Improving Welfare Reform

In a radio address last Dec. 5, President Bush expressed concern about soaring unemployment in the recession: It’s a time to reach out to Americans who are hurting, to help them put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads. The president emphasized that his immediate priority was to bring help to those who need it most.

That noble goal should include the 2.5 million adults who have left the welfare rolls in recent years. Many of these people work in some of the industries devastated by the terrorist attacksas maids, waitresses, cooks and clerks. By Oct. 1, 2002, Congress must reauthorize the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block-grant program. Created by the 1996 welfare reform act, this program replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children. TANF mandated work as a condition of receiving benefits, and it imposed a five-year time limit on assistance to able-bodied adults.


Because the time limit coincides with the current economic downturn and rise in unemployment, TANF participants are confronted with an elimination of benefits and possible job loss. Unless the current welfare system is improved, the outlook is bleak for these families to put food on their table, keep a roof over their heads and have health insurance. There are several issues that need to be amended in the reauthorization of TANF. My recommendations for change are formulated within the ethical framework proposed by the Administrative Board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (Moral Principles and Policy Priorities for Welfare Reform, 1995).

The goal of welfare policy should be to move former welfare recipients out of poverty. In the Catholic social tradition, a fundamental criterion for all public policy is the protection of human life and dignity. Work is both a means whereby people secure the necessities of life and a way to achieve self-realization, which is what gives work its dignity. On one hand, welfare reform has helped to protect human life and dignity by encouraging work. Stories of former welfare recipients testify to the increased sense of self-worth they experience as a result of entering the workforce. Even when employed in menial or low-wage jobs, workers often experience a sense of community and mutual support.

That is not the case, however, when people fall deeper into poverty through work. A report from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., showed that although poverty is down overall in the nation, it actually has increased among working families, especially for single women with children, who comprise the majority of TANF participants. Most women who had been off welfare for two years or less had incomes below the federal poverty line ($17,062 in 2001 for a family of four). The longer they had been off welfare, the less likely they were to have health insurance for themselves or their children.

With the median monthly earnings of former welfare recipients at $1,045, even after including benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps, the percentage of families in poverty has increased dramatically. There has also been a significant percentage of people who have developed health problems and at the same time had benefits terminated because they failed to meet work requirements. In short, despite the rosy scenariosthe end of welfare as we know it and rising tides lifting everybody’s boatsthe working poor are not doing very well.

To protect human life and dignity, especially the most vulnerable, the goal of welfare policy should be clear. It ought not to be moving people to work within a limited time frame in order to decrease caseloads and modify behavior; it should be helping people to move out of poverty and stay out. If the goal is to reduce poverty, then reform will be a success if people who have left welfare are better off than they were when on welfare.

Penalties on poor motherhood should be removed. Welfare reform was meant to encourage two-parent families and decrease the number of children born outside of marriage. States reap bonuses for reducing out-of-wedlock births. This goal is based upon the belief that single-parent families have been largely responsible for decades of child poverty, delinquency and crime. There is substantial research to support the claim that two-parent families do better economically than single-parent families, and that the most supportive household for children is one with two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.

The proportion of poor American children living in households with two adults has increased since 1996. A survey by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., however, found that single mothers are increasingly likely to live with unmarried partners. The increase in cohabitation has been sharpest among those who have been prodded by welfare change. The solidity of these new households and the well-being of the children growing up in them is questionable because stability, the primary ingredient for child development, is often missing. For the most part, these marriages and cohabitation households are crisis-driven. Women need help with rent, utilities, child care and transportation.

Another problem is that the current law devalues the mothering performed by women on welfare. Current work requirements imply that poor women are fit to provide care for other people’s childrenfor example, in day care centersbut they are not assisted to care properly for their own. Even women with babies may be required to work part-time to keep their benefits. With the focus of TANF on getting welfare mothers off assistance and into the job market, the blame and responsibility for social problems is implicitly placed upon single mothers.

If well-paying jobs are available, along with good day care, poor women will make choices the way other women do. Some will find work more fulfilling; others will choose to be full-time homemakers. The choice should be theirs. This will require an expansion of what counts as work to include parental child care. Moreover, the current policy ought to be supplemented with incentives toward responsible fatherhood. While the Bush administration has pledged $200 million in grants over five years to community groups that promote fatherhood and marriage, this is neither sufficient nor does it counterbalance the punitive measures confronted by single mothers on welfare.

