Welfare Reform Two Years Later: Which Way Is Up?

By Tingling-Clemmons, Michele A. | National NOW Times, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform Two Years Later: Which Way Is Up?


Tingling-Clemmons, Michele A., National NOW Times


A single parent who is also a college senior carrying a 17-hour class load applies for welfare in a small Midwestern college town. Although she is incomeeligible, she knows she will be denied because to get assistance she would have to drop out of school in the final semester, make 10 job contacts a week and take a class on how to fill out applications and make it to work on time. This she refuses to do because she believes what the statistics show - that education is the best permanent path out of poverty. She fills out the 10 pages of forms as a required step to extend medical coverage for her small child (one of the principal reasons families seek welfare) and awaits her appointment.

Another young woman enters the public assistance office, dripping from the pouring rain, holding a baby in one hand and a fistful of papers in the other. Despite her assertion that she does not know where to locate her child's father and that she has done all that she has been asked, she has been dropped from the welfare rolls for "noncompliance" with the state office in establishing paternity. She is sent back into the rain to another office to argue her case again.

The New York Times reports that an epileptic mother of two in Idaho who lost her welfare benefits sometimes goes without food for days so her kids can eat. (Idaho's welfare caseload has dropped 76 percent in the past year, more than any other state.)

Each of these situations counts equally on the welfare reform success ledger as one less household on the welfare roll. Yet, the declining number of welfare recipients fails to reveal the desperate situation of families in a disposable society, a society that has deemed certain people poor parents and their children, the disabled, new immigrants, unemployed adults without children - expendable.

Decline in Welfare Recipients Touted As Success

In a recent article, (Washington Post, "Welfare Reform 's Unprecedented Success," Aug. 10, 1998), the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Bill Archer, R-Texas, trumpeted the falling welfare caseload, equating the fact that fewer families are receiving income support with proof that "welfare reform is working." Archer cites as a guiding principle of the Welfare Reform Act "fight[ing] poverty by helping families escape the dead end of welfare dependency."

The Department of Health and Human Services reported earlier this year, however, that it could not determine how many clients were no longer on the welfare rolls due to actually finding work because the states are not keeping data on why people have moved off the rolls.

Not that work is any protection against poverty: the U.S. minimum wage of$5.15 per hour is so low that earnings for 52 weeks a year, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day provide just $10,712-less than the poverty level of $13,330 for a family of three and just $100 above the poverty level of $10,613 for a family of two.

Playing Politics With Poverty

On August 22, 1996, President William Jefferson Clinton joined his conservative congressional cronies and ensured his place in history by signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the most brutal abdication of U.S. government responsibility for the poor in our nation's history. With one stroke of the pen, Clinton ripped the safety net of income support from our nation's poorest people, snatching assistance from poor single parents (mostly mothers) with children, Hmong veterans (who had been promised support in return for their war service in the Vietnam Conflict), legal immigrants, able-bodied adults without dependents and disabled children.

The Welfare Reform Act was a politically expedient act, which blames the victims, offers them few tools and ensures that while some families may survive its brutality, many will not. The added bonus of the legislation's construction is that most of us will not even know the depths of despair to which it will subject many of our next generation, simply because they had the bad luck to be born poor.

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