The Lived Experience of Welfare Reform in Drug-Using Welfare-Needy Households in Inner-City New York

Article excerpt

Welfare reform has transformed a needs-based family income support into temporary assistance for persons entering the workforce. This paper uses observations from an ethnographic study covering the period from 1995-2001 to examine the impact on drug-using welfare-needy households in inner-city New York. The analysis suggests that studies may underestimate the extent to which substance use is associated with welfare problems. Nearly all of these already distressed households lost their AFDC/TANF benefits, had difficulty with work programs, and were having more difficulty covering expenses. The conclusion highlights ways to better study this population and policy initiatives that could help them reform their impoverished lives for themselves and their children.

Introduction

This paper describes the impacts of welfare reform as experienced by drug-using welfare-needy households in inner-city New York based on findings from an ongoing ethnographic study. Most prior evaluations of welfare reform have been based on either surveys of the general population or surveys of persons receiving benefits. These studies appear to have established that few AFDC or TANF recipients are active illegal drugs users (no more than 5% to 20%) and that even fewer of them are drug abusers (Jayakody, Danziger & Pollack, 2000; Podus & Anglin, 2001). Schmidt, Weisner & Wiley (1998) found rates of problem drinking and heavy drug use around 40% among one California county's general assistance recipients but rates among AFDC recipients were much lower (around 15%).

We contend that there are substantial numbers of welfare-needy drug users that are "statistically invisible" to welfare-reform evaluations because 1) they have been unable to maintain continuous AFDC/TANF support; 2) they have been unwilling to respond to surveys; and, 3) they have been unwilling to disclose the full extent of their substance use to casual, one-time surveys. Lil Sty (a 40 year-old mother of two and subject of this study) remarked

   [M]ost of the time that I got cut off [welfare] because I was
   somewhere stuck sniffing coke, cocaine, and getting high, and
   did not want to go to my face-to-face appointment.

This type of impression management helps assure that impoverished drug users either fall out of official welfare studies or that their drug use goes unseen and uncounted.

This paper focuses on poor inner-city households where illicit drugs (primarily heroin, crack and marijuana) were used by the subject or another household member. We refer to these persons as welfare-needy because they lacked long-term stable employment and lacked prospects of obtaining it soon based on their own admission and confirmed by direct observation. Not all of these persons were receiving AFDC or TANE These households' experiences of welfare-reform have been similar to and even worse than many of the most negative experiences documented in other studies (e.g., Hancock, 2002). We do not know how many drug-using welfare-needy households are out there. Our research suggests there are many and that they are not hard to find if you know where and how to look. The conclusion makes several recommendations regarding methodology that could advance our ability to count these individuals and policies that could better serve their circumstances. The remainder of this introduction briefly reviews welfare reform and some of its prior evaluations.

Welfare Reform

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was enacted in 1996 by the Federal government with the intent to "end welfare as we know it" by reducing dependency upon federal welfare payments and by bringing many poor persons into legal jobs and the mainstream economy. PRWORA changed welfare from an entitlement program (known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children--AFDC) into interim support (known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families--TANF). …