Welfare as They Know It

Fifteen years ago, on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton perched at a podium in the White House Rose Garden and signed the bill that would become known as welfare reform. Flanked by three former welfare recipients and looking glazed and smooth as a donut, he swept aside six decades of social welfare policy with a single triangulating stroke of his pen, reversing a course that had been set by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. In the process, he handed the law's right-wing backers their first emboldening victory in a far bigger, dirtier, and still raging campaign to unravel the government safety net.

"Today we are ending welfare as we know it," Clinton declared, the words "A New Beginning" emblazoned on the podium beneath him in case anyone missed the point. From that moment on, needy families would face a strict five-year lifetime limit for welfare assistance. They would have to comply with stringent work requirements. Handouts would be replaced by a hand up, self-destruction would yield to self-sufficiency, and dependency would give way to the starchy respectability of personal responsibility.

Or, as Clinton promised, "Today we are taking a historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life."

Exactly fifteen years later, a handful of welfare recipients gathered in Harlem, just a few blocks from Clinton's post-presidency redoubt, to describe exactly what Bubba's "second chance" has meant for them. They had been brought together by Community Voices Heard, a grassroots group of low-income people forged out of the fires of welfare reform, and their stories crisscrossed the spectrum of welfare experiences. They were several women and one man, they were white, black, and Latina, they were young and they were older - and their verdict was as swift and final as a guillotine.

"It's a failure. It's a total failure," said Melissa McClure, a reedy-voiced 50-something with a Louise Brooks bob who successfully managed gift stores before falling on hard times and applying for welfare in early 2007.

"If I had a worst nightmare, this would be it," said Ketny Jean-Francois, a Haitian-born single mother who spent four years in the welfare meat-grinder before managing to land a spot in a nursing program - against welfare reform rules - and then a job.

The lone man of the group, Bill, a single 49-year-old with a host of physical and psychological ailments, struggled to find the words before spitting out, "It's definitely not achieving the goals of helping out," he said. "The official line is, 'If you're not working, we want to see you working. If you have children, we want to help you so you [don't] come back.' But if that's really the goal - no."

Failure. Nightmare. Not achieving its goals. None of these descriptions are part of the official line peddled by welfare reform's sponsors and backers. If you hear anything these days, it's how dramatically welfare caseloads have dropped in the last 15 years - 57 percent! - and how salutary it's been for the country. "We renewed the American spirit by emphasizing personal responsibility in place of generational dependency on government," boated E. Clay Shaw Jr., former Republican congressman and drafter of 1996's welfare reform law, in a recent Politico editorial. Indeed, far from questioning the law's fundamental merits and efficacy, many Republicans (and a few Democrats) have taken to complaining that the law hasn't gone far enough, that its implementation has been too lax and its lessons not fully adequately exported. "The job is not finished," Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and Ways and Means Committee Chairman, said in a statement. "[O]ther programs can and should be reformed to follow suit."

And yet, to listen to the people who know welfare reform best, to the "Reformed," the reality of the 1996 law is not only a far cry from the compassionate conservative triumph it's trumpeted to be, it's a crucible for the failures of the stingy, starve-the-beast, punish-the-poor philosophy so in vogue among the Tea Bag brigades.

A hand up? More like a slap down, say those who've been through the system. The famously-touted welfare-to-work programs are little more than exercises in make-work and are often exploitative to boot. Childcare remains persistently scarce. Job training is poor to non-existent. And on the increasingly rare occasions when people do find jobs, these jobs are often low-wage gigs that fail to hoist them out of poverty.

Meanwhile, life on welfare has become shorter, harsher, and more strapped. Cash grants have stagnated or even fallen in a number of states, with the median benefit for a family of three now clocking in at $429 a month, just 28 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Time limits have also gotten shorter. And while caseloads have certainly plummeted, it's fairly clear that a hefty portion of this drop can be attributed to steep new barriers to entry - and time limits, of course. How else to explain the fact that at the height of the Great Recession only 28 percent of Americans living in poverty received welfare assistance while 75 percent got welfare help in 1995? In 13 states, welfare rolls actually declined during the recession, according to an Urban Institute report.

All of which suggests that for all the braying triumphalism, our nation's great welfare reform experiment is little more than an elaborate shell game, a confidence trick in which poor people get shuffled this way and that while their lives remain essentially unchanged. Or get harder.

Take the case of Bill, the lone man at the Community Voices Heard gathering, who wore a charm bracelet of Catholic saints around his wrist and asked to keep his last name on the down-low since most of his family doesn't know his situation. Bill is a college graduate who spent years working in and around the computer world until the recession conspired with a greedy landlord to take most of his income (he made only $6000 in 2008) and then his home. Eviction was followed by homelessness. Eventually he landed on Public Assistance, which immediately put him to work in New York's notorious workfare program.

