Most cannot earn enough to lift their families even to the poverty line. They must still rely on help from others.
DEAR Mr. Gore:
Congratulations on your acceptance speech. It was an impressive performance. I, for one, approve of a speech that contains details.
As an advocate for welfare recipients in Baltimore, however, I have to tell you that many of your details about welfare reform were wrong.
Welfare reform has had the salutary effect of focusing many welfare officials on helping recipients find work. Eager recipients have responded and many have found jobs.
But even where recipients and welfare officials do their best, it is not enough. Many welfare recipients live in places like Baltimore, where jobs for relatively low-skilled workers are scarce, pay little and are located far from where most unemployed parents live.
The result is that, in Baltimore as in most of the country, only about half of the parents whose families have left welfare in the last few years have found work in the first quarter after leaving welfare. The work they have found is low-paying - on average between $800 and $1,000 a month. And the work does not lead to better-paying jobs over time.
Like Mildred Nystel of Waterloo, Iowa, whose story you related in your speech, parents leaving welfare for work are working hard. Unlike Ms. Nystel, most cannot earn enough to lift their families even to the poverty line. They must still rely on help from others. A little bit of help comes from absent parents, but the amounts are small and few families benefit. Most of the help they need must come from the government, and a number of means-tested benefit programs have been established for them.
Unfortunately, many eligible families do not get what the law provides. For example, nearly all families leaving welfare are entitled to food stamps. A study sponsored by the Maryland Department of Human Resources found that only 54 percent receive them. The same study found that these families do not get the earned income tax credit, either. This widely touted benefit for low-income working families was received by fewer than 20 percent of the families.
Every family that leaves welfare for work is entitled to receive Medicaid, at least for the first six months after leaving welfare. Across the country, few states have been able to ensure that these families get Medicaid. Maryland was one of the first states to acknowledge the problem. Beginning in the middle of last year, the state undertook an extensive effort to review every single case. Even then, however, the rate of families receiving Medicaid after leaving welfare for work did not reach the legal level of 100 percent.
One way to help families to leave poverty is to increase the minimum wage. I applaud your commitment to raise the minimum wage, but the goal you have set - to raise the minimum wage above the level of welfare benefits - will accomplish little. The benefits paid to welfare recipients are far below what a minimum wage job pays today. In Maryland, for example, a family of four receives no more than $417 a month in cash assistance, the equivalent of working less than 20 hours a week at minimum wage.
Your goal should be a minimum wage that provides families with enough to live on, much as it did in the 1960s. Since the enactment of a living wage is not likely, you need another goal: a public benefits system that provides ongoing support for families. And, unlike our current public benefits system, the new system needs to be simple, accessible, reliable and adequate.
A new public benefits system also needs to respect parents, as you said in your speech: "I believe we must challenge a culture with too much meanness and not enough meaning. And as president, I will stand with you for a goal that we share: to give more power back to the parents, to choose what your own children are exposed to, so you can pass on your family's basic lessons of responsibility and decency."
In contrast to your elegant formulation, our present system disrespects, disempowers and distrusts parents.
Parents are told what they must do and when they must do it. A mother who cannot bring herself to leave her toddler in a poor daycare situation risks losing her meager welfare benefits if the caseworker has a different opinion about the quality of the daycare provider.
A parent who decides that she needs to be home some afternoons to protect her teen-ager from dangers in the neighborhood needs to ask permission from a caseworker. Parents are not free to decide that their children would be better off if the family spent more on housing and less on daycare and food, because much of their income is in the form of vouchers -- some for food, some for rent, some for daycare, etc., etc.
The current patchwork of means-tested, targeted benefits is not working and is not likely to work. If you really plan to fight for working families, you need to come up with a better system.
I hope you will devote some of your undisputed energy and talent during this important campaign year to fight for what low-income families really need.
Karen Czapanskiy is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law specializing in welfare reform and family law.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun