Welfare reform--really, welfare repeal--got underway in 1996 as the economy was beginning to take off. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have now proclaimed it a success. With the current law about to expire and a re-authorization debate about to begin, now is the time to review what has been accomplished and what needs to be done.

The welfare rolls have been very substantially pared, or, some would argue, purged. However, in an economic boom like the one that is now over, they would have been reduced substantially without welfare reform. And, on close examination, the statistics on jobs, wages, and income security, even during the prosperous times of the late 1990s, are not encouraging.

The 1996 law sought to reduce dependence on welfare. However, to most Americans, financial independence means being able to meet the basic needs of oneself and one's family at some minimally adequate level. When asked in surveys how much a family of four would need to live at such a level, most Americans give an average figure that is at least twice the income that the Federal government designates as the official poverty level.

The recent work of sociologist Diana Pearce, Jennifer Brooks and others in creating "Self-Sufficiency" standards have given us a more accurate idea of how much families need to earn in order to meet their basic needs. According to the Self-Sufficiency standard, a family of three--a mother with one pre-school and one school-age child--in the borough of Queens, New York would have had to earn $45,836 in 2000 to meet its basic needs. This is more than three times the federal poverty level of $13,874 for this size family and far more than what a full-time worker earning minimum wage and collecting the Earned Income Tax Credit could make--$16,478 in the year 2000.

Surveys show that most of those who leave the welfare rolls for work are not achieving this common sense definition of financial independence. Those who do find work are making just slightly above the minimum wage. One of the most recent nation-wide studies, for example, shows that the median wage for workers whose families left the welfare rolls between 1997 and 1999 was $7.15 an hour, only slightly above the Federal poverty level for a family of three.

Further, many of these welfare leavers have not found full-time, year-round work. The Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that, in nearly every state, the majority of poor families have one or more adults who are employed and are thus experiencing "poverty despite work." Many families have to depend on food pantries and homeless shelters. Indeed, reports from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and many others show that demands on these services have increased yearly since 1996-despite the economic boom.

The real test of welfare reform, a period of slower growth or recession, is now upon us. Unemployment was already on the rise, almost at the five percent level, when the economy was shaken by the tragic events of September 11. With a country distracted by the fear of terrorism and the fever of war, the needs of poor families are at risk of further eclipse. And the debate over reauthorization of the welfare law looms. In our recently-published book, "Washington's New Poor Law: Welfare 'Reform' and the Roads Not Taken, 1935 to the Present," we detail the chronic unemployment and underemployment for both men and women that is at the root of the welfare problem. Even in the boom times of 1999, 30 million people were jobless, forced to work part-time, or worked year-round for less than the four-person, Federal poverty level.

Real welfare reform requires not only an adequate package of safety net measures, but reform of the labor market. It means, above all, an entitlement to work, a guarantee of living-wage jobs for all who want to work, an opportunity for all not occupied in the home with vital care of young or frail family members to practice the work ethic. It means full employment.

Full employment calls for a living-wage job, benefits such as child care and health care, and income support for those providing vital care at home. Sustained tight labor markets, moreover, give workers the power to gain more humane working environments and education and training opportunities conducive to upgrading.

What about the entitlement to welfare? Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which operated from 1935 until its repeal in 1996, was deficient in a number of respects. Nonetheless, AFDC provided an alternative to hunger. And it meant that many poor mothers were not forced to take any job at any wage in order to clothe, feed and shelter their families. It was a refuge for minority families rendered economically dependent by discrimination, low wages, and chronic unemployment and underemployment.

However, not the least of its deficiencies was that AFDC benefits failed to meet the standard that benefits provide "a reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health." Further, AFDC benefits were largely confined to single-parent families, leaving nearly all families with two, able-bodied parents without support. Since it is unlikely that we will achieve full employment at decent wages in the short term, such an entitlement to welfare should be extended to all needy individuals and families, not simply to one category of the poor.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus