Is the Welfare System Making Americans Incompetent?
August 23rd, 2011
The Huffington Post
By: Janell Ross
Sasha Mandel says she never imagined going on welfare. But her plans for a career and the independence she craved ran headlong into a pair of unforeseen developments — an unplanned pregnancy at 18, and the worst job market since the Great Depression.
In April 2009, freshly unemployed and devoid of savings, Mandel reluctantly walked into a state office in Phoenix to apply for welfare. Her caseworker was sympathetic, swiftly arranging emergency food aid along with cash assistance. But she was also clear on the limits of that relief: Under the terms of Arizona’s welfare program, Mandel could draw a welfare check for no more than three years.
That timeframe was about to get shorter. This April, cash-strapped Arizona tightened the limit on welfare payments to two years. Mandel learned about the change when she received a letter from the state in June. She was only a few weeks away from exhausting her benefits.
“That letter,” she said, “it just said to me that they decided to change the rules when the game for single mothers is already really, really hard.”
Fifteen years after President Clinton joined with congressional Republicans and affixed his signature to a law that “ended welfare as we know it” — imposing a five-year time limit on federal cash assistance for poor families, while allowing states to set shorter limits — the social safety net is failing to keep pace with the needs of struggling Americans, many experts say. Millions of single mothers are falling through the cracks, scrambling to support their families with neither paychecks nor government aid.
Welfare reform, one of the hallmark events of the Clinton presidency, was supposed to be a healthy tradeoff: Single mothers who had grown dependent on government checks would instead go out and work. The federal government gave the states lump sums of money, known as block grants, to create programs that would prepare, prompt and push poor single mothers accustomed to living on welfare into the workforce, providing job training, resume-writing tutorials and subsidized child care.
But the time limits on cash aid were enacted in the mid-1990s, in the midst of one of the most vibrant job markets in modern times. Today, with nearly 14 million people officially out of work and jobseekers outnumbering available positions by more than four-to-one, the logic of those reforms is being overwhelmed by the reality of a stark shortage of paychecks, experts say.
“Today, everybody is expected to work,” said Sheila Zedlewski, an economist at the Urban Institute and co-author of an institute study released last week that examines the consequences of welfare reform during the recession. “The problem is finding a job is incredibly hard.”
Since the beginning of the recession in late 2007, the nation’s unemployment rate has increased by 88 percent, while welfare caseloads have grown just 14 percent, according to the Urban Institute report.
Experts say this disparity reflects the inadequacy of remaining welfare programs in the face of a veritable epidemic of joblessness. During a period of national distress, fewer and fewer people have been able to secure help to meet their basic needs, according to the report.
Between 2007 and 2010 — just as the economy was contracting and joblessness was rising, generating greater demand for public assistance — welfare caseloads dropped in 13 states, according to the Urban Institute report. In Arizona, which faced a particularly powerful blow to its finances in the form of a sustained plunge in housing prices, the welfare caseload dropped by 48 percent during that timeframe.
Many of those who advocated for ending welfare as an unlimited entitlement say the change has been beneficial — the share of single, never married mothers in the workforce climbed from 62.9 percent in 1996 to 72.4 percent a decade later, according to federal data.
“Poverty rates are still lower and work rates still higher than before welfare reform,” said Ron Haskins, who played a key role in shaping the policy as a senior Republican congressional adviser, and who is now co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. “In that sense, welfare reform has been a success.”
But as Haskins acknowledges, the reforms have never managed to address the barriers confronting a small subset of welfare recipients with very limited education, significant physical and mental health problems, or unhealthy children, preventing them from entering the workforce.
The share of people who both live in poverty with no reported income and lack welfare assistance has changed significantly since welfare reform. In 1996, 1 in 8 single mothers fit this profile, according to Zedlewski. By 2008, the most recent year for which this data is available, that figure had climbed to 1 in 5, she said.
In the early days after welfare reform, many states enacted stricter time limits, Arizona included, and beefed up programs offering subsidized child care — a crucial component for single mothers required to work. The budget crisis assailing states has prompted many states to effectively roll back these programs.
States around the country are slashing cash benefits, reducing time limits and, in some cases, imposing strict work requirements on welfare applicants, said LaDonna Pavetti, an expert on welfare who works at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The practices also make it very hard for parents already dealing with a job crisis, a disability or other complications to qualify for cash aid, she said.
In the 2000s, states also began shifting federal funds that could be used for cash benefits for single mothers to cover other costs. Some of the money went to cover the cost of child care or transportation assistance. But large shares were also used to fund state child welfare agencies, which frequently don’t get all the resources they need from states.
In 1997, the first year the reforms took effect in most states, Georgia used 73 percent of its federal welfare block grant to provide cash aid to poor families, according to data the state reported to the federal government. By 2009, the most recent year for which complete data is available, Georgia spent just 11 percent of its block grant on cash aid. Spending in Florida, Texas and Arizona plunged by similar margins.
The impact of these cuts is easy to discern: Far fewer poor families are being given cash assistance. In 2009, Georgia and Texas each provided cash aid to less than 10 percent of poor families, according to the Urban Institute report.
“You have so many people who were pushed off welfare who didn’t find work in the beginning, and today there are so many people who can’t get welfare at all,” said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor who resigned from a senior position in the Clinton administration to protest the President’s decision to sign welfare reform into law. “As an anti-recessionary tool, welfare as we know it today is useless.”
Edelman compares the paltry expansion of the nation’s welfare rolls during the recession — from about 3.9 million families in 2007 to about 4.4 million families in 2010 — to what happened to the food stamp program. During the same time period, food stamp program participation rose from about 30 million households to 44 million, reflecting real levels of economic need.
“What we’ve done is make things worse,” Edelman said. “There are now people who cannot find work, and who can not get welfare.”