The city's workfare program is the twisted, and nationally celebrated, brainchild of former New York City mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and a small cadre of conservative think tank gurus. It requires public assistance recipients to spend 35 hours a week doing a mix of job search and work activities - or face losing part or all of their benefits. These work activities, grouped under the condescending title of the Work Experience Program (WEP), include jobs like sweeping streets, cleaning parks, doing security, filing - low-skilled, formerly union jobs for which the WEP workers are not paid, per se, because they are actually working off their benefits. Hence the comparisons to indentured servitude. Alternatives like education and training courses are generally forbidden, and exemptions for disabilities or disease are difficult to obtain. The reason: a "work-first" ethic so unrelenting that Giuliani's most notorious welfare commissioner, Jason Turner, famously explained, "It's work that sets you free." (Apparently he skipped the chapter in his high school history book about the Holocaust.)

"Work-first," however, has not set many welfare recipients free. It certainly didn't help bill.

Bill is a man of many ailments, something that is apparent to the casual observer almost upon meeting him. Smart and sensitive, he is beset by the tics and torments of a man with serious depressive and anxiety disorders. He also underwent major surgery for a tear in his stomach in 2010. But within weeks of the operation, unable to bend, lift, or twist and suffering from pain and panic attacks, he was required to go back to his welfare-mandated job search and work activities. All so he could continue to receive $45 a month in cash assistance.

"It's like trying to trip a handicapped person," said Bill, who was recently judged disabled enough to qualify for Social Security Disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income - though not before suffering a year in the workfare trenches. "But I have to stress that there are so many people that are in a much, much worse situation, and they're making them [work].... I saw guys nodding off in wheelchairs!"

Such stories reverberate throughout the archives of welfare reform, but even the stories that aren't so patently bad aren't so pretty either. Everyone has something to tell. For Ketny Jean-Francois, for instance, it was working a WEP assignment for the sanitation department in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, a swath of asphalt and misery famous for its brisk drug and prostitution trades. Each day she would head to her assignment picking up condoms, needles, and "doodoo" (as she delicately put it) in the protective company of one of her male co-workers, but that only seemed to encourage the Johns, who would invariably stop her "guard" to ask her going rate.

As for Cheina Goncalec, a petite 27-year-old with two young kids who moved to New York in search of work, her story revolved around her stint as a security guard at a West Harlem community center, a WEP experience that consisted of fending off the occasional cursing, threatening gym-goer without any self-defense training whatsoever. But that was just icing. There was the constant abuse by welfare agency workers. And the arbitrary closing of her case. And the welfare agency's refusal to let her substitute education or training for WEP, even though "the only way to get out of welfare is getting a good job," she said. And there was the fact that after a year-and-a-half spent doing "job search" and WEP, she was no closer to finding a permanent job - or climbing out of poverty.

Given such snags in a program widely touted as one of the jewels of welfare reform - so "successful" that it's been used as a model for the creation of workfare programs in places as far-flung as Israel and London - it would seem like it might be long past time to re-evaluate. There are certainly plenty of smart ideas. And since the welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is set to be reauthorized in September, this would be the perfect time to debate, tweak, even radically reshape it.

Perhaps the most desperately-needed change is a philosophical one, a shift in purpose and focus from welfare reform as an experiment in punitive behavior modification and deterrence to welfare as a genuine anti-poverty program. From this, everything else would follow: welfare caseworkers caring and experienced enough to help applicants get the services they need (beginning with access to welfare) rather than deterring them; higher cash grants which would allow recipients to live rather than simply subsist; access to quality child care; programs and alternatives for people with barriers to employment; training programs that are tiered to meet recipients where they're at - and prepare them for quality jobs; and above all, subsidized employment programs that would train and then place recipients in bona fide, living-wage paying jobs.

"During the Great Depression, they put people to work doing what they knew to do," said Melissa McClure, offering an example of the kind of jobs program she'd like to see. "All that and you were paid, and it was promoting you into a better position."

And yet, what are the chances? The government couldn't - or, more accurately, wouldn't - even maintain the TANF Emergency Fund, which provided subsidized jobs to some 240,000 unemployed people and was one of the few effective jobs programs created during the Great Recession; instead, it let its funding expire last September. And with Congress divided between slack do-nothings and rabid ideologues (the worst really are full of passionate intensity), the fight over "reform" has moved from the fringes of a fraying society to the center, from the question of entitlements to the poor to entitlements more broadly.

Welfare reform, it turns out, was just the warm-up. It was a test-case and a prophecy, "a new beginning" after all. And as the first hard yank on the threads holding together the country's safety net - its social contract to provide for the needy - it should have been a clarion warning. Welfare reform was an attack on all of us.

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