August 22, 2001 marks the five-year anniversary of welfare reform. "Ending welfare as we know it," as President Clinton then said. The new policy has been touted a success by politicians and the media. Welfare caseloads are at a historic low. Thousands of welfare receipts are now working. But we can't forget the real face of welfare: women, mothers, workers, survivors and most importantly, children. Women and their children represent the vast majority of people on welfare.
To really understand the impact of welfare reform, we can't simply count the numbers. We must look at the quality of life of people on welfare. Have we reduced poverty at the same rate as our caseloads? Are food lines shorter? Are our families better off after welfare reform? The answer is no, no and no.
Mothers on welfare often have to choose whether to pay for housing, utilities, childcare or food. Since reform was enacted, emergency food assistance programs across the country have seen a 76 percent increase in requests. While caseloads have been cut by an average of 50 percent, there's only been a two percent decrease in poverty. Keep in mind these numbers are from the economic boom years.
The day-to-day face of reform is women are being forced into low-wage, service-sector jobs with few benefits and less job security. And if things are not easy for recipients in general, they are even more difficult for women. Remember, women typically only make 75 cents for every white man's dollar. African-American women make only 65 cents, and Latinas only 55 cents.
Women of color face greater discrimination. Studies show that women of color are being diverted from the welfare rolls and sanctioned off welfare at much higher rates than white women. Research also shows white recipients receive more encouragement, more support and more direct assistance for childcare, education and training than women of color. Thus, white women are leaving the rolls at a rate higher due to employment.
For example, my own personal experience as a welfare recipient was caseworkers would refer women of color to service-sector jobs paying minimum wage while my white counterparts were referred to office jobs paying $10 per hour. We must stop and ask ourselves why this bias exists and what can be done about it.
Federal welfare legislation must be reauthorizated by October 1, 2002. Congress has a real opportunity to eliminate poverty and increase the standard of living for poor families. Congress must stop welfare time limits for women working in low wage jobs; in education or training programs; in caring for their young children or overcoming domestic violence. Congress must also boldly address racism and sex discrimination that is destroying the potential of an entire class. This capitalist society must invest in human capital, if we are to survive.
This is Martina Gillis for TomPaine.com.
Editor's Note: This commentary was produced for TomPaine.com by Steven Rosenfeld. A version of this commentary first appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
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