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Cover story

Welfare reform makes children prime victims

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff

Although on Wall Street the Dow Index has reached hardly imagined heights is recent weeks, more American children are going to bed hungry in 1999 than in 1996 as a result of welfare reform.

According to a 15-month, 10-state “Welfare Reform Watch Project,” children are the prime victims of welfare reform and The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The project was initiated by Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, in conjunction with five other religious groups.

The findings in “Poverty Amidst Plenty: the Unfinished Business of Welfare Reform” are that “children are experiencing serious deprivation -- and social service facilities [food banks, soup kitchens] are stretched beyond their limits.”

The Network Welfare Reform Watch Project was launched two years ago “to monitor as rigorously as possible the implementation of the new legislation.” The project had two components: statistical and anecdotal.

The anecdotal dimension involved “watchers” -- individuals affiliated with Pax Christi USA or Network or the participating religious orders -- who educated themselves about welfare reform in their state’s welfare plan and monitored welfare clients’ progress and sometimes met with clients personally.

Project “watchers,” in a 12-month period from October 1997 to October 1998 could actually see many former welfare recipients whose health was declining and who were sliding more deeply into poverty.

The statistical survey used clients at social service facilities associated with the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph and Daughters of Charity.

A Drexel University sociology professor, Douglas Porpora, analyzed data in 2,555 questionnaires collected in three phases from 59 Catholic facilities in 10 states (California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas).

These were the states with among the highest caseloads for Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- AFDC. Over an 18-month period the project survey discovered:

  • Numbers of “disconnected” -- unemployed people not receiving any welfare benefits -- rose sharply, from 52 percent to 79 percent.
  • Numbers on welfare dropped sharply, from 33 percent to less than 5 percent.
  • Fewer poor people are receiving Medicare (down from 76 percent to 60 percent) or food stamps (down from 63 percent to 52 percent).

Assemblies point to problems

Welfare rolls began dropping in many states before the 1996 legislation, due at least in part to an improving economy, reports Mercy Sr. Kathy Thornton, Network project director. In Wisconsin, for example, according to the Welfare Reform Watch Project final report, “The combination of a healthy economy, well-designed training programs and relatively generous child-care support helped people shift from welfare to jobs.”

By contrast, in states such as New York and Tennessee, fewer than 30 percent of the people leaving welfare found work. And even in Wisconsin, where 83 percent made the shift from welfare to jobs, only 62 percent were still employed six months later.

Federal and state reports on declining welfare rolls make the transition to work seem easier than the reality, said Beverly McDonald of Groundwork for Justice.

At the 11 Michigan assemblies organized by Groundwork, 1,700 low-income people trying to make it in the work force described the reality:

  • The struggle to improve job skills -- A woman told the South Oakland County assembly that she takes 17 credit hours toward a paramedic license, works 20 hours a week and sees her children only on Sunday.
  • The child care dilemma -- A mother told the Marquette area assembly that if she leaves her children in substandard day-care, she is not a good mother. But if she doesn’t work because decent child care is not available, she is not a good mother either because she risks the loss of all public assistance for her child.
  • Transportation difficulties -- Great distances often separate the jobs from the places where low-income workers or potential workers live. The Traverse City assembly was told that driving a $1,000 car to work “is like waiting for a time bomb to go off.”

McDonald said Michigan’s welfare to work program “is work or else, even though there are protections in the state law against being sanctioned because you do not have child care or reasonable access to transportation.

“But none of the women testifying know that. The families that testified,” she said, “were probably surviving on a mix of strictly low-income earners or welfare supplements. There are so many myths. It would be a rare woman who hasn’t worked on and off. What they run into, of course, as the 15-year-old car quit or the child care provider wasn’t there, is that these are very tenuous attachments to the work force.”

McDonald continued, “These are part-time, minimum wage -- six hours today, three hours tomorrow, seven hours on Friday. Nonstandard hours at times when there’s no public transportation and child care centers aren’t open -- jobs no one else wants to work in a good economy.”

The key Michigan finding: For low-income families, even steady employment does not necessarily mean family self-sufficiency.

There is a further problem. Network discovered that “most states are not collecting information on people once they leave the welfare rolls to determine how they’re faring.”

Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan has a straightforward means for measuring how people are faring economically. “Actual consumption,” he said, “is the bottom-line determinant of material well-being.”

Americans going off welfare are likely to consume less of everything --including food.

The Network Project learned that their respondents consumed less medical care and less dental care than two years earlier; consumed more meals from free food banks and more dinners from soup kitchens. They are more likely to be going hungry than they were in 1996.

The study’s participants were predominantly female (79 percent), and 68 percent of those had minor children living with them. Thirty-eight percent of the women had not completed high school; only 13 percent had education beyond high school.

Women under 30 were less likely to have jobs than men of the same age (22 percent versus 36 percent). Over 30, 20 percent of the women had jobs and 18 percent of the men. The Network respondents were almost equally divided according to race and ethnicity.

Forty-three percent of the respondents said they were eating fewer meals or less per meal than six months earlier because of the cost. Twenty-four percent reported their children were having to skip meals or eat less.

Current policy ‘not working for everyone’

Nearly half (49 percent) said their health was fair-to-poor. Almost one third (31 percent) had been unable to pay for medications ordered by their physician; 45 percent couldn’t afford needed dental care. Fourteen percent of their children received no dental care; 25 percent could not afford emergency dental care for their children when the occasion arose.

The Network Project reported that the working poor are suffering, too. Forty-one percent of those with jobs said they had experienced hunger in the previous six months. The children of the working poor surveyed were suffering from lack of food (22 percent), lack of adequate health care (14 percent) and unmet dental needs (24 percent).

Network said that Second Harvest, the nation’s largest food bank network, reported a 10 to 35 percent increase in food assistance, and 70,000 turned away empty-handed in 1997 because there was no food.

States the Network report: “The hunger and lack of health care experienced by large numbers of people using private social service facilities indicate that current welfare policy is not working for everyone.”

The challenge in finding solutions, declares Network, involves returning responsibility for the alleviation of poverty nationwide back to the federal government. Network recommends a litany of governmental actions that echo from the Johnson “war on poverty” years -- suggesting how little the root causes of poverty have altered: further increasing the minimum wage; providing accessible assistance for people unable to work; pushing banking and finance reform to give low-income communities access to credit; committing to a full-employment economy to provide work at sustaining jobs for all able to work; enacting educational reforms to provide basic skills essential to employment opportunities.

Network, meanwhile, has committed itself to lobbying on food stamps, day-care, affordable housing and similar issues, while embarking on a further “watch project.”

The next phase will monitor the effect of time limits on benefits for people in poverty, examine the effect of inadequate public transport on people getting and holding jobs, and identify steps required to pass legislation to alleviate a range of needs.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999