Mitt Romney has a new ad out accusing President Obama of attempting to “gut” welfare reform by letting states hand out cash to families that aren’t working. At best, the claim seems to be some serious hyperbole surrounding the small kernel of truth that the administration wants to give states more leeway on how they move families into jobs. But hey, it’s the summer, and campaigns need to fill air time, right?
Rather than dwell on this skirmish, let’s remember the bigger picture about the current state of our welfare system, as captured in this graph from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Remember how Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it?” Well, did he ever.
The Atlantic article speculates on why so many eligible families choose not to apply for assistance programs. Possible reasons include onerous paperwork and work requirements or that some families may be waiting for a MORE rainy day to use their benefits, which are capped federally and at state level.
I will tell you the real reason why many families choose not to utilize public assistance: shame. Propaganda has been wildly successful in portraying poor people who need help to put food on the table as lazy moochers and parasites. Another reason is that the system is designed to deter applicants from even formally applying for benefits.
While standing in line behind a mother who is trying to use her WIC vouchers to purchase some milk and cheese, watch the faces of others in line as they roll their eyes in disgust and impatience. Hear the scornful voice of the cashier as she tells the lady that this brand of tuna is not acceptable and that she must get out of line to get the correct one…witness the cashier’s knowing glance to other customers. See the mother, perhaps toting her children, as she swallows her pride and goes to fetch the approved item. That same mother must go to the WIC office every few months to renew her eligibility. Her baby is weighed and checked for signs of neglect. Her feeding habits are questioned and she must give personal information about her lifestyle and sexual habits to a disinterested, overworked, and frequently disdainful social worker. This process may take several hours, many of them spent in a crowded waiting room packed with unhappy children wailing to go home. Despite this, the process for applying for WIC, free/reduced school lunch, and SCHIP is not as difficult as applying for AFDC/TANF.
Those applying for AFDC/TANF must undergo an onerous process of multiple interviews, fingerprinting and photographing, job-search requirements, workforce orientation, home-visits, job-search classes (5 days a week), and a very thorough financial investigation. At the end of this process, families are often denied based on too many assets, such as multiple vehicles, or some other technicality. Many of those who lost their jobs after the recession were formerly good wage-earners and professionals who owned their own homes and cars, who lived a middle-class lifestyle of annual vacations and enrichment classes for the kids. They may have been the ones judging the lady in the checkout line trying to redeem her vouchers. Now they find themselves in dire straits, unable to pay the mortgage, facing foreclosure, deciding whether to pay the light bill or the water bill. The thought of attending workforce and job-search training after a history of gainful employment is galling.
In areas where the most stringent job requirements were imposed, over 60% of those who inquired about assistance decided not to complete the process. Does this mean that applicants were lazy, or did this mean that the requirements were too great a burden? Did these applicants go hungry, or did they find other means of providing for their families? In the Appalachian mountains, where I live, many families shun public assistance, although generation after generation has endured lifetimes without adequate health or dental care. They choose to stay in the mountains, growing their own food, selling moonshine and marijuana, doing manual labor for under-the-table pay or barter. Their subsistence lifestyle has led to increased isolation from the rest of society. While their self-sufficiency is admirable, the shorter life spans, decreased education levels, and drastically higher poverty statistics show that they have paid a steep price for their personal autonomy.
The application process is designed to contain “diversion policies,” or multiple occasions for applicants to voluntarily withdraw from the process. These tactics have been very successful in reducing the number of applicants who will complete the process. These diversionary tactics are both formal and informal in nature. Informal tactics include initial screening interviews, where the many restrictions and requirements are outlined. The potential applicant may be discouraged from applying by either making compliance sound difficult, by being informed of the likelihood of benefit denial, or by being led to believe that the actual benefits received may not be worth the trouble.
Formal means of deterring applicants include strict job-search requirements and the nature of the investigation into their finances, lifestyle, and parenting choices. Some states require parents to attend parenting classes, as if financial distress is tied to poor parenting skills. Many states also require applicants to complete a “personal responsibility plan,” which outlines how the applicant plans to wean himself from the welfare teat. Florida requires drug-testing of applicants, with many other states considering the same. Some states are considering barring applicants who have been convicted of felony drug charges in the past and requiring those who receive benefits to perform community service.
Diversionary policies have led to the decreased number of applicants, which leads to the perceived success of welfare reform. Yes, the number of applications is down and the number of denials for benefits is up. The most important statistic however, is the most illuminating: according to the US Census, 46.2 million people live below the poverty line, the highest level since the bureau has been publishing statistics. 22 percent of American children live in poverty. Even families who receive benefits continue to struggle, as the real value of benefits have decreased to pre-1996 levels. Families who face barriers to work, such as mental or physical disability or other hardships are eventually kicked off the program, as their lifetime caps are reached or they find themselves unable to participate in compulsory training and job-searches.
In 1996, when welfare reform was implemented, there was an average of 12.3 million recipients of cash assistance per month. As of 2011, that number has fallen to 4.4 million, despite the greater numbers of families living in poverty. Families often choose to forego participation in assistance programs, often because of the many requirements designed to deter applicants and the stigma attached to those avail themselves of the “safety net.” Republicans seek to reduce these numbers even more as they ruthlessly characterize the unemployed as lazy and unmotivated to find gainful employment.
The stimulus succeeded in saving the financial sector, but that recovery has not translated to new jobs, or even a return to the same job levels prior to the recession. Trickle-down economics has heaped only the scorn of the wealthy upon the heads of the underclass who have internalized the judgments of the privileged and feel shame for their predicament. Welfare-reform has been successful in reducing the numbers of beneficiaries, but has done nothing to reduce poverty and hunger in the United States. The Great Recession has only highlighted the fact that aid is not reaching the families that it was designed to help. The GOP is adding insult to injury by proposing more cuts and more regulation of an already broken system.
Sources, suggested reading: