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Beneath welfare reform: another layer of the exploited

As the Welfare Reform Act begins to take effect, evidence is piling up that it will have devastating effects for great numbers of poor people who need public assistance. But its negative impact will reach far more widely. The workfare program, as it is being implemented already in several states, drags down the pay of low-wage workers both in the public and private sectors.

A coalition of 68 churches, synagogues and nonprofit groups in New York City is challenging Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's Work Experience Program, in which 35,000 welfare recipients are already enrolled, a number projected to expand to 100,000 over a few years. Some 2,500 workers have been placed with nonprofit agencies; the others work directly for the city, cleaning streets and parks and doing other jobs.

One ambition of the engineers of workfare was that it not be subject to the minimum wage stipulation. In the budget tussle just concluded between President Clinton and congressional Republicans, Clinton prevailed in making workfare subject to the minimum wage. Although the minimum wage is scheduled to go up to $5.15 an hour on Sept. 1, it will still fall far short of a living wage. But inadequate as it is, it remains unpalatable to right-wing ideologists who would leave wage fixing exclusively to market forces, with no consideration of human needs.

The workfare program, which in New York City has thousands of welfare recipients already doing work previously done by higher-paid city employees, is but one of many attempts to undercut the minimum living wage.

These workers, in addition, the city insists, are not its employees. They consequently do not enjoy the protection of laws guaranteeing prevailing wages, health and safety protection, or the right to organize. They are not eligible for overtime, promotion, earned income tax credit, unemployment insurance or Social Security.

Extrapolate from the hundred thousand welfare workers projected for New York to the millions who will be involved as this system spreads across the entire 50 states, and we will have in the United States yet another substantial layer of exploitation. The New York coalition leaders who described the situation as a new form of slavery may indeed have been guilty of embellishment, but their outrage is understandable.

Significantly absent from the broad coalition of Protestant, Jewish, organized labor and other philanthropic groups is any Catholic institutional presence. Given the long tradition of active support of the worker by the Catholic church in the United States, a support fully in accordance with papal social teaching, this absence is surprising.

Previous to the Second Vatican Council, there was a somewhat haughty reluctance on the part of the Catholic church to become involved with other religious bodies. But the council's document on the church in the modern world, as well as its stand on ecumenism, called us clearly to take a stand for justice and human rights with all people of good will.

There is another factor in Catholic reluctance to take an adversarial stance against civil authority. Many -- though not all -- Protestant traditions give prominence to prophetic critiques and countercultural stances. The Catholic tradition, by contrast, generally encourages positive reactions toward the prevailing culture, an attitude reinforced in the United States by the long struggle to be accepted as full citizens.

Yet our bishops have, on occasion, taken strong critical stands, most notably in pastoral letters such as the one on the economy. We have a strong voice. It is stronger when we join it to that of others in promoting the common good.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997