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April 17, 2012 5:03 pm

It is Time to Reexamine Welfare Reform in America

avatar by Ed Koch


President Clinton in 1999. Photo: wiki commons.

The New York Times of April 7th had a magnificent, several-pages-long article on the effect the change in welfare programs throughout the nation has had on its beneficiaries, mostly women with children, beginning with 2007, eleven years after the law was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

The major change in welfare policy was to end cash benefits to recipients after they reached a 5-year limit of welfare coverage.  Welfare recipients continued to be eligible for food stamps which effectively became the cash provided to the welfare recipient who sold the food stamps.  The Times article, which was superbly written and researched by Jason DeParle, pointed out the following: “Asked how they survived without cash aid, virtually all of the women interviewed here said they had sold food stamps, getting 50 cents for every dollar of groceries they let others buy with their benefit cards.  Many turned to food banks and churches.  Nationally, roughly a quarter have subsidized housing, with rents as low as $50 a month.  Several women said the loss of aid had left them more dependent on troubled boyfriends.  One woman said she sold her child’s Social Security number so a relative could collect a tax credit worth $3,000.  ‘I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,’ she said.  Several women acknowledged that they had resorted to shoplifting, including one who took orders for brand-name clothes and sold them for half-price. Asked how she got cash, one woman said flatly, ‘We rob wetbacks’ — illegal immigrants, who tend to carry cash and avoid the police.  At least nine times, she said, she has flirted with men and led them toward her home, where accomplices robbed them.  ‘I felt bad afterwards,’ she said.  But she added, ‘There were times when we didn’t have nothing to eat.’

When the bill was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, we were in a period of economic growth and jobs were available to many of those single mothers.  But the demand we made on these poverty-stricken women beginning in 2007 occurred shortly before the onset of the greatest recession in our economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Throwing those women and children off of welfare by virtue of the 5-year time limit put them into contention for jobs when millions of skilled and semi-skilled Americans in the middle class were being fired and unemployment climbed to over 9 percent.  How could we expect these poverty-stricken women to successfully compete for the few jobs then available?  Of course, some did, but most did not

The Times article pointed out “President Clinton said a year after signing the law, which he often cites in casting himself as a centrist, ‘Welfare reform works.'”  The times article then pointed out, “The recession that began in 2007 posed a new test to that claim.  Even with $5 billion in new federal funds, caseloads rose just 15 percent from the lowest level in two generations.  Compared with the 1990s peak, the national welfare rolls are still down by 68 percent.  Just one in five poor children now receives cash aid, the lowest level in nearly 50 years.  As the downturn wreaked havoc on budgets, some states took new steps to keep the needy away. They shortened time limits, tightened eligibility rules and reduced benefits (to an average of about $350 a month for a family of three).

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I believe I am not and was not as Mayor of New York City a bleeding heart – I knew then and now that you cannot spend money that the city, state or federal government does not have for social programs that are needed without flirting with bankruptcy.  But there is always the question of municipal priorities on what do you spend the monies government does have.  The poor have always seemed to be last in line when decency and fairness should make them a priority

DeParle reports “Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the top House Republican on budget issues, calls the current welfare program ‘an unprecedented success.’  Mitt Romney, who leads the race for the Republican presidential nomination, has said he would place similar restrictions on ‘all these federal programs.’  One of his rivals, Rick Santorum, calls the welfare law a source of spiritual rejuvenation.”

The Republicans were not alone in zeroing in on those in poverty.  DeParle also reported, “President Obama spoke favorably of the program in his 2008 campaign — promoting his role as a state legislator in cutting the Illinois welfare rolls. But he has said little about it as president.”

It is surely disturbing for all of us to learn, “While data on the very poor is limited and subject to challenge, recent studies have found that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid — roughly four million women and children.  Many of the mothers have problems like addiction or depression, which can make assisting them politically unpopular, and they have received little attention in a downturn that has produced an outpouring of concern for the middle class.”

Of this number, DeParle reports “researchers at the Urban Institute found that one in four low-income single mothers nationwide — about 1.5 million — are jobless and without cash aid.  That is twice the rate the researchers found under the old welfare law.  More than 40 percent remain that way for more than a year, and many have mental or physical disabilities, sick children or problems with domestic violence.”

Currently, we are concerned with helping – and we are not doing a very good job at doing so – the unemployed middle class and those who are seeing their homes foreclosed.  The Congress, like the American public, seems unconcerned about the poor who are sinking into deep poverty which the Census Bureau defines “as living on less than half of the amount needed to escape poverty (for a family of three, that means living on less than $9,000 a year).  About 10 percent of households headed by women report incomes that low…”

During the Nixon years when Daniel Patrick Moynihan before becoming the senator from New York was a presidential adviser, Nixon proposed H.R. 1 which would have nationalized welfare with all states required to make the same base cash payment of $6,500, with the feds paying all increases required over and above what states were paying for the existing welfare program for women with dependent children.  The left wing of the Democratic Party in Congress refused to support it, complaining it was too little.  Moderates, like myself, did support it, and we lost.  The left lost later when the new time-limited program was put into effect in 1996, and the poor women and children have since suffered enormously.  Obviously, we should not go back to the earlier program, which encouraged fraud, abuse and too heavy a permanent reliance on government welfare.  But simply applying an arbitrary time limit, irrespective of the needs of individual families – mothers and their children – doesn’t work.  That is why it is time once again to look at the program.

Making the point of how we deal differently with the wealthy and protect them was brought home by another article in The Times dated April 11th which discusses subsidies to wealthy farmers.  The article by Ron Nixon reads in part, “The federal government could save about $1 billion a year by reducing the subsidies it pays to large farmers to cover much of the cost of their crop insurance, according to a report by Congressional auditors due to be released on Thursday.  The report raised the prospect of the government’s capping the amount that farmers receive at $40,000 a year, much as the government caps payments in other farm programs.  Any move to limit the subsidy, however, is likely to be opposed by rural lawmakers, who say the program provides a safety net for agriculture.  The report, by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, was requested by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, as part of his efforts to cut government spending.  Under the federal crop insurance program, farmers can buy insurance policies that cover poor yields, declines in prices or both.  The insurance is obtained through private companies, but the federal government pays about 62 percent of the premiums, plus administrative expenses.  The crop insurance subsidy, according to the G.A.O. report, ballooned to $7.3 billion last year from $951 million in 2000, or about $1.2 billion adjusted for inflation.  A Congressional Budget Office study cited in the report estimates that the premium subsidy will cost $39 billion from 2012 to 2016, about $7.8 billion a year.  Unlike other farm programs that have income or payment limits, crop insurance payments have no such restrictions, so farmers can get millions in subsidies regardless of their income.  The G.A.O. said a cap last year would have affected about 4 percent of farmers in the program, who accounted for about a third of the premium subsidies and were mostly associated with large farms.”

Where is America’s humanity?  How can we see women and children degraded this way?  We cannot continue to avert our gaze and fail to respond to their needs.  Responsible people shocked by the fraud and outrages that marred the old system of welfare went overboard – me among them – in seeking to eliminate the abuses.  It is time we examine the subject again and seek a just solution.

Mr. President, you must speak for the poor.  No one else seems willing, or effective.

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