July 2 2004

Commentary

Sabotaging The Poor

By Deborah Cutler-Ortiz

It is an age-old tactic to chalk up the ills of poverty to the poor themselves. Blaming the poor enables those in charge to shirk their responsibilities for ensuring at least a minimal standard of living for all citizens. It relieves the policymakers from having to take responsibility for the systematic issues that perpetuate poverty—keep the poor poor. A clear example is the pending welfare reauthorization. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—the legislation that pays for assistance to households with minor children—expired on June 30.

The Bush administration has proposed drastic and injurious changes to TANF that include reducing or eliminating access to education and training, denying additional funding for child care, eliminating the requirement for states to screen for barriers (i.e., disabilities, mental health problems, educational levels or substance abuse), and imposing harsh work requirements. 

In spite of the fact that President Bush himself has stated that people must be provided the resources and flexibility to help make the transition to self-sufficiency, the admin-istration’s proposals reveal the emptiness of this rhetoric. Demonstration of the administration’s sentiment was exemplified on May 20, when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson testified before a House committee, and claimed, “Being poor is a state of mind, not a condition.” 

Policymakers’ statements do not get real people jobs, nor do they ensure that jobs provide adequate hours, benefits or a living wage. Indeed, people are working and looking for work in a tenuous economy. More than 30 million families work, but continue to live in poverty. One-third of welfare recipients who find work do so for minimum wage—$5.15 an hour—a rate stagnant for more than seven years. This wage ensures that families will continue living in poverty. Furthermore, these jobs usually lack benefits such as health insurance or paid leave. Compounding the issue are welfare system obstacles that stymie individuals seeking more-skilled positions by prohibiting education and training opportunities. These impediments clearly limit upward mobility. While the financial portfolios of highly skilled workers seem to be doing better in recent years, the earnings of less-educated workers have stagnated or fallen.

The most successful welfare programs help parents find employment and increase earnings by focusing on education and training coupled with support services. Skills and education are strongly linked to success in the labor market; the more education and training a person has, the more likely to find a job paying a decent wage. 

Critics dismiss the reasons welfare recipients give for avoiding work, like not having access to child care or fear of losing health insurance. This specious and cruel dismisal sets a family up for failure; a parent simply requires child care to work. On March 30, an overwhelming majority of 78 senators voted in favor of a $6 billion increase in child care funding. They recognized the 500,000 children on waiting lists for child care; a number representing only the 18 states that maintain a waiting list. Many states have merely given up accepting applications. In response to this bipartisan support, the Bush administration stated it would not support an increase in child care funding through TANF, thereby dismissing efforts that would ensure recipients have access to crucial support services for employment.   

The administration blame game of denigrating the poor has hindered the implementation of proven welfare policies. It is more compelling to address the problems of unemployment, underemployment and low wages for people trying to get off welfare—rather than character flaws of the poor. Leaders in Congress who care about the families’ well-being must step up to the plate on welfare reauthorization. Helping families become self-sufficient, preparing them for permanent employment and lifting them out of poverty should be the goals of the welfare program. Simply mandating longer work hours unaccompanied by sufficient supports does not accomplish anything. Congress must allow welfare recipients to receive an appropriate education and training, child care, transportation and health insurance so they can become self-sufficient. 

Deborah Cutler-Ortiz is director of the family income division at Children’s Defense Fund.

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