"Some Days Are Harder Than Hard": Welfare Reform and Women with Drug Convictions in Pennsylvania

Article excerpt

Books: review/commentary

"Some Days Are Harder Than Hard": Welfare Reform and Women with Drug Convictions in Pennsylvania, by Amy E. Hirsch (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, December 1999), 83 pp., free (order from www clasp. orgy.

One of the more misanthropic features of America's overhaul of its public assistance programs during the mid-1990s was the introduction of drug-war hostility to income maintenance policy. Since 1972 the administration of American public assistance programs had been substantially free of the punishing moralism that characterized an earlier era when social workers raided the houses of welfare mothers to search closets for evidence of a "man in the house" who might be made to support the women and their children. Beginning in the mid-1970s, courts began to rule in favor of alcoholics and drug addicts seeking disability benefits (and related medical benefits) from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (DI); by the end of 1995, the number of alcoholics and addicts on the rolls of these programs had grown from only about 10,000 to over 200,000. But the Republican ascendancy in Congress after the November 1994 elections put an end to such coddling. In March 1996, alcoholism and drug addiction were eliminated as qualifying impairments in SSI and DI. In August 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act-the end of "welfare as we knew it"-created a new, remoralized public assistance regime to supervise poor families, who would now be limited to five years of benefits in a lifetime. The new law prohibited state use of federally funded cash or near-cash assistance for persons convicted of drug felonies in which the prosecuted conduct occurred after August 22, 1996. And this was the good news, for had a conference committee not watered down a House of Representatives provision, the lifetime ban on federal assistance to drug felons would have extended to misdemeanants!

In Some Days Are Harder Than Hard poverty lawyer Amy Hirsch reports on her discussions with criminal justice, health, and social service system personnel and lengthy interviews with 26 Pennsylvania women, 22 of them mothers and most of them convicted of drug felonies that disfranchised them from two federally funded programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Food Stamps. The women and the functionaries speak with conviction and from experience, and while Ms. Hirsch is a more polished attorney and advocate than she is a social scientist, she provides a valuable first look at what certainly will become a significant problem as welfare pariahs accumulate with time.

As Hirsch observes, good data on female drug felons are hard to come by. In 1996, about 61,000 women were convicted of drug felonies in the United States, 1,100 of them in Pennsylvania. A 1997 Legal Action Center survey of 17 drug and alcohol treatment programs for women with children located in different parts of the country found that 21 % of the welfare mothers in those programs had felony drug convictions. …