By Alicia Smalley
Rather than rehashing tired old debates about whether or not welfare reform is “working,” let us consider just one statistic: 19.4
This number represents the percentage of working single mothers who are still living in poverty in 1999, even after the largest economic expansion in American history. Note that this figure refers to working mothers — hardworking parents who are doing everything they can to provide for their children but still do not earn enough to lift them above the poverty line.
In fact, the percentage of single moms who are working but still living in poverty has actually increased since welfare reform — in 1995, that figure was 19.2 percent. Yet, what’s even more striking is that this calculation takes into account the help of support programs such as food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Before these benefits are figured in, the poverty rate for working moms is higher than 33 percent. According to the census figures, even poverty rates for two-parent families have climbed 1.2 percent since 1997.
Clearly welfare caseloads are down but poverty is still with us. Still, talking heads in Washington are singing the praises of the 1996 law, which added new work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit on assistance. As Congress races to renew the law before it expires on Sept. 30, the president is trying to pile on even heftier work requirements while ignoring a fundamental question: How can we make sure work pays?
Volumes of data collected since 1996 show that the vast majority of parents who have left welfare for work earn about $8 an hour in part-time temporary jobs that provide no benefits, training or opportunities for advancement. Most struggle with inadequate child-care arrangements and transportation breakdowns. This causes many to cycle on and off the rolls when they lose their jobs and are forced to reapply for assistance.
Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill, modeled closely on the president’s plan, that would drastically increase work requirements, scale back the length of time parents on welfare can get additional training, and do little to address the severe shortage of affordable, reliable child care. Last month the New York Times reported that only 2.4 million of the 15.7 million children who are currently eligible for child-care vouchers are actually receiving them. The Republican House bill contains only $1 billion in new money for childcare — a mere drop in the bucket when compared with the current need.
If we’ve learned anything in the last six years, it’s that we need more than short-sighted prescriptions that push people into work without adequate preparation and support. We know that access to education and training has a significant effect on parents’ income; in 2000, workers with less than a high school diploma made an average only $18,953, while those with bachelors’ degrees earned as much as $53,400.
According to the Urban Institute, in 1999, 44 percent of parents on welfare lacked a high school diploma or GED. Yet, the House bill restricts the length of time parents can engage in “barrier-removal” activities — not only GED but also substance abuse treatment, domestic violence counseling, training in English as a second language and mental health treatment — to only three months.
In addition, a simple reality is that not every family will fit into the president’s “one size fits all” model of reform. Many low-income parents are themselves disabled or are primary caregivers for sick or disabled children. A work-first model, work-all-the-time model for welfare reform could put at risk those very children who need their parents the most.
The Senate Finance Committee recently passed its version of a welfare bill, which lays out a much different vision for the next phase of welfare reform than the House bill. It expands welfare recipients’ ability to get an education, allows parents more time to address barriers to employment and gives states incentives to place recipients in good jobs — not just any job. It also allows low-income legal immigrants — who work, pay taxes and are eligible to serve in the military — to qualify for welfare benefits when they fall on hard times. These are essential components of a welfare bill that is focused on reducing poverty, not simply caseloads.
We need Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign to address these issues when they head back to Washington after the August recess. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that caseloads again are rising rapidly. As the economy continues to crumble, more and more parents will need a solid safety net.
Alicia Smalley, a Minden resident, is legislative chairwoman of the National Association of Social Workers, Nevada Chapter.