Ending Welfare As We Know It

A welfare mother is a black woman, with several children, who spends her entire life on welfare, having another kid whenever she needs more money—at least according to prevalent stereotypes. But in reality the average family receiving welfare consists of a 32-year-old

white woman with two children. And, according to current patterns, half of the five million households receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) will be off the rolls within two years.

Some families are locked into a cycle of welfare dependency. And women of color, many of them residents of economically devastated inner cities, are disproportionately on welfare. But these women are not helped by politicians engaging in punitive moralizing about "those people who’d stop having babies if we stopped paying them," or by feel-good, "we can help ’em up by their bootstraps and still cut the budget" plans to end welfare as we claim to know it.

What is needed is an honest assessment of our country’s economic and societal health, one that doesn’t just cast blame but shares responsibility.

Some approaches to reform that claim to be efforts to reduce poverty seem more focused on eliminating poor people, or at least making them invisible. A small group of conservative Republicans in the House, prodded by conservatives such as William Bennett, insist that the welfare system promotes illegitimacy and that all benefits to unmarried mothers under the age of 21 should be cut off. In an interesting twist for family-values types like Bennett, the plan states that the savings in cut benefits should be given to the states—to care for the children of these women in orphanages and group homes.

Such proposals are merely diversions from the real depths of our country’s problems. Welfare recipients are among the poorest of the poor—the typical AFDC check leaves a family’s income 58 percent below the federal poverty level. In real terms, welfare benefits have been cut about 25 percent during the past 20 years.

But people on welfare are far from the only poor in our country. According to the Census Bureau, 18 percent of all full-time workers fall below the poverty line. While welfare reform is tossed out as the magic political promise, the one that will solve budget problems, crime, and tooth decay without raising the ire of middle-class voters or big-money contributors, the truth is, to be poor in America—working or not—is the hot growth industry.

WHAT PRINCIPLES can people who take seriously the biblical priority of the poor hold to in evaluating the swirl of welfare reform options?

First, the impetus for reform should be human-centered, not budget-centered. "Ending welfare as we know it" should be a goal because we want to reduce the number of children growing up in poverty, not merely to save a buck.

A great deal of evidence suggests that truly to break existing cycles of dependency and to create viable alternatives to welfare means investing more money, not less. An example is the 1988 Family Support Act that requires states to provide welfare recipients with the training, education, child care, and health insurance they need to find and keep jobs. But while it has much to commend it in theory, the results have not been impressive because Congress did not back the law with funding.

Second, true reform will look at long-term measures, not the quick fix; the big picture, not the narrow focus. The government could simply kick people off welfare. But dumping more poor people out on their own in a society with rampant joblessness, homelessness, and poverty will be vastly more costly in the long run, both in dollar terms and in social deterioration.

As most of the major reform plans recognize, transition off of AFDC needs to be coupled with programs that offer job training and life skills education—as well as quality child care that will enable women to participate in such training programs—and continued health coverage such as Medicaid. (Access to health care is one reason many people stay on welfare rather than take a low-paying, no benefits job.) Many community-based job programs have found an intensive program that combines job training with post-employment support services is the best way to help people permanently leave welfare behind.

The two-year limit on cash assistance, a component of both the Clinton administration’s reform proposal and the main Republican plan in Congress, may work for some people. But for others it will take more than two years to reach the point where they are qualified to get a job that even comes close to providing support for themselves and their children; others, for various reasons, might never reach that point. Either way, flexibility in length of transition and benefits is a must.

Some low-wage workers fear that if welfare recipients are made to work in return for their benefits (a component of some proposals), other workers will end up being laid off as a result. Their fear is intensified since monthly welfare payments, when distributed over hours worked, offer a much lower-than-minimum wage—thereby making so called "workfare" participants cheaper labor than regular employees.

Finally, true reform will focus on the empowerment of those who receive welfare. This means taking on attitudes that reduce people to helpless recipients of state charity or dehumanize them as baby-producing machines. The culture of the welfare industry, which often pushes underpaid caseworkers to process a certain number of forms each day rather than genuinely working with clients, must also be reformed.

There is not one plan that includes all of these principles. A plan co-introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California (who collected welfare payments for three years when she was a newly divorced mother 25 years ago) might come closest. Challenging the assumption that welfare reform must include time limits, it focuses instead on training and education supports, collection of child support payments, and making it easier for two-parent families to qualify for AFDC.

But the Woolsey plan is just one of several. With health care reform still to be worked out, it is doubtful that a welfare reform plan will be passed this year. But the groundwork, slowly and surely, is being laid now for any eventual change. We would best pay attention—the costs and benefits of real reform go far beyond dollars.

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"Ending Welfare As We Know It"
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