Welfare Reform

Living on Almost Nothing in America

photosbypanda / Shutterstock
photosbypanda / Shutterstock

TWENTY YEARS AGO, President Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” by signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, otherwise known as “welfare reform.”

Controversial at the time, the law placed a five-year time limit on government financial assistance to those in need and instituted work requirements for welfare recipients. With two decades of hindsight, there is now sufficient evidence to evaluate its effectiveness, the holes it created in our nation’s social safety net, and what needs to be done to address them.

One of the best examinations of this law’s effects is the insightful book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Scholars Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer note that welfare reform has succeeded in important ways. “Poor single mothers,” they write, “left welfare and went to work in numbers that virtually no one expected. In 1993, 58 percent of low-income single mothers were employed. By 2000, nearly 75 percent were working, an unprecedented increase.” While the Great Recession reversed some of this progress, the employment rates remain “above pre-reform levels.” Child poverty rates also fell after welfare reform’s passage and remain down, though the authors note that additional measures, such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and increased government spending on child-care programs, also factor into this decline.

But the outcomes are not universally positive. In the first 15 years after passing welfare reform, the number of people living in “$2-a-day poverty” had more than doubled.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

When It Comes to Welfare Reform, Britain is Not So Great

Union Jack mural in disrepair. Image via http://bit.ly/wLwse2.
Union Jack mural in disrepair. Image via http://bit.ly/wLwse2.

Gandhi once said that "a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable." Today, it strikes me that the "Great" in Great Britain should probably be quietly dropped, and replaced with "Abject," "Inadequate" or something equally disparaging.

For that is how the UK is currently treating its most vulnerable — the young, the elderly, the disabled — inadequately, abjectly and without compassion. For the last few weeks, a battle has been raging between the government, the legislature, the Church, organizations, and the general public over a piece of legislation called the Welfare Reform Bill.

The bill is wide ranging in its ‘reforms’, covering a myriad of social security measures – from disability benefits, to welfare offered to the unemployed and their families and children. At a time when austerity and budget cutting is front and center of the government’s agenda, ‘reform’ is a by-word for ‘cutbacks’.

The crux of the legislation is an attempt to distinguish between different categories of "the poor," to weed out the “undeserving” from the “deserving.” Sadly, as can be seen from the uproar that the Bill has caused, this attempt has failed.

A Reformed System?

Perhaps only Jeremiah’s call to the Jewish captives to "work for the welfare of the city" in which they were being held could have been more controversial than Bill Clinton’s 1996 drive to "end welfare as we know it." Without making provisions to increase jobs, child care, or even a safety net, Clinton’s welfare "reform" bill offered states block grants to aid the poor in whatever way they saw fit, encouraging them to cut their welfare budgets by sending the poor to work - whether there were jobs or not.

Clinton’s bill led to the resignation of several members of his administration, was widely criticized by advocates for the poor, and caused many social justice activists (including me) to nearly give up on the Democrats. A group of religious leaders, including several from Sojourners, were arrested in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol protesting the bill.

In American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, Jason DeParle puts faces on those caught up in one of the most controversial issues of the past 20 years. DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times, weaves together the stories of three single African-American mothers in Milwaukee on welfare with the story of the political process behind welfare reform. For seven years, DeParle followed Angie Jobe, Jewell Reed, and Opal Caples, all members of the same extended family, as their welfare benefits are cut off and they struggle with varying degrees of success to find solid jobs to support themselves and their children.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine January 2005
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Best-Kept Secret

Charitable choice is one of the most elusive and confounding features of the current political and religious landscape in America. Since 1996, when Congress passed this provision allowing faith-based organizations to receive government money for their social service activities, charitable choice has been debated in divinity school classrooms, the halls of government, and among church-state separationists.

Social conservatives argue that the government cannot be held solely responsible for the heavy burden of caring for the nation's poor, so for them shifting responsibility to the faith community is a very good thing. On the other side of the aisle, liberals are relieved that government is still actively participating in the provision of social services. Both agree on one thing - there is something unique that faith-based groups can contribute toward solving the problem of poverty in America.

But for those doing the day-to-day work of social justice, these debates can be seen as rather abstract. Until recently, the actual on-the-ground effect of the charitable choice legislation was largely unknown.

A series of recent surveys and reports have now emerged, however, that raise new questions about whether charitable choice is working as it was intended to, how it will impact the nation's poor, and whether the governmental and religious communities will be able to negotiate each other's turf.

Most of the new studies reach similar conclusions. Charitable choice shows great promise, but it cannot hope to fulfill that promise until a more fundamental need is met - more congregations and faith-based social service organizations need to know that charitable choice even exists.

What is it, anyway?

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine July-August 2000
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

'Behold, The Treasure of the Church'

The 1996 dismantling of the welfare system has engendered the most thorough reassessment concerning the role of the religious community in the delivery of public social services since the New Deal. The dramatic shift from entitlements to block grants has opened up unprecedented opportunities for churches to receive public funds to administer programs such as Welfare to Work.

In the public discourse, the role of faith communities in social welfare, which until recently was mostly the domain of conservative intellectuals and a few other organizations such as Call to Renewal, has now become quite a hot topic. This was reflected in the comments of then-Vice President Al Gore: "Let us put the solution that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our national strategy. If you elect me your president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration."

If the emergence of this theme now represents political capital in Washington, D.C., it is a decidedly mixed blessing for churches. We can take this opportunity to explore the twin dangers that face the churches' response to this historic moment:

Overcommitment. In our enthusiasm to "step into the breach" to serve the abandoned poor, we need to be careful not to over-commit or over-represent the capacity of churches to fill the gap, nor should we absolve government of its public responsibilities.

