Welfare 'Reforms' Aim at Punishing Poor: Stingy Aid Programs Usually Self-Defeating

Article excerpt

A mid the shadow of the debate health-care reform has begun a second, less-noticed debate on welfare reform that deserves more attention from those concerned with justice in America.

The United States has been tardy in developing government assistance to the poor, and its programs have remained minimal compared with European industrialized countries. It has continued to maintain a suspicious and punitive attitude toward poor people, viewing their poverty as personal failure rather than a problem of the economic system.

Public assistance to the poor has been seen as public charity, rather than a basic right of all citizens to a minimum standard of life's necessities. Welfare caseworkers are poorly paid, given an excessive caseload and an inordinate amount of paperwork and required to investigate the assets and social, relations of the applicants in a way that puts them in an adversarial relation to those they are supposed to "help."

Public assistance had developed and been expanded in the United States in times of social crisis but has been kept at a level well below the federal poverty line, which is itself unrealistically low. Aid to Dependent Children was one of the programs initiated under the Social Security Art of 1935 along with the Social Security system of retirement pensions, aid to the aged, blind and disabled and unemployment compensation. It was expanded to become Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1950, giving a family grant primarily to unemployed women with dependent children without a male breadwinner.

The outcry against poverty and hunger in the limited States m the 1960s brought new programs of food aid, food stamps and supplemental nutritional programs for recent mothers and undernourished children as well as Medicare and Medicaid, various job-training programs and early education experiments, such as Head Start.

In the 1980s, under the Reagan and Bush administrations, federal assistance for all those programs was drastically cut and the state were forced to assume a larger percentage of the costs. Millions of people were dropped from the welfare rolls or had their checks for food stamps reduced. Mother and child nutrition programs, funds for school lunches, job training for youths and Head Start all were slashed by presidents who at the same time escalated the military budgets to more than $300 billion annually and reduced taxes for the wealthy. The impression was given that public assistance was far too costly and "didn't work" creating population of Welfare "loafers," while gargantuan military budgets went unquestioned.

Contrary to the impression. that public assistance creates a permanent underclass of welfare "loafers" who live in comfort without having to work, 80 percent of welfare recipients receive benefits for only two years and 50 percent are off welfare within one year. Most who apply for welfare do so reluctantly: because they were forced to by a precipitous loss of income due to illness, death or desertion by the person who had provided the income for the family. Women with dependent children go on welfare because their husbands lose their jobs or desert them or they are forced to flee an abusive relationship and they themselves unemployed. They use welfare to tide themselves over while they look for a job or the skills to acquire one. The high costs of child care prevent many from getting training and taking jobs. …