The Common Good
March-April 1998

Is Welfare Reform Working?

by Barbara Howell | March-April 1998

The rolls are down, but hunger is up.

During a discussion last August of the first year of welfare "reform," a national reporter said, "It's working. The welfare rolls are down. People are getting jobs. But some of you refuse to recognize it." The same month the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a Milwaukee woman, Oral Caples, who had left the rolls for a job that paid more than welfare.

But since then Oral Caples has lost her job. It was not possible last August to judge the full impact of the dramatic changes, nor is it possible now—19 months after President Clinton "ended welfare as we know it" in August 1996.

For one thing, most states are just beginning to implement their new welfare system. Most recipients have not reached the time limit on welfare benefits, which is five years in a lifetime—and states can end them sooner. For another, the booming economy and the lowest unemployment in 24 years have made it easier for people to find jobs.

Government surpluses in 49 states make it possible to offer training and help with child care and transportation, essential ingredients in making a successful transition to work. But a recent survey by the Tufts Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy shows that while all states seem to be doing more to increase child care, most are spending less than before to help welfare recipients prepare for work. In most states the new welfare plans will make poor families less economically secure.

The welfare rolls are down, dropping an estimated two million last year. About 50 percent, surveys suggest, moved from welfare to jobs—not much different from the 1980s when 46 percent of those who left welfare did so to take jobs. Others have left because they could not handle or understand the new rules. Some have been erroneously penalized. More than half of those thrown off welfare have been reinstated on appeal.

Because of the robust economy, the anticipated shortage of jobs has so far been less than feared. The bigger concern is that the available jobs are usually at minimum wage or barely above and rarely include health benefits. And many welfare recipients need extra support in order to stay in jobs.

Most of the hundreds of thousands newly without jobs or welfare have found a way to survive, at least for the short term. Homelessness is up only marginally. Churches and other private organizations have helped people prepare for work and have provided a partial safety net.

THE HUNGER SITUATION is more alarming. In 1996, before the welfare law went into effect, some 11 million Americans—four million of them children—were moderately or severely hungry, according to government data. Some 35 million were at risk of hunger. In December the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has tracked the welfare fallout in cities, reported that requests for emergency food had increased by 16 percent in 1997. That's the highest rate of increase in five years. One in five requests for food went unfilled. The mayors predict that the need will rise again in 1998, and most say they will have to turn away hungry people.

One reason is that the largest of the much-touted savings in welfare reform came from cutting the federal Food Stamp Program. Over five years the cuts would equal 24 billion pounds of food at 1997 prices. In the first year of the new system, about 1.5 million people, many of them legal immigrants, lost their food stamps. Over the next five years, food stamp benefits will decline for all recipients.

In early January it appeared likely that the Clinton administration would propose in its 1999 budget $2 billion over five years to provide food stamps for legal immigrant children, elderly, and disabled. This is the product of pressure from a bipartisan group of 47 senators and 140 representatives as well as a yearlong effort by Bread for the World and other advocates for poor people. It's now up to Congress to restore these benefits.

It may be too soon to know what the welfare changes will mean, but it's not too soon for those who care about low-income people to join efforts to track what is happening to them—programs such as the Community Monitoring Project initiated by the Children's Defense Fund.

The religious community must redouble efforts to help those in need. It must also strive to get our nation to restore its commitment to fight poverty. Throwing people off welfare or into jobs with below-poverty wages and no supports is not a solution.

BARBARA HOWELL is director of government relations for Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.

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