Welfare's dead. Now what?

"Get a job" is easier advised than done

Published August 1, 1996 8:45AM (EDT)

the Senate today is set to pass a welfare reform bill, that in President Clinton's words, most certainly will "end welfare as we know it." Under the bill, which Clinton is likely to sign on Friday, public assistance will no longer be a guaranteed federal right or responsibility. Aid to Families with Dependent Children is no more.
Five years is the maximum anyone can receive welfare benefits. Individual states will administer the programs under block grants as they see fit. There is no mandate for states to provide substitute work programs; nutrition and food stamp programs have been cut; legal immigrants are no longer entitled to receive most benefits.

Clinton acknowledged that the legislation had major problems and that his own advisers were deeply split, as is the Democratic party and editorial-page commentators. We talked with two policy experts with two very different views of the legislation: Poverty scholar William Julius Wilson and Democratic Leadership Council official Ed Kilgore.

Wilson is Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University. An adviser to President Clinton on race relations and urban issues, he is the author of "The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy" (1987). His new book, "When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor," is due out in September from Knopf.

You have written of the need to radically change welfare in this country. Does this bill do it?

No, it makes matters much worse. It's a terrible piece of legislation, based on ideology, not on scientific data, and reflects the ideological shift in the country rather than any understanding of the relationship between welfare and joblessness.

What is the worst aspect of the bill?

The bill does not guarantee employment for recipients after the five year limit on public assistance. So how are these people supposed to get work? I've been studying joblessness in the inner city for eight years, and I know how hard it is for people there to find jobs in the private sector.

Of the various categories of people now on welfare, who are hurt the most by this bill?

Inner-city families. Particularly mothers on welfare who live in high poverty areas. They already have great difficulty finding jobs in the private sector. Employers, based on our research, clearly do not want to hire these people, especially when they can hire immigrant women from outside these neighborhoods. That's why you need public sector jobs of last resort, which this bill doesn't provide. So, you're going to find a lot more families on the street, sleeping on heating grates and in homeless shelters.

Black men are going to have an even more difficult time, because of the same perceptions. What happens is, black men, responding to the declining opportunities in manufacturing sector, now have to compete with women and immigrants for the few jobs that do exist. An increasing number of them go jobless and respond in predictable ways -- with drugs and alcohol. And that just reinforces the perception that they are unreliable and undesirable. So, what's going to happen to them?

Supporters of the bill say that states will have to come up with work-oriented programs.

There's no basis for that kind of optimism, given the cutbacks in welfare programs that we've seen in many states. Yes, there are some programs that work in states where the economy is healthy. But what happens when we move into a recession? And that is bound to happen with our economy at some point -- maybe as soon as a year. Faced with serious budgetary constraints, I don't think that the least powerful groups -- like people on welfare -- are likely to be listened to very much on the state level.

Still, there is a belief that this is a step toward breaking theso-called "culture of welfare."

I don't accept that basic premise. I've never met a welfare mother who wants to be on welfare. Based on studies, including my own, they hate being on welfare.

You say that there have to be public sector jobs. Where does the money come from?

From taxes. We estimate it would cost $12,000 per job per year -- that's $12 billion -- which sounds like a lot in the short run, but overall, to do it right, and really get people off of welfare, isn't it worth the price? Society still has to figure out what it's priorities are, and what it's willing to pay for them.

Wouldn't society be paying for dead-end jobs?

First, it's better to have a dead-end job than no job at all. Second, these jobs could involve working in municipal parks, increased garbage pickups, filling in potholes, cleaning playgrounds, staffing libraries -- all those jobs that have been hurt by budget cutbacks but are important for improving the quality of life. And they help prepare people to enter the private work force.

Some people say that politically Clinton had no choice but to sign this bill.

Of course he had a choice. He could have vetoed the bill and still have won the election. I was surprised, I didn't think he would sign it. So, I'm embittered.

But you'll still vote for him in November.

Of course. We have no choice. It would be irresponsible to stay home. And we have to mobilize politically after the election. You have to be optimistic that we can turn things around, otherwise you throw up your hands in despair.

Ed Kilgore is the political director of the Democratic Leadership Council, which supports President Clinton's decision to sign the GOP-drafted legislation.

There is a lot of criticisms of this bill. A New York Times editorial today was headlined "A Sad Day for Poor Children." The Urban Institute, using figures cited by the Department of Health and Human Services, says one million more children will be thrown into poverty.

These studies are based on the success -- or lack thereof -- of current programs that seek to move people out of welfare and into employment. I don't think they are terribly relevant to what will happen under the new system. Essentially, these studies assume that work-based welfare reform cannot succeed and therefore won't. As a result, they conclude that there will be a major drop in income for families that are currently receiving public assistance. These studies assume failure at the outset. Nobody can reliably predict what 50 states are going to do in the future to implement this legislation.

But the legislation doesn't force the states to even provide work alternatives.

No, this legislation doesn't guarantee genuine, effective work-based welfare reform, but it makes it possible. We think people who are making dire predictions have a special moral responsibility to stop criticizing and to begin focusing on action at the state level. Yes, states could implement this legislation simply by reducing benefits -- as they can do now, by the way -- or simply by disqualifying large numbers of recipients. So what we all need to do is to focus on the state level and keep that from happening.

Assuming the best -- that the states will come up with work-oriented programs -- where do the jobs come from?

Every experiment we've seen -- for example the America Works program in New York, where welfare recipients are focused on entry-level jobs, and where the focus is on supporting them as they make the transition out of the world of welfare into the world of work -- they've had extremely high success rates. And the jobs have been there. Granted, the percentage of welfare recipients who could find jobs quickly will depend on economic circumstances, along with how effectively the states focus on the idea of "work-first."

But a lot of these experiments -- like in Wisconsin -- are costing the government more, not less.

Well, here's the way you have to look at it. From a static point of view, yes, giving a welfare recipient a wage subsidy or job placement and support services on top of cash assistance may cost more than what they're receiving today. But if you can move people out of the welfare system into work quickly enough -- especially in the private sector -- you actually save money in the longer run.

Which boils down to political commitment and availability of resources.

Yes. And some of those are in the bill -- for example, additional child care resources. But certainly, and I'll repeat this again, those folks predicting millions of children sleeping on heating grates, they have a special moral responsibility to shift their attention to what the states are going to do. There is a risk, especially with states controlled by Republicans who think the solution is just to get rid or welfare altogether. But keep in mind that up until now Republicans at the state level have been able to just talk tough. The new block grants, whatever else they will do, will create a whole new political dynamic at the state level, where conservative politicians won't have that luxury.

How so?

They could, if they chose to, just disqualify people from receiving any sort of public assistance. But the social consequences would be immediately obvious to the citizens. In addition, Congress can come back whenever it wants to and fine-tune this legislation.

How do you defend the stripping of benefits from legal immigrants?

If the president chose to veto this legislation on that ground, we would have supported him. But I think he made a judgment that at the moment there was really no practical way to detach that provision from this legislation. He didn't want to make it hostage to welfare reform.

And "ending welfare as we know it" was as politically important as Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes"?

Yes. Republicans would have been able to say, well, he vetoed three bills, so three strikes and he's out! That could have really revitalized the Dole campaign in a way that could have been pretty serious.

Quote of the day

End of the line

"America is set up for the middle-class people. The poor people, everyone looks down on a poor person, like they're on drugs or they have no place on this earth. You try to get some help and you're shunned. Trust me: I would not be in this place if I didn't have to be."

-- Kristin Nichols, 20, an AFDC recipient in San Francisco. (From "People on Welfare, Too, Find a Lot to Criticize," in Thursday's New York Times).

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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