The debate is over," declared President Clinton on August 11. "We know now that welfare reform works." One year after passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRA), Clinton chose an event hosted by Rep. Dick Gephardt (D.-Mo.), an opponent of the law that had eliminated most federal guarantees to aid, to proclaim victory in the war to end welfare as we know it.
As far as the nation's news media were concerned, the debate certainly was over. News outlets by and large echoed Clinton's words, marking the first anniversary of the PRA's passage by declaring that welfare reform "blows the doors off even the most optimistic predictions." (Newsweek, 8/25/97) The Atlanta Journal & Constitution (8/22/97) declared that the "seeds of change [are] bearing fruit," while the Cleveland Plain Dealer (8/18/97) editorialized that "despite the Chicken Little warnings, welfare reform has been a success."
The reason for all this warm, fuzzy feeling amongst would-be welfare reformers and their media chroniclers: a White House report that the welfare rolls had dropped by 1.4 million people between August 1996 and May 1997, a nearly 12 percent decrease. Added to the 1.9-million-person drop in the caseload during Clinton's first three and a half years in office, this made for much crowing that by first granting waivers to states seeking to cut welfare benefits, and then signing last year's law abolishing federal guarantees of aid, Clinton had all but solved the "problem" of welfare. "The new welfare law has shattered every record on the books in its rookie year," Clinton domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed told the Houston Chronicle (8/12/97), calling the drop-off "totally unprecedented in the history of welfare."
All of which left only one question: Where did those 1.4 million people go? Clinton himself was mum on the subject, and with good reason: As administration officials freely admit, no one knows what has happened to those who have left the welfare rolls. Neither the White House nor state governments have even attempted to track why fewer people are receiving welfare, or what happens to them afterwards.
The only national study to date, a statistical analysis by the president's Council of Economic Advisers earlier this year, estimated that 44 percent of the drop was due to improved economic conditions, and 31 percent to welfare reforms, primarily tougher work requirements. As for the other 25 percent, the CEA admitted, it had no clue. Reed could only speculate, without evidence, that "Most have probably gone to work or gotten married so that their income no longer makes them eligible." (AP, 8/12/97)
The news media were no more diligent in their investigation of the welfare roll figures. "Something extraordinary is happening with welfare," declared the San Francisco Chronicle's Carolyn Lochhead (8/24/97). Lochhead, who in her reporting on the original bill's passage (8/2/96) relied exclusively on the right-wing American Enterprise Institute for her information, now turned to their ideological brethren at the Heritage Foundation, citing Robert Rector as crediting workfare requirements for the drop in the rolls: "When you do that, the caseload begins to melt like butter in a desert.''
In fact, there are many possible explanations for the falling welfare rolls. Rector's opinion of the effects of tightened workfare rules are shared by many welfare analysts of all political bents--but this doesn't mean that people are finding paid work, only that by instituting another layer of onerous, time-consuming requirements to welfare, more people have been unable to successfully apply.
Furthermore, monthly figures of the number of open cases ignore "churning," the process by which people are kicked off the rolls for missing a day of workfare, missing an appointment, or just paperwork errors, and forced to go to the back of the line to reapply. By juggling the caseload so that some of the balls are in the air at any time, many localities have been able to cut down on the monthly caseload figures without really reducing the number of people seeking aid (Z, 2/96).
In declaring welfare reform a success, news media betrayed a startling amnesia regarding what proponents had said the law was supposed to accomplish: not just withdrawing aid from the poor, but moving them into real jobs. Though the new welfare programs have been portrayed as moving welfare recipients into work--"After leading the nation in welfare reform for a decade, Wisconsin is taking the final step. As of Labor Day, everybody works," read a typical news report (AP, 8/31/97)--even programs like Wisconsin's, which provides subsidies to private industry to employ poor people at low-wage jobs, do not guarantee a job. All that they guarantee is that if you don't work (at whatever job you are assigned to), you don't get benefits. The PRA allocated no federal money at all for job creation, even as it earmarked $50 million for "abstinence education," and cut back on allowances for welfare recipients to go to school, which studies have found to be the surest route out of poverty (Z, 10/96).
