May 1 2002

Declaring Victory in the Welfare Debate

'Reform' is working, say media--but what does that mean?

Ever since President Bill Clinton’s 1997 declaration that “we know now that welfare reform works,” media coverage of the issue has been haunted by the question of just what “working” means. Passed amid rhetoric of saving poor families from poverty, but with a preamble explicitly pushing a Gingrichian agenda of mar­riage and abstinence, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act’s “success” depends entirely on just what one assumes it was supposed to do.

Unfortunately, most news outlets have largely ignored the actual effects of the law on such areas as female poverty, instead accepting the sunnier outlook put forward by Beltway politi­cians: “Welfare reform” must have worked, because fewer people are now receiving welfare.

Possibly the single hottest political topic in 1996-97, the welfare issue has been undergoing an extended disap­pearance from the front pages of late— after heavy coverage of the new law’s anniversary in its early years, the law’s fifth anniversary passed in August 2001 with barely a ripple of coverage. But the issue has slowly wandered back into the spotlight as Congress considers how to modify the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program set up by the 1996 law, which expires this September.

Critics of the new welfare law have been gearing up for the reauthoriza­tion battle for almost two years now (In These Times, 6/12/00), but it wasn’t until George W. Bush announced his own desire for further changes in the program—ranging from a 10-hour-a­week increase in workfare require­ments to increased waivers for educa­tion and training—that welfare cover­age kicked back into full gear.

Typical of the coverage on Bush’s announcement was the Washington Post’s report (2/27/02), which noted opposition to some of his proposals, but saw the upcoming reauthorization debate as largely a matter of tinkering with a successful program—”fine-tun­ing,” as it quoted Rep. Michael N. Castle (R.–Del.) as describing the process. The current debate over wel­fare, wrote the Post’s Amy Goldstein, is “markedly more muted than the fierce ideological arguments” of 1996— though the article later quoted an immigration advocate as being “hopping mad” over Bush’s plan to continue a ban on assistance to legal immigrants.

Over on ABC (2/26/02), reporter Terry Moran, asked by Peter Jennings if Bush’s plan was “controversial,” replied: “Well, Peter, the big debate as to whether or not welfare recipients should be required to work, that’s over. Across the political spectrum, there’s agree­ment that welfare reform worked.”

Reducing caseloads—or poverty?

But worked at doing what? For most of the media, the short answer is caseload reduction. (The welfare rolls have dropped almost 60 percent, 5 million to 2.1 million, since 1994.) For the past five years, government officials have bragged of caseload reduction as the benchmark of reform—and media have dutifully followed, despite growing indi­cations that those moving off of welfare aren’t necessarily escaping poverty.

“Even those who bitterly opposed welfare reform before its passage in 1996 would have a hard time disputing its remarkable success,” the Orlando Sentinel wrote in one typical editorial (3/4/02) following announcement of the Bush plan. “Caseloads nationally have dropped by more than half since reform became law under Mr. Bush’s predecessor, President Bill Clinton. Millions more Americans are working for checks instead of collecting them from the government” A Newsday (2/28/02) editorial likewise cited falling caseloads as evidence of the 1996 law’s “undeniable success.”

Where is “off”?

Of course, those who opposed the 1996 law would not likely be surprised that caseloads have dropped—since push­ing people off welfare was exactly what it was meant to do. What’s more rele­vant—and disturbing—is what’s hap­pened to families once they’ve left the rolls. Things seem to be getting worse for exactly the population that welfare was meant to serve: single women with children.

While overall poverty rates declined during the ’90s economic boom, poverty rates for families headed by working sin­gle mothers actually rose slightly—from 19.2 percent to 19.4 percent—between 1997 and 1999, according to a 2001 study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “Reductions in poverty as a result of economic growth were entirely offset by increases in poverty due to con­tractions in government safety net pro­grams,” noted the study. (In the previous two years, 1995 to 1997, when the old AFDC program was still in place, poverty rates among this group had fallen from 24.5 percent to 19.2 percent.) According to Bob Erlanbusch of the Los Angeles Coalition for the Homeless, women and children rose from about one-third of the national homeless population to 40 percent in the years immediately follow­ing passage of the 1996 law (In These Times, 10/30/00).

Moreover, while most media outlets have reported the role of the ’90s eco­nomic boom in helping pare the wel­fare rolls, TANF has widely been misidentified as a jobs program, though it’s really much more stick than carrot. The Associated Press (2/26/02) was an exception in reporting the full story: “The centerpiece of the 1996 law was the threat that people who do not com­ply with rules requiring work would lose their assistance. In fact, many of the families who have left the rolls were sanctioned and cut from benefits, often for simply not showing up for appoint­ments.” One three-city study cited by the Brookings Institution found an 89 percent poverty rate among families sanctioned off of welfare.

Even in terms of caseload reduction, the bloom appears to be off the “welfare reform” rose: 33 states and the District of Columbia reported caseload increas­es in the last nine months of 2001 (, 3/4/02).

And while poverty rates dropped during the ’90s economic boom, there are signs that those who remain poor are getting poorer. While the economy continued to grow in 1999, requests for food and shelter increased 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors survey (12/99). As for eliminating “dependen­cy,” an Urban Institute study (7/99) found that 29 percent of those leaving the welfare rolls for jobs had returned within two years.

Left out of the celebration

The New York Times not only declared that critics of welfare had won the debate, but claimed that they had con­verted nearly all of their adversaries. “Almost no one is making the case these days for restoring the longstand­ing federal guarantee of assistance to poor families,” wrote the paper’s Robin Toner in a front-page “Week in Review” story (3/3/02). “The virtues of putting poor people to work. . . are now widely celebrated.”

Other reporters, though, had no problem locating prominent critics of TANF’s stringent work requirements. “The plan calls for a massive increase in the number of people required to work, an unrealistic proposal in the best of economic times, but truly bizarre in the middle of a recession,” Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, told AP (2/26/02). “It represents a huge step backwards.”

The Baltimore Sun (2/27/02) quot­ed Peter Edelman, who resigned from Clinton’s Department of Health and Human Services to protest the 1996 law: “I have trouble understanding how they can make a proposal that flies in the face of everything we’ve learned from the last five years.” The Hartford Courant (2/27/02) even found dis­senters on Capitol Hill, quoting Sen. Paul Wellstone (D.—Minn.) as leading “a chorus of Democrats skeptical about the Bush plan,” saying the plan would merely move people from being “wel­fare poor to working poor.”

“Work requirements and time limits for people on welfare, which generated so much anguished opposition six years ago, are widely considered to be a given,” wrote Toner. In fact, time limits are expected to be one of the most hard-fought provisions of TANF reau­thorization: Rep. Patsy Mink’s (D.—Hawaii) bill, which has 86 co-sponsors and the support of most anti-poverty groups, would prohibit time limits shorter than five years (some states have set limits as low as 21 months), and would force states to stop the clock for recipients complying with program rules, and for all recipients during recessions. Mink’s bill received precisely one mention in a major newspaper in the weeks sur­rounding Bush’s announcement—a passing reference in a St. Petersburg Times editorial (3/19/02).

The final irony: Three days after Toner declared that advocates for wel­fare were extinct, the Times (3/6/02) ran an article on a 1,500-person-strong march protesting Bush’s welfare plan in Washington—written by Robin Toner.

Neil deMause, editor of Here magazine, last wrote about welfare in Extra! ‘s September/ October 2000 issue.