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War on the Poor 

The Final Solution for Welfare

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At the Northwestern University Law School Feminist Symposium last spring, no one seemed particularly surprised or riled by State Representative Barbara Shanowski's repeated assertions that "testosterone and misogyny" in the Illinois legislature were fueling rampant vilification of welfare mothers.

But when she mentioned that a new law, enacted only a month previously, would prevent women from receiving additional benefits for children born on welfare,

you could have heard a pin drop. "And no one knows about it," Shanowski lamented. "Where was the media? Where were the reporters? Where were you?"

Ignorance serves most political initiatives, and it oils the wheels of the Republican welfare "revolution" exceptionally well. Through grotesque simplification and relentless hyperbole, our federal legislators seem to have convinced most of America--and more frighteningly, themselves--that laziness and immorality have created the recent swell in the welfare ranks, rather than their party's 15-year program of keeping wealth in the hands of the wealthy. In fact the real problem, they insist, is federal legislators' past generosity toward the poor; they have expected nothing in return for a below-subsistence hand-out, trained inherently lazy people to become even lazier, a la Charles Murray, and nearly bankrupted the national treasury in the process (despite the fact that social welfare makes up at most three percent of the federal budget). After a gala decade of black-tie, invitation-only deficit spending hosted by the GOP, Newt Gingrich can somehow assert in his best-selling To Renew America, "Every night on the local news, you and I watch the welfare state undermining our society." After last year's $18 billion dollars in federal corporate subsidies--a decidedly conservative estimate supported by even the Cato Institute (Ralph Nader's Essential Information places the figure at $167 billion)--Alfonse D'Amato can characterize Medicaid as the "stretch limousine" of benefits and not get laughed off the Senate floor. It is lamentable that such naive stridency carries political currency; we may well expect it from the bull-horned zealot on the street corner, but from elected officials setting the legislative agenda for one of the wealthiest nations on earth, we hope for something better.

The handful of free thinkers who still write for the major media conglomerates have seen through the inflated rhetoric to its intolerant core, a task that requires about as much effort as uncapping a pen. But the centerpiece of Gingrich & Company's proposed welfare solution, the ubiquitous, newly bi-partisan block grant, has been so disingenuously promoted that paradoxically most commentators have overlooked the true hypocrisy behind it.

A block grant is the fiscal equivalent of a windowless, twenty-story building: imposing, mysterious, monolithic, vaguely ominous, harboring just about anything inside it. Congressional leaders tell us that by pulling the feds out of the welfare business and turning the program over to the states via block grants, the American nonpoor will save billions of tax dollars--the only politically viable incentive when you're trying to pitch "anti-poverty" legislation. In fact, when the _New York Times_ compared the House and Senate welfare packages in a front-page graphic, it didn't bother to mention how much either plan proposed to spend. Instead it began by announcing how many billion each would save. More importantly, though, politicians insist that block grants will give states the flexibility they need to design and implement programs tailored to their specific needs. Such reasoning plays well in the era of the big, bad government until you compare the changes federal legislation will demand of states with the reforms they have sought from the federal government--and its request--for the past few years.

Somehow, congressional spin doctors have convinced us that by placing handcuffs on state comptrollers, we offer them added flexibility. In his 1992 State of the Union address, President Bush encouraged state welfare experimentation. Since that time at least 40 states have sought waivers from Washington, hoping to implement reform measures that run counter to existing federal legislation. Contrary to popular belief, states generally have not proposed the kind of harsh, punitive initiatives consolidated in the Republican Personal Responsibility Act and softened somewhat in the Senate's bi-partisan welfare package. According to a recent report issued by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), the three most common waiver requests actually attempt to give the poor a break.

They do this by

(1) Increasing earning "disregards." Current law mandates that a family lose nearly a dollar of assistance for each dollar earned after four months of employment. Thirty-two states attempted either to lengthen the period before benefits decrease or increase the amount of income disregarded.

2) Increasing program asset limits. In order to qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), an individual cannot own more than $1000 dollars worth of non-exempt assets (exempt assets include things like clothing, furniture, donated food, burial plots and an automobile worth less than $1500). Unbelievably, this asset limit has remained the same since 1981. Thirty-one states sought waivers to increase their asset limits.

3) Increasing two-parent family eligibility. A series of restrictions limit the number of two-parent families that can receive welfare. Twenty-six states submitted waiver requests to eliminate some or all of these restrictions.

The tenor of these proposed (and often approved) waiver requests should make liberals happy, conservatives can argue. Block grants will allow states to initiate these reforms without federal intervention. Yet these reforms, which the majority of states want, are the least likely to be implemented when block grants start flowing from Washington. Why? Because they cost money--unlike forcing people into jobs and time-limiting benefits, as conservatives suggest, do not--and proposed block-grant legislation essentially freezes federal welfare spending through the year 2000. And since welfare will lose its entitlement status, the feds will no longer have any obligation to pay for programs that can't be budgeted within the allotted block grant amount. In fact, block grants may well encourage a decrease in welfare spending across the board. The House bill places no minimum spending requirement on states, while the Senate bill mandates that states spend only 80 percent of what they spent this year.

In order to receive block grants, states will have to get welfare recipients employed fast--half of them in the next five years. What will states have to do in order to comply? In some cases, the local aid worker will simply have to adopt a severe expression and a stern tone of voice; the threat of a benefits cut-off may well motivate some people on welfare to move into the work force, especially those who currently abuse the system--the ones whose media-hyped profiles "prove" the system's inherent corruption (Ivan Boesky and Mike Milken, by contrast, were simply aberrant rogues). But for the great majority of people on welfare, the states are going to have to shell out billions of extra tax dollars to get those people ready to enter the labor force. And to say this sidesteps the unfathomable mystery of where all those jobs are going to come from in the age of rampant downsizing and automation.

