Reforming Welfare Reform: Clinton Signed the Bill; Now Conservatives and Liberals Alike Have Work to Do If We Want It to Succeed
Cottle, Michelle, The Washington Monthly
With his signing of the welfare bill, President Clinton may have deflated a political football, but he set off a flurry of fortune telling. The bill's proponents are predicting a sunny future with discontented, parasitic welfare moms transformed into a thrifty working class with renewed self-respect. Its outraged opponents prophesy that the new system will give rise to bands of children roaming the streets and enclaves of homeless huddling together in tent cities.
Regardless of which group you fall into, at this stage, most of us agree that the current system has to change. After years of dumping money into entitlement programs that act as a trap as much as a safety net. a message needs to be sent about what our society owes its members and what it expects from them--a message not just for those caught in the system, but also for people like "Gwenn Jackson," a young working mother I met in 1992.
Gwenn was in an English class I was teaching at a community college in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Around 25 years old, with two kids, no husband, and at least one job, Gwenn was taking my class for one reason only: to complete her degree so she could find a better job. Every morning she would drag into class and collapse into a chair, clearly exhausted. She occasionally arrived late or missed class because of a sick child. But she made up the work and often asked for additional help. Gwenn clearly wanted to do well, but reading even a simple sentence was difficult for her. Grading her homework was a chore, and at the end of the term, I put off looking at her final paper until last. Four years later, hers is the only essay I recall.
Asked to address a topic of personal importance, Gwenn chose to write about the welfare system. Now, this woman had grown up poor, black, and essentially uneducated in rural Mississippi. She had no interest in eligibility requirements, state matching funds, or benefit levels. She herself wasn't on welfare. Gwenn's concerns were about the "fairness" of a system that let her neighbors sit home waiting for their benefit checks while she split her time between work and school. At one point, she asked straight out: Why should I work hard when the other women I know sit home all day with their kids? I don't get to spend time with my kids, and I have to pay someone to stay with them.
Truth be told, only a small percentage of welfare recipients are out to cheat the system. (Only 30 percent stay on the rolls for more than two consecutive years.) Most recipients honestly believe they can't find a job that will let them support their families. But while a tragic few cannot survive on their own, many more simply don't like the jobs they can find or are unwilling to endure the frustrations of the workplace. Of course, none of this meant a thing to Gwenn. She had no special skills or connections that made it easier for her to find decent employment, nor was she immune to abusive or patronizing employers. Still, she had chosen work over welfare because she believed providing for her family was her responsibility. Sadly, she was getting just the opposite message from a government she thought rewarded those who opted not to work. Whatever the essay's grammatical flaws, Gwenn's response was clear: She was confused, she was angry, and she was discouraged.
For people like Gwenn, the welfare reform bill sends the long-awaited signal that--while it may be tough--working for your livelihood is the right thing to do. It's also a signal to Gwenn's neighbors that waiting at home for your monthly check is no longer an option. Now, having said all that, I want to clarify something: The bill itself is a dangerously flawed vehicle for delivering this message. It contains a handful of provisions that are downright nasty, and many more that will help or harm depending on how they're administered. (I cringe to hear pundits rave about the "radical experimentation" now possible with states designing their own programs. …