Time's up

Welfare reform enacted in the prosperous '90s is pushing the first wave of families off public assistance amid today's recession. An expert talks about the consequences.

By Suzy Hansen
Published February 4, 2002 5:46PM (EST)

One of the many questions that critics of President Clinton's 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act -- the "end of welfare as we know it" -- used to ask was, "What happens to the poor when there's no more welfare and the economy goes bust?"

That dark scenario became a reality last month as the first wave of Americans lost their benefits during a recession accelerated by a national tragedy. To many, welfare reform seemed like a success story: The number of people on welfare dropped 50 percent; the number of people living in poverty dropped, too. That was during good times, however, and now many states, afforded more freedom by the 1996 law, are wondering whether their deadlines have come too soon.

But beyond unemployment and thinned-out welfare rolls, what were the last five years like for welfare recipients? Surprisingly, as LynNell Hancock, author of "Hands to Work: The Stories of Three Families Racing the Welfare Clock," writes, we haven't heard much about the people supposedly benefiting from the policy often touted as one of the most important reforms of Clinton's administration.

Hancock, who's written for the New York Times and Newsweek, spent over three years with three very different Bronx women who were trying to survive in a post-welfare reform world. She observed the tiny details of their stress-ridden lives. There's Brenda, an African-American single mother of two; Christine, a Puerto Rican mother of four and a heroin addict; and Alina, a young Russian refugee desperate to become a doctor. What Hancock found was a mind-bogglingly bureaucratic system unsympathetic to the complex and varied lives of the people it intended to serve.

Salon spoke to Hancock from her home in Montclair, NJ.

A lot of people lost their welfare benefits this January.

It's like two trains colliding. One train is this recession that was already starting before Sept. 11 and then was exacerbated by it. Unemployment is rising -- 35,000 people were laid off from Ford just the other week. The other train is all these welfare recipients who are timing off their benefits and are expected to go out into an economy that has fewer and fewer jobs.

One of the hallmarks of welfare reform -- the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act -- was a deadline. Families have a five-year lifetime limit to be on welfare. So if you went on welfare in 1996, and you had a family, your benefits timed out at the end of December. Now, every month, a new wave of people time out of their welfare benefits for a lifetime. The assumption is that a deadline is all people need to become self-sufficient, when in fact the situation can be much more complicated. And it doesn't take into account something like Sept. 11, which accelerated the recession and unemployment. States are already looking at their deadline policies and giving exemptions to more people than they thought they would. In September, Congress is going to look at all these policies. I hope they decide to eliminate the deadline. It seems arbitrary.

How many people have been pushed into self-sufficiency? Do we know?

Success rates depend on who you talk to. Welfare rolls have dropped by more than half, so the assumption is that a percentage of those have moved out of poverty. Unfortunately, there are too many others who are working but are still poor. Those are the numbers that are growing and are more alarming.

Recently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors put out a survey that showed a 23 percent rise in the number of people who are seeking emergency food help in soup kitchens and a 13 percent rise nationwide in people seeking homeless shelter over last year's figure. Only 60 percent of the people who are eligible for food stamps actually are getting them. That's another indication that there is a problem with hunger out there.

What made you decide to look at the personal side of welfare reform?

In 1995, I was on a bus in the Bronx and I saw a group of junior high school girls giggling and taking over the atmosphere of the bus. Then, all of a sudden, they stopped. One of the girls was looking out the window and she whispered to her friend that that was her mother picking up trash on the side of the street. She said, "My mother told me she was working in an office." This was a long time ago, before the Personal Responsibility Act was passed, but the city had already instigated a work experience program that put 35,000 welfare recipients on the streets working off their benefits by picking up trash.

We'd only heard stories in the paper that were mostly self-congratulatory about how wonderful the system was and how it was really helping to push people off the welfare rolls and into jobs. But in that instant on the bus, I realized there must be a hundred personal stories about how this was affecting real people's lives. I was surprised how many people so generously agreed to let me into their lives.

Why did you choose these three, and what do their examples show about welfare?

I finally chose the Bronx as a background to the narrative; if all of the women lived in the same neighborhood, that would at least provide one unifying factor. The Bronx was an important geographic place because there's an extremely entrenched welfare population there. The unemployment rate is always about twice the city's average, and the city's average is usually about twice the national average. The Bronx would be the real testing ground.

