Welfare's True Colors. (Comment)

By Delgado, Gary; Krajcer, Menachem | The Nation, October 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Welfare's True Colors. (Comment)


Delgado, Gary, Krajcer, Menachem, The Nation


With the 1996 welfare law expiring this fall, Congressmembers would do well to stop congratulating themselves on its alleged successes and turn their attention to the glaring failures of the new system. Devolution, or the defederalization of public assistance programs, effectively rolled back the protections and standards won in the welfare offices by organizing efforts in the 1960s and in the courts by poverty lawyers working to increase access to benefits for poor people of color.

By giving states so much discretion to discriminate, welfare reform has compounded and institutionalized racial inequality. Even though whites earn an average of 50 cents more per hour, the National Urban League points out that whites are far more likely to receive government help after leaving public assistance than their African-American and Latino counterparts. Studies of welfare-leavers in Arizona, Illinois and Florida found that blacks were much more likely than whites to be sanctioned for administrative reasons and less likely to leave welfare for employment.

Current welfare policy also ignores systemic discrimination in the labor market, which has become even more pronounced with the recent recession. An Urban Institute study found that employer demand for African-American and Latino welfare recipients is lower than their representation in the overall welfare population. After September 11, the increase in unemployment rates for African-Americans was almost double that for whites. Figures from July of this year indicate an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent for whites, 7.5 percent for Latinos and an alarming 10.7 percent for African-Americans.

Can a focus on racial equity give progressives an opening to "reform welfare reform"? Emphasizing civil rights has been frequently overlooked as a viable strategy, but it is proving to be effective. The work of the Brooklyn-based group Make the Road by Walking, which focuses on language discrimination in welfare offices, has led to probes by the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services, and to a federal court ruling to compel the City of New York to obey state and federal civil rights laws. Similarly, a series of race- and language-testing projects at welfare offices in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Arkansas and South Carolina found that states deny access to benefits on a discriminatory basis. By focusing on racial and language discrimination, Idaho Community Action Network's testing project resulted in sweeping changes in implementation of the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Starting in November 2000, the Applied Research Center (ARC) brought together welfare rights organizations, researchers and national civil rights organizations to devise and launch an effort to address these issues. …

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