Undercommitment. Neither should churches undercommit by neglecting the profound needs among former welfare recipients in this time of transition, excusing ourselves from setting up programs because we are underfunded and unprepared.

In attempting to navigate between these two errors, however, a third problem arises that is perhaps the most serious of all. This is the temptation for churches to simply reproduce welfare's "service delivery franchise" without correcting its most odious characteristics.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Healing Body and Spirit

Once a month, Leslie Brown buses children to see their mothers—inmates housed at Dwight and Kankakee Correctional Centers in Illinois. She offers self-esteem classes for the women, provides referrals to social services, and helps the children's caregivers with housing, counseling, and clothing through her Chicago-based organization, Support Advocates for Women.

Brown also runs Leslie's Place, a transitional home that provides housing for eight women who are recently released from prison. Brown and her youngest children live in the home. There she offers parenting and life skills and holds a weekly Bible study. The Illinois Department of Corrections now funds part of her program, a partnership that is unique in the state's history.

Brown began the program soon after she was released from prison, when she faced the challenge of raising her six children with little support. Since 1994, 80 women have passed through Leslie's Place, and only three have returned to prison. Given the state recidivism rate of 60 percent, and the $30,000 it costs to hold one inmate for a year, Leslie's Place has saved the state thousands of dollars.

Support Advocates for Women is one of hundreds of successful faith-based ministries across the country. Many had the opportunity to learn from Brown's work at Call to Renewal's National Summit on the Churches and Welfare Reform, held January 31 to February 3 outside Washington, D.C. More than 650 people—twice as many as expected, representing hundreds of organizations from more than 35 states—focused on successful models of faith-based ministries. Twenty-nine denominations were represented, and participants included state senators, legislators, and other local and regional elected officials, as well as representatives of the social service departments of nine states.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Hands-On Experience

In April 1997, Gen. Colin Powell convened the Presidents' Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia. It became known as the "Volunteer Summit." Until the last minute, faith communities were excluded from the plans and ultimately were only minimally represented. In this context the Call to Renewal conceived the "National Summit on the Churches and Welfare Reform," planned for February 1-3, 1999, in Washington, D.C.

It is well known that churches and faith-based organizations have consistently delivered services to needy people. Over the years they have offered prophetic voices of advocacy as well as fed the hungry, clothed the naked, housed the stranger, and visited the sick and imprisoned. From Catholic Charities and the Catholic Worker movement to the Gospel Missions and the Salvation Army, people of faith have sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly, been there throughout the years.

While we come together in our various affiliations, we rarely come together as a whole—crossing affiliation, theological, ideological, and political lines. Now more than ever before, crossing those barriers is critical.

As the true impact of the 1996 welfare bill begins to manifest itself, it is important that we strengthen our ties with one another and encourage the ongoing development of a network of faith organizations to monitor the results. We have much to learn from each other, much to share, and many lessons to offer our national leaders. While the welfare bill lacked provisions to track those leaving welfare rolls, we know that more people are just disappearing than are actually finding meaningful living-wage employment. Despite the politicians who would have us believe that "happy days are here again" for America's poor people, and despite all of the best efforts of many, we need to be asking the critical question, Where are they?

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

An Imperative to Overcome Poverty

As churches and faith-based organizations around the country work with people moving from welfare to work, we are becoming acutely aware of needed changes in government policy. On February 1-3, 1999, Call to Renewal’s National Summit on the Churches and Welfare Reform will bring together hundreds of key people from faith-based organizations actively involved in community-level work to make and build on these experience-to-policy connections.

Building toward the National Summit, the Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform convened its third meeting on September 16. Nearly 50 leaders of diverse constituencies joined in an exciting day of information-sharing and consensus-seeking on these critical policy questions.

Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action opened with a presentation on the theological imperative of new policies to lift the bottom 25 percent of our society out of poverty. Analyst John DiIulio discussed the current state of efforts to overcome poverty. He noted that since 1993, it has become respectable in the public debate to assert that poverty no longer exists as a persistent problem. Call to Renewal, he said, is in a uniquely powerful intellectual and moral position to make the case that there is still serious poverty in this country. And, through our links with faith-based anti-poverty organizations, we are able to facilitate a process of developing new policies to overcome poverty.

Building on the poignant observation of one participant that we don’t view all children in our society as our children, DiIulio proposed a simple but profound challenge: Can we make a shared commitment to develop and support a genuine safety net which would ensure that no child in America goes without the basic needs of life--food, shelter, health care? Such a safety net has never before existed in America.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

An Insult to the Poor

The most vulnerable and least protected workers of all might be those in "workfare"—programs in which welfare recipients must perform services in exchange for public assistance. Churches in New York City have adamantly opposed Mayor Rudy Giuliani's version of workfare, known as the Work Experience Program. Peter Laarman, senior minister at New York City's Judson Memorial Church, explains why many in the religious community feel that such programs are harmful to working people, unlikely to help welfare recipients move to paid employment, and ultimately demeaning for the participants themselves.

—The Editors

The great hope of welfare reform was that poor people would no longer be stigmatized for their "dependency" but would be enabled to take their place in society by supporting themselves through living-wage jobs. Because of New York's persistently weak job market for less-skilled workers, placing welfare recipients into living-wage jobs would have been extremely difficult here under the best of circumstances. A good-faith effort would have required significant expenditures of both imagination and public funds. Certainly all of the available federal funding coming into New York state would have been captured for its intended purpose of helping move recipients into jobs.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Pages

Subscribe