The tougher welfare laws instituted by President Bill Clinton with great fanfare have only worked to keep the poor poverty-stricken longer, a former welfare mother who knows the story from the inside, contends.
Since 1996, politicians have bragged about the success of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) but “successful at what?” asks Diana Spatz, executive director of LIFETIME, a California organization working to encourage low-income parents to pursue higher education as their path out of poverty.
“If kicking low-income children and their families off welfare is the measure, than TANF was a huge success,” she writes in the January 2, 2012, issue of The Nation.
States were given bonuses for reducing their caseloads rather than reducing actual poverty, Spatz charges. “As long as families were off the rolls, it didn’t matter how or why.”
TANF’s mantra that “any job is a good job” put even make-work jobs ahead of education. “Tens of thousands of low-income mothers were made to quit college to do up to 35 hours per week of unpaid ‘workfare,’” Spatz writes, “sweeping streets, picking up trash in parks and cleaning public restrooms in exchange for benefits as low as $240 a month.”
“Contrary to the ‘welfare queen’ stereotypes, like most welfare mothers, I worked first. Work wasn’t the problem; it was the nature of the work — low-wage, dead-end jobs with no benefits and little chance for advancement — that kept families like mine on the welfare rolls,” Spatz explains.
Studies showed parents were ten times more likely to get cut off welfare because of punitive sanctions than because they got jobs paying enough to “income off.” In many states, Spatz points out, “‘full family’ sanctions cut low-income children off welfare along with their parents. Under the ‘work first’ mantra, TANF caseloads plummeted by almost 70 percent, as nearly 9 million low-income parents and children were purged from the national welfare rolls by 2008.”
Restrictions on postsecondary education and training — the most effective pathway out of poverty for parents on welfare — made earning an associate degree, much less a bachelor’s degree, “nearly impossible,” Spatz writes. Mothers in the “work first” programs “earn less than $9,000 a year” whereas the same women might have become, say, nurses, and earned a good living if they had taken the education route.
In California, home to one-third of all welfare families nationally, recipients have been “timed off” the rolls automatically after 60 months. In 2003, Spatz recalls, “the vast majority” of parents in CalWORKS who had reached the limit were timed off for the rest of their lives. Since then California, like many another state, has reduced the welfare payment limit to 48 months. Last July alone, 22,500 parents there were cut off in the teeth of the current Depression.
Not only are welfare recipients being cut from payments earlier but States are making it tougher for new applicants to get help. In Georgia, for example, families applying for TANF must face waiting periods before they can get cash assistance, which Spatz calls “the welfare equivalent of a poll tax or literacy test — with caseworkers offering to send children into foster care or put them up for adoption to ease the burden.”
As a result, Georgia is now spending more on adoption services and foster care than it does on assistance to families, Spatz writes. Similarly, Arizona, Rhode Island, and Texas are spending nearly half of their TANF block grants on child welfare-related cases while parents wail as their families are broken up. “I’m not a bad mother, I’m just unemployed,” one woman complained to Georgia State Senator Donzella James, who is getting calls from constituents whose children are being taken away by the Department of Family and Child Services.
Now, as Americans slide ever deeper into poverty, the number of children living in deep poverty is higher than ever. What’s more, the unemployment rate for single mothers (who represent 90 percent of parents in the welfare system) “has nearly doubled to a 25-year high,” Spatz points out.
In 1995, the old welfare program served at least six out of every 10 low-income children, Spatz writes. Today, TANF serves only two out of every 10 poor children nationally. “In passing TANF, Congress and Bill Clinton made good on their promise to ‘end welfare as we know it.’ It’s time to end welfare reform as we know it instead,” Spatz concludes.
It is ironic that a nation that allows giant corporations to evade huge sums in taxes via loopholes and that supports the wealthy with a variety of entitlements, should come down so hard on the poorest of the poor, condemning them to lifetimes of squalor, even to the point of breaking up their families. Of course, this “reform” was started by the same Bill Clinton who created mass starvation in Iraq and inaugurated international kidnapping by the CIA. We need to ask ourselves, “Have we lost all human values?”