August 24, 2001

Commentary

"TIME FOR A FRESH LOOK AT WELFARE REFORM"

By Congressman Bob Filner

In 1996, the welfare reform bill was signed into law. Federal cash assistance for low-income people was replaced with state grants that provide Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF programs are designed to reduce welfare by imposing lifetime limits.

This law was supposed to be the answer to poverty in America. Unfortunately, it is not.

It is true that welfare reform reduced welfare caseloads. States were provided strong incentives to drop people from the welfare rolls. But persitent and deep poverty is still with us. Nationally, welfare caseloads have been cut by 41.3%. Among the 21 most affleunt nations in the world, the U.S. has the highest poverty rate of poor children-12 million, twice as high as the next country. And how did the poorest single mothers with children do during the greatest economic boom in history? They were the only group in America that actually lost income in the past five years. The welfare reform experiment of five years ago has in many ways escape poverty after they have left welfare.

The true indicator of the success of welfare reform is whether states' poverty rates are declining, not their caseloads!

Work was supposed to be the magic bullet. But while roughly two-thirds of parents leaving welfare do find jobs, these jobs typically provide an income that is well below a woefully inadequate federal poverty line. And these jobs are often temporary, so many families find themselves out of work, and out of luck, when emergencies strike. Their jobs are often without benefits, such as health care or sick leave. Welfare reform fails to promote education as a way out of poverty. It often falls short of providing basic supports like transportation and childcare assistance to parents struggling to balance work and family. Welfare reform provides no answers to these problems.

In addition, the new system has complex and sometimes punitive rules that punish families trying to help themselves. Families who do receive welfare are quickly pushed off before they get the training and support they need to "make it" in the job world. A new law makes legal immigrants who entered the country after 1996 ineligible for a wide range of public benefits. Single parents who lose a job or face a personal crisis have virtually nowhere to go.

For the millions of poor families who were never on welfare, welfare reform changed nothing, except that they have more company at the bottom end of the labor market.

I recently participated in Community Forum on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) sponsored by San Diego RESULTS, an organization dedicated to ending hunger and poverty. We discussed some of the successes and failures of the first five years of TANF and explored ideas to improve this program.

Welfare reform is a slogan. Poverty is a fact. For those who supported the 1996 welfare reform, it is time to make good on the promise of a better life for those who leave the welfare rolls.

The real question before us is not whether welfare reform succeeded or failed. As the economy slows down, the issue now is how we provide a ladder of opportunity to all struggling families.

The first step is to open up the system and eliminate bureaucratic rules that prevent two-parent families, low-wage workers, and immigrants from getting cash assistance and other support to supplement low wages.

We need to make a commitment to help families advance and move into better jobs by allowing parents to attend school or training programs.

Low-wage jobs just don't pay enough to support families, and we need a system that supplements low earnings and provides a path to a living wage job.

For families who are "playing by the rules", by going to work or pursing training or education or other activities, a time limit on benefits makes little sense.

Low-income parents with little work experience should be offered public, wage-paying jobs that offer decent wages, benefits, education and training.

Finally, we need to recognize that while all parents struggle to balance work and family, it is hardest of all for low-wage workers whose jobs are never "family friendly" and don't offer sick, parental, or vacation leave. Until employers step up to the plate and offer their lowest paid workers decent pay and benefits, we need a system that doesn't force parents to make impossible choices between their jobs and their kids.

There are promising programs and examples to build on from states and communities around the country. And research about these programs shows that increasing family incomes and training and education pays off for children and society.

But only the federal government can coordinate all the programs and articulate a bold vision to build on these examples. Of course, this will require increased funding and a clear federal signal to states that they will be held accountable for reducing family and child poverty. The good news is that the public has moved beyond the angry welfare debates of the past decade and is ready to get serious about poverty.

Congress will soon consider a new round of welfare reform legislation, so it is critical that we draw the right lessons from this experience. We need a fresh, bold new vision that puts the reduction of family and child poverty at the heart of the next debate.

Congressman Bob Filner represents California's 50th Congressional District - which includes Chula Vista, National City and the southern half of the city of San Diego -- in U.S. House of Representatives.

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