The Myth of Reform: Tougher Is Better

Hours after the 109th Congress convened in early January, Republican majority leaders delivered this startling notice: they intend to transform public aid to the poor into a compulsory work program that offers little opportunity for recipients to lift themselves from poverty. This transformation was the centerpiece of the blueprint President Bush first unveiled on Feb. 26, 2002. Recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the president said, should be compelled to work 40 hours a week. He did not point out that the proposal would eliminate the program’s educational and support features, which have enabled at least some poor women with children to embark on self-sustaining careers instead of working at dead-end jobs that hold them in poverty.

For three years, only the qualms of moderate Senate Republicans and their Democratic colleagues managed to delay reauthorization of the program in the form Bush proposed. These doubters proposed instead to bolster efforts that would enable TANF recipients to earn employer-recognized educational credentials, address drug abuse and alcoholism problems, protect themselves from domestic abuse and provide care for their children as they embark on employment.


This difference of opinion goes to the heart of the dispute surrounding reauthorization of TANF, and indeed of all welfare reform dating back to policy compromises in the late 1980’s. At that time, conservatives agreed to drop from their agenda the elimination of most forms of public aid, if liberals would agree to some form of required work.

President Reagan called it workfare. He tended to view the poor as indolent individuals with criminal leanings, as was indicated famously in his untrue story of the Chicago welfare queen who supposedly defrauded the public aid system using 80 aliases. Reagan argued that the poor should be compelled to earn their assistance money. To critics the idea was like a step backward to the Victorian workhouses, in which indigents, including children, were compelled to work and beaten at the slightest pretext. Reagan’s critics, however, viewed the elimination of poverty, not of aid, as the proper goal.

Compromise brought about efforts designed to lead aid recipients to career objectives and, ultimately, unsubsidized employment. Officials at Employment and Training Choices program in Massachusetts in the mid-1980’s displayed an almost missionary zeal to transform lives socioeconomically, when they begged me not to call their venture workfare in my reporting. I coined the phrase welfare-to-work program, which later became the generally accepted term.

The concept inspired the 1988 experimental Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program, as well as its 20-hour rule, which required that for 20 hours every week, recipients would have to engage in work or related activities, which included training, unless their children were under 6. This requirement was included in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which is still the current welfare law. In order to receive aid, which is limited to a lifetime maximum of five years, recipients would have to earn it by performing a required activity, preferably work.

Yet for someone without a work history or suitable background, this is easier said than done. Every study available points to recipients’ deficiencies in education and a wide range of behavorial problems that constitute barriers to employment. Moreover, the transition to work usually requires undergirding services known as work supports, which range from obtaining appropriate work clothes and transportation to having a subsidized child and health care. Even after getting a job, most TANF mothers need help when a child gets sick or the car breaks down. When such events occur, these women risk losing their foothold on the first rung of career ladders, since most supervisors of entry-level jobs do not tolerate unexpected absences.

The Clinton administration interpreted the welfare reform act’s requirements as an invitation to innovate, and a broad range of novel solutions ensued. In Maine, for instance, the Parents as Scholars program has allowed TANF recipients to live on campus with their children while earning nursing or technology-related degrees. In addition, children learn the value of education and work as they watch their mothers prepare to succeed. A thrift shop in Maryland turned into a retail work training center, but it also became the place where TANF women acquired their first workplace outfits. Goodwill Industries of Southern California began the Welfare-to-Work Job Readiness Program, offering comprehensive transition services to TANF recipients. The key to this program was its job coaches, who followed clients through training and for 90 days after they found their first jobs.

Still, these and many similar efforts have failed to fill yawning gaps. According to a federal estimate, for example, 14.7 million children in low-income families are eligible to receive subsidies for child care, but only 1.5 million actually receive them. Similarly, up to 64.9 percent of women receiving some kind of public benefit reported being abused in various ways, both at work and elsewhere. Fifty-six percent of employed women reported partners harassing them at work by phone or in person; 21 percent said their partners frequently harassed them at work. Under the family violence amendment to the 1996 welfare law, states can refer victims of domestic violence to paid counseling and supportive programs and grant them waivers of such requirements as time limits, residency, child support enforcement cooperation rules and family cap provisions. Nineteen states have adopted many of these policies. Still, many states did not even mention domestic violence in their program plans in the first five years of reform.

Now the Bush administration is ready to double the original work rule, slash training and ignore continued shortfalls in child care and social action grants. State policies have already erased the exemption for women with young children. They are compelled to take any jobfrequently low-pay work with no benefits and are then on their own.

We now knowthrough numerous studies funded by universities, foundations and even the federal governmentwhat was not clear even two years ago: although former recipients are working more than ever before, their poverty has not significantly diminished, and their deprivation has in many instances increased. One-third to one-half of welfare leavers report serious economic struggles in finding food, according to Pamela Loprest, an Urban Institute economist who specializes in this field. Almost 40 percent report problems in paying rent, and while welfare leavers have jobs similar to those of low-income mothers, leavers are less likely to have employer-based health insurance. In a study of those who left welfare within the first five years of reform, Loprest found that roughly 33 percent had to cut the size of their meals or skip meals altogether. Thirty-nine percent reported being unable to pay rent, mortgage or utility bills. Now, several years later amid a weak economy, Loprest has concluded from newer research that the employment of welfare leavers is declining, and that more of them are returning to TANF or simply abandoning public aid as a resource. The early employment success of welfare reform is moderating, she concludes.

In the boom times of the 1990’s it was relatively easy for policy makers to claim success. Today, even skilled workers take cuts in pay or benefits to hold on to employment. In this economic climate, critics say, tough work rules for typically less skilled TANF recipients are tantamount to denial of public aid. Criticism, however, is not deterring work-rule advocates. An aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (Republican of Iowa) warned that if work rules are chopped from the reauthorization package, Republican supporters will tack them onto spending legislation backed by legions of lobbyists. Shortly after the election, Grassley himself signaled his worry that a drift in policy has led state officials to think of TANF as a funding pot for social initiatives, rather than the work program he believes it should be. His gavel is expected to control the course of welfare reform reauthorization over the next two years.

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