches about how the churches are going to pick up the slack. In this welfare bill, Congress cut $54 billion over five years—on average, just under $16 billion of cuts a year. All the private giving to programs for the poor in the whole country in a year totaled $11 billion. That includes all the money that’s raised by United Way in every work place in America, and all the money raised by Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services, the Jewish Federation. So they are cutting more in a year—almost one-and-a-half times as much—than is raised now by the whole human services network, secular and religious.

Churches have got to be advocates, first and foremost. The churches can’t make up this difference. These are not little Band-Aid problems that little Baptist congregations can fix. Besides, the Baptist congregation isn’t trying to help just one family. They’ve got 400 families all around them who are going to have their food stamps cut.

Make sure that you’re part of a statewide advocacy network in your state—because if you don’t speak up, the 11 million people that the churches are serving now in emergency services around the country is going to be 22 million next year and 30 million soon.

Howell: If the 350,000 churches in the country were expected to pick up these cuts, it would cost on average $150,000 for each church.

Daly: Not many churches have a budget of $150,000.

Howell: It’s just not realistic at all.

The anti-hunger groups are planning for the coming year to do our advocacy under the theme "Hunger Has a Cure." We all know that hunger is preventable. It’s unacceptable that we have any hunger at all in this country. This year Bread for the World will be pushing national legislation to restore some of the cuts to the food program and to improve the nutrition safety net. We are also asking people to increase charitable efforts.

Wallis: If I had to pick one thing that makes the most difference in a young person’s life, it’s a mentoring or eldering relationship.

Daly: It’s important that church folks get to know poor people so that you can talk about people you know and not poor people in the abstract. There’s this terrible stereotype out there that poor people are poor because they are bad, that they’re not as moral as the rest of us. You know the radical thing that Jesus said: Blessed are you poor. Even in Jesus’ time people liked to say that it was their own fault that people were poor, because they were bad. As Christians, we know better.

Edelman: There is such a disconnect in this country between private action and the public sphere. Church people need to have an overarching perspective of both. In the ’60s the stereotype was that such action was a kind of Band-Aid, and we were going to get laws passed by Congress that solved everything. Some people disdained activity that wasn’t structural, that wasn’t going to change thousands of millions of people.

Well, that’s wrong. It’s vitally important, but it is not enough. People need to understand when they work in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter that these places shouldn’t have to exist in that way if we had a decent housing policy and decent services. We will not have affordable housing for all the people if we don’t have decent public policy, and we’re not going to have decent public policy on any subject unless people get involved.

Howell: It is important to do something, and this is a critical time, even if it is just writing a letter. There are organizations, Bread for the World being one, that can help.

Primus: I’ve been inside the beltway here for the last 25 years. We have such an anti-government mood in this country that we have to show that government programs work. These poverty programs reduce poverty significantly. That message has to come back to Washington, D.C., from the states. These programs aren’t nearly as much of a failure as the rhetoric of the last two years would have indicated.

Daly: I’d like to remind Catholics that in our teaching, helping the poor is not an option for extra credit, it’s a requirement. But we can’t do this alone. We have to do this as the Body of Christ. We have to do this all together. I’m proud that the church has stood up for poor people. We can do a lot better for the poor if a lot more people will join that effort.

An excellent report titled "The 1996 Welfare Law" is available from Bread for the World (110 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910). A two-hour videotape and a full-length transcript of this discussion are available for $25 from Sojourners.

The Participants:

Sharon Daly is deputy for social policy at Catholic Charities USA in Alexandria, Virginia. Daly is former director of government and community affairs at the Children’s Defense Fund and former director of the domestic social development office for the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Peter Edelman, currently professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., resigned in 1996 as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. Edelman is the author of numerous articles on poverty, constitutional law, and issues relating to children and youth.

Barbara Howell is director of government relations at Bread for the World in Silver Spring, Maryland, a national Christian citizens movement that organizes grassroots support for public policies to prevent and alleviate hunger.

Wendell Primus is director of the income security program of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. He resigned in 1996 as a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, and he was previously chief economist for the House Ways and Means Committee.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)