When welfare disappears

William Julius Wilson warns that the new welfare law will abandon millions to "sink or swim"

By Lori Leibovich

Published October 4, 1996 12:05PM (EDT)

almost two months after President Clinton signed a sweeping welfare bill, scholars, advocates for the poor and even members of the president's inner circle continue to decry the initiative.

The new law places a five-year time limit on welfare benefits, which under the new plan will be distributed by the states through block grants. Nutrition and food stamps programs will be drastically cut, and legal immigrants will no longer be entitled to receive most benefits.

President Clinton himself admits the bill is flawed and has promised to find ways to provide welfare recipients with jobs. But as it stands now, the bill does not guarantee employment for welfare recipients after they pass the five-year time limit.

One authority who has been vocal in his criticism of the bill is William Julius Wilson, author of "The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy" (1987) and the new "When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor," published last month by Knopf. Wilson, the Malcolm Wiener professor of social policy at Harvard University and an advisor to President Clinton on race relations and urban issues, recently talked with Salon.

When President Clinton signed the welfare bill you called it a "terrible piece of legislation." Do you still feel that way?

I feel as strongly about it now as I did then. I was pleased to see that the president at least acknowledged the need to create jobs for welfare mothers who have reached the new federally-imposed time limit. But the $3.5 billion he set aside to help people get workfare jobs, for example, is just a small step in the right direction. We need much more than that. The president signed an $11.2 billion military bill last week that was $7.2 billion more than he asked for -- which just goes to show that if something is high on our priority list, it's not considered expensive. That $11.2 billion dollars could create almost a million public sector jobs.

Was the president's decision to sign this bill purely political?

If you're not concerned about moral issues or the fate of poor families and you're just concerned about being re-elected, then it was the right thing to do. But the president would be re-elected even if he had not signed the bill. He might have lost a few votes -- but obviously he wasn't willing to take that chance.

If the president is re-elected, will he reconsider some of the harshest components of the welfare bill?

Especially if there is a Democratic congress, steps will be taken to strengthen the bill. It would be ideal if we could go back to the original version Clinton introduced in 1992 that included training and education for welfare mothers.

Why do you think the bill has been so popular with voters?

Because people don't fully understand the nature of the problem. Voters have been hit over the head with rhetoric. They think people would rather be on welfare than working. People say "something needs to be done to turn around the cycle of welfare dependency and while this bill is not the best bill, it's something." I just wish they could understand that welfare mothers hate being on welfare.

Do stereotypes of welfare recipients contribute to this bill's popularity?

Yes, because when people think of welfare, they think of black mothers having babies. While there are about equal numbers of black and non-Hispanic whites on welfare, blacks represent a smaller percentage of the population, so there are a disproportionate amount of blacks on welfare, so that's where the stereotype comes from.

What will happen when a welfare recipient reaches the five-year time limit and stops receiving payments?

They are going to be left to sink or swim with no guarantees of a job. One of the things my book revealed is that employers don't want to hire blacks, especially black males, when they can turn to immigrants or white women. So the employers in the private sector are unwilling or unable to hire these people. We've got to consider public sector jobs for welfare recipients.

One study I cited in my book was a longitudinal study of men and the relationship between race and crime. The study found that black males committed crimes much more than white men -- at a ratio of 4 to 1. But when you compared employed black males and employed white males, there was no significant difference. The reason you have so much violent crime is because people aren't working, and the longer they experience joblessness the more likely they are to be involved in drugs, crime and alcohol. This just reinforces the image that they are not desirable as workers. It's a vicious circle.

Why do you think employers are "unwilling or unable" to hire black welfare recipients?

It's too simplistic to reduce it to racism. When I surveyed employers I pulled out the answers of the black employers and compared them to the white employers, and there was no significant difference. Eighty percent of the black employers had negative things to say about the inner city workers, compared to 74 percent of the whites.

Employers are quite aware that the inner city neighborhoods are difficult places to develop job-related skills. Some inner city kids graduate high school and can't read or write properly, and employers know this. They develop skills that allow them to survive in tough neighborhoods but create problems for them when they have to interact with middle class blacks and whites.

For example, a lot of parents teach their kids not to make eye-to-eye contact because it can get you into trouble. You "dis" people if you look them in the eye. That is a trait that will help you in the inner city, but won't translate into the middle-class work environment.

Some Republican members of Congress have proposed giving churches and charitable organizations tax credits to run poverty programs of their own.

I wouldn't be very optimistic about such a scheme really addressing the massive problem of economic dislocation that we now have and that will increase once this new welfare bill goes into effect. We are kidding ourselves if we think we could substitute such a program for the kind of major government program that is necessary to provide a safety net.

Is there anything positive about shifting responsibility for welfare to the states?

Some states will be much more progressive than others in addressing these problems. Some will do what they can to ensure that people find jobs. But the majority of states will not do what I consider to be "the right thing."

You have to look at the record. No group has experienced a more drastic drop in living standards than welfare mothers. States have let welfare stipends plummet and just have not kept up with inflation.

In your book you write about the need to develop a political model that embraces "a vision of interracial unity that acknowledges distinctively racial problems but emphasizes common solutions..." How can this be achieved in the current political climate?

Our political leaders have to take the responsibility to create messages that resonate with broad sectors of the population. I encourage President Clinton to speak out more often, the way he did when he was campaigning in 1992.

He would go into a black church in Houston and talk about interracial unity, and describe how demagogic messages deflect attention from our real problems -- failed economic and political policies that force us to turn on each other, race against race, instead of looking at the source of our problems. And the blacks stood up and clapped. And then he would go to Louisiana to a white church an repeat the same populist message. And the whites stood up and clapped.

Quote of the day

Thank you...I think

"I have accepted it with surprise, of course with great joy, but also with bewilderment and embarrassment. I am a private person... I will have to be a bit of an official person, and I don't like this, because I'm not a movie star."

-- Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, upon hearing she has been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature (from today's Los Angeles Times).

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------