Speaking of Personal Responsibility and Individual Accountability

By Keigher, Sharon M. | Health and Social Work, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Speaking of Personal Responsibility and Individual Accountability


Keigher, Sharon M., Health and Social Work


It being an election year, late summer 1996 has seen a feeding frenzy of "accomplishments" fly from the 104th "Contract with America" Congress. While most of us were watching the Olympics, the Congress--deeply fearful of being labeled "do nothing"--proved that it could reform health care and "welfareasweknowit" after all ("Welfareasweknowit," 1996, p.3).

The legislation free-falling from Capitol Hill to the White House in August echoed the themes invoked gratuitously during August's Republican National Convention--God, family, honor, duty, country--usually followed by the party mantra: personal responsibility and individual accountability. When Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole declared in his acceptance speech, "Individual accountability must replace collective excuses," he insulted social workers everywhere, implying that community-based programs, social security, and health coverage for all Americans somehow exacerbate weakness in the American character. Two pieces of legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) and the Health Insurance Reform Act (P.L. 104-191, 1996), which emerged from conference committees in early August and which President Bill Clinton signed in late August, will operationalize these overworked cliches as thoroughly as anything else this Congress did.

That partisan refrain, personal responsibility and individual accountability, is now heard playing like a broken record on our collective consciousness--from 50 statehouses, from every local government, and in every school. It is already shaping the work of planners and budgeters; eligibility examiners; child welfare, hospital, and nursing home social workers; mental health therapists; and selfless volunteers throughout the land. Like it or not, we all are implementing these complex, probusiness, and regressive welfare statutes.

REAL INTENDED HARM: THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY AND WORK OPPORTUNITY RECONCILIATION ACT OF 1996

Implications for Welfare

"Am I missing something? Throw people off welfare in the name of strengthening families and alleviating poverty?" asked New Republic contributor Alex Kotlowitz (1996) of the congressional welfare bill. He continued, "The `logic' goes something like this: Ending a mother's welfare payments will force her to find a job. Bingo. We've got a working mom, and she's no longer poor. Why didn't we think of this a long time ago?" (p. 19).

Why not, indeed. The experts insisted that reforming welfare would require spending more, not less, money. Nonetheless, P.L. 104-193 will reduce federal spending by $54 billion over the next six years, with the budget savings coming chiefly from cutting food stamps, throwing more than 1 million children into poverty, increasing hunger, and preventing legal immigrants from gaining access to most federal benefits (National Health Law Program, National Center for Youth Law, & National Senior Citizens Law Center, 1996).

As passed, the legislation ends the oldest program in the safety net, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Although the federally assisted AFDC program dates back to 1935 and the original Social Security Act, Skocpol (1996) noted that these "mothers' pensions" date back even farther to the 1910s, when 40 states passed laws allowing local governments to make payments to impoverished widows so they could care for their children in their own homes rather than surrendering them to orphanages or foster care.

In addition to eliminating entitlement to AFDC as of October 1, 1996, P.L. 104-193 repeals the Job Opportunity and Basic Skills Training program and Emergency Assistance to Families with Children. These programs are being replaced by capped state block grants called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which do not go into effect until July 1, 1997. TANF's benefits are limited to a maximum of five years, with recipients required to work after two. …

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