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After years of punishing the poor, it’s time for Washington to repair the shredded social safety net.
In the mid-1990s, President Clinton vowed to make welfare history by smothering critical economic aid programs. But it turns out that while those reforms shuffled the bureaucracy of public assistance, the structure of poverty remains firmly intact.
A new analysis from the centrist Pew Economic Mobility Project shows that although the revamped programs have been effective in some respects, they have not pushed needy households toward long-term self-sufficiency. The data shows that household incomes tend to rise when mothers can retain their benefits while working. But across the country, officials have resorted to shoving parents into low-wage jobs prematurely, to reach states’ goals for reducing welfare caseloads.
According to a New York-based study by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, poor families, trapped between destitution and underpaid labor, are relegated to “cycling from extremely low-wage jobs to welfare because they were not able to earn enough to put food on their table, pay their rent and manage other basic daily expenses.”
The long-term effects on children are still unfolding. The Pew study notes that while young children generally benefit when parents are working and earning more, for parents of adolescents, “increased employment may reduce parental monitoring of teens, leading to poorer academic outcomes and increased problem behavior.”
As for their parents’ prospects, research suggests that more mothers have resorted to arduous “nonstandard” work with irregular hours, like waitressing or home health care services. Underscoring the racial dimension of systemic poverty, black and Latino mothers are especially likely to wind up working these precarious jobs.
Moreover, many families receive no help at all. Welfare agencies have actually been sued for unfairly delaying food stamps and cash benefits to recipients. Under a cruel regime of “sanctions,” some families see their benefits cut when they’re unable to comply with bureaucratic agency rules.
Welfare reform has ultimately left a large portion of low-income single mothers “disconnected,” with no access to benefits and no job. According to the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, federal aid to poor families supported 84 percent of eligible households in 1995, but ten years later, Temporary Aid for Needy Families reached just 40 percent. Serving a shrinking percentage of needy people means the program has in fact “become less effective over time” at countering extreme poverty, or those living below half the poverty level.
With TANF up for reauthorization this year, Congress must grapple with a new kind of poverty, mired in more desperate conditions than when welfare reform began.
Unemployment and debt have plunged many formerly middle-class households into crisis, exposing even more families to broken welfare programs. Under a system that has become worse at alleviating poverty under “reform,” lawmakers must confront not only waves of newly impoverished people, but also the poor who have always been with us, despite Washington’s efforts to make them disappear.
The first step toward dismantling systemic poverty is to stop ignoring it.
• Michelle Chen is a New York-based reporter and a regular contributor to ColorLines magazine, In These Times and racewire.org. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.