None of this stood in the way of the success stories rolling off the presses. "One year into the welfare-to-work experiment," wrote Hanna Rosin in a New Republic piece (8/4/97) on a job-preparation program for welfare recipients where enrollees are addressed as "punk" and kicked out if they arrive three minutes late, "even liberals have come to accept the value of blunt threats."
U.S. News & World Report, in its anniversary story (8/18/97), suggested that liberals had unfairly disparaged a valuable commodity: low-paying fast-food jobs. While warning "not to over-romanticize fast-food jobs," reporter Joseph Shapiro pointed out that even cooking fries or ringing the cash register (according to a McDonald's franchise owner) can "teach attention to detail, communication skills and other work habits." Noting that the fast-food restaurant industry employs 3 million people, Shapiro suggested that "the success of welfare reform will more likely be determined by individual restaurant franchises than by large corporations"--though he later cited a study that found some businesses refusing to hire former fast-food workers as a general rule.
While the media were cheering the drop in the welfare rolls, they made little effort to find out where the "butter," in the Heritage Foundation's analogy, was melting away to.
The Dallas Morning News (8/23/97), for example, declared that "researchers have found no evidence of widespread suffering," but later admitted that in Wisconsin, which implemented welfare restrictions sooner than any state in the nation, homeless shelters are reporting increased demand for aid, and that most states have not studied what has happened to those who have lost aid. The sole source for the paper's cheery outlook: "conservative welfare scholar" Lawrence Mead, who told the paper that "there has been no widespread suffering. If there had been, we'd surely have heard about it."
But would we really? Local welfare agencies have been refusing to track what happens to those who leave the rolls for some time now--citing cost constraints, but also knowing full well that negative statistics could be used against them. There are, however, disturbing signs of growing distress in localities that have stepped up "welfare reform" efforts. Earlier in the year, for example, Long Island's Newsday (3/16/97) reported that from 1994 to early 1997, as New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani reduced the city's welfare rolls by 245,000 people, the number of meals served by city soup kitchens and food pantries rose by 70 percent.
Individual stories paint an even bleaker picture. Ask anyone who is in everyday contact with welfare recipients, and they'll tell you dozens of stories of women who have been victimized by the new restrictions. Like the Milwaukee woman whose benefits were summarily cut off for failing to file a form, then had to send her three-year-old daughter to live with relatives in the South so she could take a temporary job to pay the rent. Or the Utah woman who worries that she will have to pull her emotionally disturbed son out of therapy because the government no longer counts him as "disabled."
One recent survey of people queued up at New York City food pantries (Community Food Research Center, 4/97) found that more than 10 percent had seen their benefits cut off in the previous 12 months, many for reasons never explained to them, a termination notice simply arriving one day in the mail. Of 96 welfare recipients who said they had left the welfare rolls, only three reported that it was because they had found a job.
These are the stories that don't make the news reports--because reporters seldom ask welfare recipients about the effects of welfare reform. Instead, they generally restrict themselves to the comments of public officials, who run the gamut from the plaudits of conservatives like Mead and Rector to the oft-quoted statement by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala that "the real test hasn't come yet."
Several reporters fell back on this "too-soon-to-tell" gambit. John Broder of the New York Times (8/17/97) used the falling welfare figures as an example of how "statistics have often proved a false god," citing a former Clinton administration official that "we just don't have the measurement tools to really assess the impact of all of this."
When the government stops keeping track, one might think it would be the role of journalists to investigate what's really happening to the missing welfare recipients--using such "tools" as the telephone to call soup kitchens or welfare recipients themselves for word on the true effects of welfare restrictions. But perhaps there's no need for that after all. After all, there are "no signs of widespread suffering."