Work is not only to be encouraged; it also needs to be rewarded. Low-wage employment by itself cannot ensure that all people who leave welfare will become self-sufficient. Many have not. Former welfare families with a full-time worker experience the lowest rate of hardship, but even among these successful families, work is not enough to ensure they can make meager ends meet. Given the extra income required just to participate in the workforce, the working poor are likely to have difficulty meeting work-associated expenses like child care and transportation costs. Women with less education, with poorer health, with younger children, and women who are themselves young have considerably lower incomes and rates of employment after leaving welfare than do women in the opposite circumstances. For those who had been on welfare for the longest periods, employment rates and incomes are considerably lower than average.

Work alone does not ensure a decent standard of living. Most former welfare recipients are in low-wage, dead-end jobs and do not make enough to support a family. They often find themselves with less money than they had when they were not working. In addition, these workers fall deeper into poverty because of the loss of supplemental benefits. If work is to be encouraged, it must be rewarded by either a just wage or a combination package of wage and supplemental benefits that will move families out of poverty.

Financial investment is required to protect human life and dignity. There should be sufficient investment in the programs and benefits necessary to move people out of poverty. One of the presumptions of the 1996 welfare reform was that benefits ought to be restricted as much as possible. But corporate welfaredirect subsidies to businessfrom the federal government has been on the increase, especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

A report by the Cato Institute estimates that corporate welfare amounted to $87 billion in fiscal year 2001. Furthermore, the economic stimulus plan favored by the president contained almost nothing for the unemployed, but it included $25 billion in retroactive corporate tax cuts and lump-sum transfers to corporations. And we ought not forget that most of the huge, 10-year tax cut that was recently passed went to people with annual incomes of more than $200,000. Tough-love principles of reform ought to be applied to corporations and the wealthy at least as fairly as they are applied to welfare recipients.

Just distribution of federal funds would allow the necessary expansion of work supportslike supplemental funding for poorer states and contingency fundingwhen states suffer high unemployment or large caseload increases. Government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit, can substantially add to family well-being for low-wage workers. The food stamp program should be reauthorized and included in a package with TANF reauthorization. Further, child care and good child support laws, housing and transportation supplements are crucial elements in a strategy to achieve the goal of helping welfare recipients leave and stay out of poverty.

A guaranteed safety net should be preserved for the vulnerable. When TANF replaced A.F.D.C., the federal government-supported safety net was devolved and responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable and needy people was assigned to the states, with wide discretion in deciding whom to help. States can impose mandatory financial sanctions for noncompliance with program requirements, such as the work activity mandate. These sanctions can be severe, and sometimes they are not equitably enforced. Even without increased federal spending, states should have the money to help people if they return to welfare. States still receive the same amount of federal welfare money they did six years ago (about $16.5 billion a year), although they serve fewer than half as many clients. While this money has been used by some states to finance new services for the poor, many others have used portions of the excess federal block grant for tax cuts, roads and prisons. The point is, there is no guarantee that the states will protect the most needy.

In a faltering economy, faced with declining revenues and fixed amounts of federal money available, states are likely to cut aid just when these vulnerable workers need it most. Many states are spending less when they ought to be spending more, because the families remaining on welfare are likely to be those who are least able to find jobs. Even in the period of economic prosperity, states had a mixed record in protecting the most vulnerable workers. Since 1996, the states have been permitted to expand Medicaid coverage through a waiver to working parents with incomes over the poverty line, but only 11 states have done so, and even then only to families earning less than 150 percent of the unrealistic poverty-line figure.

In Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity requires that one should seek assistance at the lowest level. When a smaller social unit is either unable or unwilling to meet the obligation, however, it becomes necessary to turn to the larger social unit. While recourse for assistance should not automatically be the federal government, there is an obligation to intervene when states cannot fulfill their responsibility to care for the needy.

For those who cannot work, or whose work is not sufficiently compensated, it is necessary to provide a guaranteed system of support. A safety net needs to be reinstated by the federal government guaranteeing that any eligible poor person can receive aid to help him or her moveand remainout of poverty. The nation needs to reform its welfare system, not abandon the federal government’s role and responsibilities in fighting poverty.

As the time approaches for Congress to reauthorize TANF, the Catholic community has an opportunity to help create a more just welfare policy that will not only benefit those who need it most in the short term but also protect the most vulnerable members of society in the long term. Altering the goal to focus on poverty, encouraging and rewarding work, providing necessary financial investment and guaranteeing a safety net for the most vulnerable will better protect human dignity and strengthen families. These improvements in welfare reform will also help achieve the president’s stated goal: to bring help to those who need it most.

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