I chose people who were willing to stick with me. Brenda, for example, is an African-American single mother of two. Her demographic is statistically common among welfare recipients. She had a high school degree, and yet she didn't have a college degree, which really would have upped her marketable skills.

How much did their educational backgrounds affect what jobs they found?

It had a tremendous effect. To me, one of the biggest failures of welfare reform is that they have really devalued education as a way to lift people out of poverty. It's a time-honored way out of poverty. A college degree lifts a person's wages something like 30 percent.

And the welfare system didn't seem to make it easier for students like Alina.

Exactly. In fact, Alina basically had to skate under the radar in order to get her bachelor's degree. The welfare rules really don't allow recipients to get four-year degrees, and often they make it impossible for them to get two-year degrees as well because the emphasis is on work. They fill up their days with 30-hour WEP, or Work Experience Program, assignments, which are unpaid. It makes it very difficult to study, to go to class or to care for children.

As you wrote in your book, when Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility Act, he said that the money spent on welfare was not the point. Then he indicated that welfare has so much more to do with attitudes. Why haven't we come to terms with welfare?

If you have a large percentage of people in the richest nation of the world who are unable to lift themselves out of poverty, people who are uninformed immediately will say, "It must be something about them; they don't have the work ethic." We were always suspicious of having the federal government hand out money to people -- until the Depression. But compared to other industrialized nations, we've always been notoriously stingy with our social welfare programs. In 1996, we were only spending 1 percent of our national budget on welfare. The result is that we have the second highest rate of child poverty among the 24 Westernized nations.

In the 1960s, the welfare rights movement started heating up in New York City. There was no federal program to make sure that they knew they were eligible. Once programs were set up, the rolls tripled with mostly single black women with children getting welfare. This changed the whole racial complexion of welfare and started sending off alarms in Congress: "What are we doing developing a whole segment of our population who will be dependent on welfare?" The old ambivalence kicked in again: "How can we give people something for nothing? It's going to create indolence and laziness, they'll lose their work ethic and we're doing a disservice to society."

Did you see evidence of that? Did you see that the welfare system had bred laziness?

It's very rare. I expected to see more of it than I did, and I was looking for it. Occasionally, I would hear about a friend of another welfare recipient who everyone was down on for being on the rolls for so long. But none of them was living the queen's life as Reagan liked to portray. There was no one driving around in a Cadillac. These people were really scraping by. Most people have worked their whole lives.

The more common situation is that a mother worked at a minimum wage job. She had no health insurance. So when something happened -- for example, she got sick or pregnant, her child got sick, her teenager needed some help, a custody situation devoured her time -- that mother has to quit her job. The only place she could turn was the government.

With these three women, did you get the impression that they all wanted to work and get off welfare? How did they feel about welfare?

They felt that this was a system that was designed to degrade them. At the same time, they needed the help to eat and pay rent. So they were grateful that it was there. Medicaid was an extremely important benefit. But in order to get welfare and stay on welfare, there was a daily set of indignities that they had to endure, and they often felt that the rules were very counterproductive.

Did you think that the New York system was trying to bounce people off the rolls?

Without question. That was part of the design. The administrators and the lawmakers were often quite candid about that: They believed that welfare is bad. They designed the welfare offices to make sure that they would deter people from welfare rather than sign them up. If there was no other choice, then they would immediately send them into WEP work.

Another piece of evidence that shows that this was deliberate was that the city never really divulged what happened to all the people who were bumped off welfare during most of the six years of welfare reform. They were constantly being asked, "OK, 500,000 people have left the rolls. What's happened to them?" They didn't reveal that data.

Have they revealed that now?

Not with the sort of data that we would like to see. Just recently, we found out that only 6 percent of the people who were working WEP jobs got real jobs, which is a very embarrassing figure for the city. Of course, this is what everyone was suspecting.

You mention, at one point, that they were devoting a lot of energy and money to fraud investigators. What did these women have to deal with?

In 1995, when Giuliani started welfare reform in earnest, his top priorities were 1) to put welfare recipients to work for their benefits, and 2) to beef up fraud investigation. The idea was that if we can push people off the rolls who don't legitimately belong there, then we can really start cutting back on welfare dependency in the city. He set up a fairly expensive fraud investigation bureau in Brooklyn.