Currently 1.5 million people in Illinois receive public aid, a staggering 12 percent of the population, the highest in state history. In addition, today's welfare dollar has 50 percent less buying power than it did in 1970. According to the Public Welfare Coalition, the majority of public aid recipients must spend more than 80 percent of their monthly check on housing alone. The poor in Illinois may never have been poorer.

The strings attached to block grants will require, among other things, that half of these people get jobs in the next five years, a particularly nonsensical goal considering that two-thirds of AFDC recipients are children.

If we generously assume that legislators retain some tangential relationship to reality--their rhetoric notwithstanding--then they intend half of the adults to find work (although I wouldn't put it past Gingrich to start dismantling child labor laws in another attempt to pretend to balance the budget). In that case, Illinois will have to get jobs for 250,000 people by the turn of the century. Of course it would be too much to ask the feds during those years to discontinue their practice of raising interest rates when unemployment falls "too low."

A good number of our fellow citizens on welfare will need some sort of job training. According to Chicago Commons Employment Training Center, a comprehensive welfare-to-work program in West Humboldt Park, 30 percent of Illinoisans on welfare have no work experience. Yet in all its reforming hysteria, Congress did nothing to expand job training. It also did nothing to increase opportunities for education (53 percent of Illinois recipients don't have a high school diploma) that might help some people on welfare land jobs that actually hold the possibility for advancement, rather than dead-end minimum-wage positions they will leave in a year and a half out of sheer boredom. A large number of people on welfare lack even the basic skills to enter job training; 3o percent read at or below the 6th grade level. Those who read at a 7th grade level need an average of one and a half years to get a GED. And no one knows how many people on welfare can't speak English. The states will have to pick up the tab for literacy, English-as-a-second-language and life skills classes just to get a hundred thousand or so people ready to learn basic job skills.

For those ready and able to enter job training, showing up to class may be a regular impossibility--and at most job training programs three absences is grounds for expulsion. Often the price of public transportation to and from the program is prohibitive. The Illinois Department of Public Aid will sometimes pay the expense, but the great majority of welfare women I have spoken to and worked with over the past four years say that getting that money can require an entire day's wait at the public aid office--a day when they're supposed to be in class. One woman told me it took three months "for me to see my first bus token." For those who can afford a car--one that will be at least five years old thanks to IDPA eligibility guidelines--a blown alternator or a faulty transmission may leave them stranded for weeks. On $377 a month, the maximum AFDC cash grant for a family of three, even a car wash may be unaffordable.

But let's assume you're one of the lucky ones. You already have your GED. You speak fluent English. You live two doors down from the employment training center. Still, you might confront hurdles like the ones welfare mothers and social service workers have confided to me. Your brother might be an alcoholic and you may have to drag him to detox every other month. Your sister may be dying of AIDS, requiring you to take care of her six-month-old twin boys in addition to your hyperactive three-year-old, turning the mornings when the baby sitter doesn't show up into true disasters (your employment program may have day care, but it already has a ten-child waiting list).

Your abusive boyfriend, who doesn't want you to get a job in the first place because he's afraid you'll leave him, may give you a black eye so you'll be too embarrassed to go to class. Your gas may be cut off one winter morning because the portion of your $377 that usually goes toward paying the gas bill had to go for cough medicine, aspirin and Vicks VapoRub for your sick baby. So you'll spend most of the morning arguing with People's Gas on the phone, if that hasn't been disconnected already. Your three absences are used up before you know it.

But if you are one of the extremely lucky few who successfully completes an employment training program, you still have no money to put together a professional-looking resume, let alone buy nice clothes for an interview. If Congress truly wants people put back to work, is IDPA expected to buy 250,000 new suits?

Put simply, the biggest obstacle to getting off welfare is being poor, a condition which the welfare system ensures. The maximum IDPA grant amounts to only 42 percent of the state-determined standard of need and only 38 percent of the federal poverty ceiling. Congress seems to imagine that attending a job-training program is like going to New Trier. Except people on welfare usually don't have rich parents.

By imposing strict, punitive time limits as a condition for a state to receive a block grant, Republicans unsurprisingly turn their backs on the poor, dumping their responsibility onto the states, a move that will cost state taxpayers billions of extra dollars--assuming anyone at the state level is truly serious about getting the poor employed. In all likelihood Illinois legislators will remain as callous as their counterparts in Washington: Illinois is one of only six states whose waiver request included a two-years- and-off provision (the waiver was approved only after the Department of Health and Human Services added a good-cause exemption for families who through no fault of their own cannot achieve self-sufficiency in 24 months). The other 18 states with time limits in their waivers typically required welfare recipients to participate in employment or employment-related activities within a certain amount of time in order for benefits to continue. The real flexibility that block grants will give to IDPA is the flexibility to reduce benefits for some and eliminate benefits for others.

As the authors of the CLASP study conclude, "Reform is not simply the

ability to write rules; it is the ability to effectuate them." If legislators really want to give states more leeway to shape local welfare programs that will ultimately reduce poverty--rather than simply create the illusion of saving taxpayer dollars--they should put their money where their collective mouth is. If our elected representatives can kiss off half a billion dollars by subsidizing foreign advertising for American consumer products, two and a half billion dollars by subsidizing foreign purchases of U. S. military products, and another four billion reducing taxes on the first $10 million in corporate taxable income, surely they can find a few bucks to help put people back to work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.

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