The True End of Welfare Reform

By Rosen, Sumner M. | The Nation, April 3, 1995 | Go to article overview

The True End of Welfare Reform


Rosen, Sumner M., The Nation


The advocates for women and children are right; the Gingrich juggernaut's proposed changes in Aid to Families with Dependent Children will inflict serious harm. Welfare advocates argue correctly that reform should at a minimum include affordable daycare and medical coverage if welfare mothers are required to seek work or enroll in training programs. But the central question is jobs, not only for women but for the fathers of their children.

Race is the unacknowledged obsession of the welfare reformers. They fear, and hope to extirpate if they cannot change, what they see as black patterns of illegitimacy and disrespect for traditional standards of sexual behavior, lifestyle and work ethic. This is a classic case of blaming the victim, an effort to punish those who have lost the most in the economic changes of past decades. In New York, Chicago, Detroit and other cities with large concentrations of (mostly black) A.F.D.C. clients, earlier generations of black men married the mothers of their children because the men had steady jobs. No more. In New York City, for example, the recovery that began in November 1992 restored only one in five of the jobs lost in the 1989-1992 decline, and this modest improvement ground to a halt in the second half of 1994. Job prospects for those with little or no experience and limited skills and education are dismal. Manufacturing jobs rose modestly in the United States but continued to decline in New York.

The 1994 unemployment rate for young people age 16-19 in New York was 32.3 percent, but this vastly understates the real level of joblessness. The number of young black men either not in the labor force at all or unemployed and seeking work in New York City came to more than nine in ten in 1988, a "prosperity" year, and there has been no movement in the other direction since.

The real purpose of the G.O.P.'s attack on welfare is not to improve an admittedly flawed program but to advance a broader conservative agenda. Welfare is a natural early target because it lacks a powerful lobby, and because the Clinton Administration offers only token resistance--indeed, it was Clinton who first let the genie out of the bottle when he started talking welfare reform during the 1992 presidential campaign.

An immediate goal of the right is to insure a continuing supply of employees for the low-wage service industries and factory sweatshops, which depend on a nonunionized, disproportionately female work force. These women will be even more vulnerable to exploitation under the proposed legislation. This pressure will be applied by a welfare bureaucracy, whose job will be to require welfare mothers to accept the unappetizing employment choices they are given, at the risk of losing support for themselves and their children.

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