Now, when a person goes on welfare, they first get all their documents checked by the local welfare office, then they have to go to the fraud investigation office to have the same documents rechecked. They get fingerprinted. Then they have to wait in their apartments for a fraud investigator to visit their home. If you miss one of these many appointments, you get bumped off and have to start all over again. That's another reason why welfare recipients feel that all these things are designed to just get them off the rolls and not really help them. They feel like criminals. They're under suspicion from the second they apply for help.

What was your impression of the caseworkers? Are they paid well? How do they act toward the welfare recipients?

I wish that I could have had more voices of caseworkers in the book, but they were under a gag order by the mayor. The general answer is no, they're not paid well and they're fairly miserable. Their ranks were cut back enormously, so their workloads were much higher. You have the whole range of caseworkers -- some who were really happy that they could start cracking down on welfare recipients, and others who went into casework because they wanted to help people. Still, they could only tell people, "You have to go work. I don't care if you don't have the child care you like. Here's what you have to do or else we'll bump you off." The atmosphere of the welfare office was never one that didn't need reforming. It was always a fairly humiliating experience, but it wasn't quite as punitive as it became after 1995.

Do you think that Clinton's welfare reform was inadequate because they were expecting people to make these transitions in a short amount of time? Or do you think that we simply can't do without welfare in this country?

It was fairly unrealistic to expect people to just get off welfare and get a job. It did not take into consideration all the constellations of problems that individual recipients have. It failed to provide the supports that people need to get a job and stay off welfare. The goal of welfare reform was to end welfare and not necessarily to end poverty. We're seeing the results of that now with the rise of the number of working poor. People were pushed into low-paying jobs. They didn't have time to build up their skills to get better jobs and they didn't have time to go to college, so they were forced into the job market at a minimum wage level, which kept their families in poverty.

But the poverty rate fell, right?

It did fall. Economists are still trying to figure out if that was because of the amazing prosperity boom in the '90s. The researchers have found that most of the people who were most successful in getting off welfare were those who already had a high level of education and a high level of job experience. It was not successful among those who had an enormous number of barriers -- mental illness, sexual abuse, substance abuse, no high school degree and so on. That's the group of people that are still on the welfare rolls.

After witnessing what some of these women have been through, do you think it's the government's responsibility to address things like domestic violence and addiction? How can it?

This is how complicated the whole problem is -- yes, if we really are serious about getting people to work and getting them off public assistance, then we have to recognize that there are all sorts of issues that keep them from being able to keep a steady job and move up in the job ranks.

Take Christine. She almost didn't have a chance from the moment she was born. She was sexually abused her whole life. She had relatives who would blow crack in her face and addict her at a very young age. Her mother died violently when she was 17 years old -- she was either pushed or fell out of their fifth-story Bronx apartment building -- and this forever affected Christine. This is a very smart woman. She managed to get a high school degree and a real estate license. She can do it, if she gets help with a lifetime of mental illness.

This is one thing that you see a lot, especially in the Bronx. Mental health services are very sparse, and the need for them is enormous. Many of these people end up doing drugs in order to self-medicate. She also suffered domestic violence. I was totally overwhelmed by the amount of trauma in her life. I was amazed that she gets up and takes care of her four kids every day. We've got the money to deal with these issues if we want to divert it into programs that help people.

In your sections on Alina, who is a Russian Jewish refugee, you mentioned that there are certain poor, immigrant communities that fare better than others. I'm wondering what helps them out, and what does that tell us about what struggling communities need?

I didn't do a lot of reporting outside of the Russian Jewish population on this topic, so I'll be speaking in generalities. But the Korean community tends to do better, too, and that's mostly because they come over to a community that's already intact. They all help each other. Uncles and aunts are already here who help establish family members in a greengrocer's store, for example. For Russian Jews, the federal laws as well as the state laws are much more generous. Russian refugees -- as well as Cambodians, Vietnamese, Thais and Laotians -- are given four months of federal assistance, and then they're allowed to go on welfare right away.

