July 21, 2006

Commentary:

Welfare rule changes hurt states, the poor

By Premilla Nadasen

President Bush recently signed a bill making it harder for states and participants in welfare-to-work programs to get the help they need.

The bill reauthorized the 1996 welfare reform, which Congress and the Clinton administration designed to push recipients off welfare rolls and onto employment rolls. After 2002, states were required to have at least half of the recipients working or else face a cut in funding.

But in his announcement on June 28, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt issued stricter work guidelines.

States were previously allowed to use their 1995 welfare population as a target for the percentage who were enrolled in work programs.

The new regulations require states to start counting from their welfare populations as of 2005, thus putting greater pressure on states to find work for welfare recipients who remain on the rolls.

The net effect of these stricter rules will be to push more families off welfare.

Since the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program started in 1996, the welfare population has dropped from 4 million to 1.9 million. Nearly all recipients who are capable of work have already been removed from the welfare rolls. Wisconsin, a pioneer in welfare-to-work programs, reduced its caseload by 80 percent.

State welfare administrators agree that most employable recipients have already left the welfare program. Those who are left are the poorest of the poor who have physical or emotional disabilities or substance abuse problems. They are unlikely to obtain steady employment. As a result, funding will be cut.

The fundamental question, however, is whether former welfare recipients are actually faring any better than they were 10 years ago.

Although poverty rates fell during the economic boom of the 1990s, they have risen steadily again since 2000. Single-parent families headed by women are the hardest hit. They are two-and-a-half times more likely to be poor than two-parent families with children.

Despite the assertion by Wade F. Horn, the Health and Human Services assistant secretary for children and families, that “the only way to escape poverty is through work,” this is not the reality for most low-wage workers.

Currently, a full-time worker at the present minimum wage level of $5.15 an hour earns $10,700 annually, which is $5,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Nearly all studies show that the number of homeless families with children has increased significantly over the past decade. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in 2003, 39 percent of the homeless were children under the age of 18.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13 million children in the United States experience “food insecurity.” This means they lack consistent access to enough food for active, healthy living.

Thus, although many have left welfare, few have escaped poverty.

Poor families face enormous obstacles in paying for child care, skyrocketing housing costs, health care and transportation.

The federal government’s concerted efforts to shred the safety net — including the abolition of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996, cuts to public education and a reduction in social service programs — have exacerbated these problems by forcing families to spread limited resources even more widely.

A more practical and fair approach would be to increase the minimum wage, help subsidize housing and child care, make health care affordable and provide economic assistance to families in need.

Overworked parents don’t have time to help children with their homework or meet with their child’s teacher. They are unable to supervise minors during non-school hours or give troubled children needed attention.

As a nation, we should create opportunities — not barriers — to improving the lives of poor families.

Premilla Nadasen is an Associate Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York, and author of “Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States” (Routledge, 2005). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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