The regular immigrant population, outside of these small groups, are not allowed to go on welfare until they've been here for five years. Those are a very difficult five years; they come over with little money, no English, few job skills. That's the period of time when they really need some help. You can only surmise that making them wait five years is an effort to push them back home. I also think that they don't want people to flee here in order to get on welfare.

Russian Jews also succeeded in a lot of ways because they had intact families here. There are lots of foundations for Jewish refugees that are directly involved in assisting these families. There's a federal/international network that helps them; there's a lot of interest in maintaining religious freedom. And certainly we were against the Soviet Union, so we love to help anyone who wants to flee.

The other factor is that in the Soviet Union, and also in Korea, the school system was quite good. So the people coming over had a strong education background. In Alina's case, from the day she was born she wanted to be a doctor, and this was possible in the Soviet system. She never gave up that dream.

How much were these women expected to live on?

The welfare benefit in New York City is $577 [a month] for a family of three, and that includes a $286 rent subsidy. If you think about it, what apartment can you find for $286 in New York City? That does not include health insurance. They're expected to live on $577, and that rate has not changed really since 1970 in real dollars. So it keeps people in deep poverty if they remain on welfare. I don't think the general public realizes how small the benefit is. I was surprised to find that New York's rate is actually one of the more generous ones. If you go to the Deep South, it's practically pennies.

How are these women doing now?

Christine nearly died of her drug addiction, which was not helped by being constantly kicked off of welfare. But she got herself into Samaritan Village, which is an upstate drug rehabilitation center, and she's been clean of drugs for the last year and a half. She just got her children returned to her from the foster care system, and she is working as an intern in a medical center in the Bronx. It's really a miracle given what she'd been through. At the moment she's getting a very small welfare benefit -- $38 every two weeks. She doesn't complain and she's determined more than ever, especially for her children.

Alina married her Moldovan high school sweetheart, and she's now in her third year of medical school. She's doing her rotation work in a Bronx hospital, so she's not making an income, but she's on her way.

And Brenda, the heart and soul of the book, was really an example of what happens to the working poor. She was on welfare for about a year but just last week, Saks Fifth Avenue hired her permanently after she'd had a seasonal job there. So she's flying high. She's making $4 more an hour than she was at her cafeteria job. She'll be in better shape if she can keep this job; of course, retail jobs are very shaky in this economy.

Someone might say maybe welfare reform had something to do with these happy endings.

Right, and you know what? I can see why people would say that. But if you followed, say, Brenda's life day to day, you'd realize that in spite of welfare reform she managed to get this job. Welfare reform did nothing to help her along the way. It did help by keeping her in an apartment and giving her food stamps. But she would have gotten this job anyway, and I think she would have gotten a better job sooner if she'd been allowed to spend longer time on welfare and get an education.

Do you think the same for the others?

Yes, [their success] is in spite of welfare reform. Alina was breaking the welfare rules in order to stay on welfare just long enough to get her four-year degree. She knew that's what she needed to get herself out of poverty. And she fought all these rules all along the way. Once again, in spite of the new world of welfare reform, she's never going to be on welfare again.

And welfare helped support Christine along the way while she was in and out of drug rehab. But also, too often, they kept bumping her off. She would go for maybe a month without any assistance at all because she had not filled out a questionnaire, because she had missed an appointment. One time they lost her address because she was homeless, so they stopped her checks, which put her into distress. Welfare was like an asterisk in her very complicated life, and more often than not, it hurt her rather than helped her. She didn't need welfare to say "Fill out this questionnaire and get a job." She needed so much more than that.

This will be a long year for welfare reform as more and more people lose their benefits. What do you hope will happen this year?

We need to make sure that ending poverty is the goal and not just ending welfare. Now it's very narrowly focused on getting people off welfare and getting them into jobs and not filling in the blanks in between. I'm hoping that if people pay more attention to individual cases, they'll realize that more investment in child care and health insurance is incredibly important. Welfare needs to ensure that people earn a livable wage and not just a barely adequate one. To do that we need to expand our enhancements of the low-end paychecks and also to make sure that Medicaid still kicks in to cover people who are working but can't necessarily afford health insurance on the side.

Also, I hope that Congress will reverse this "work first, education much later" maxim and restore education to a more prominent place. If we don't start helping people enhance education, they're never going to get out of poverty-level jobs.

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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