May 1 1997

Reforming Welfare Coverage

Five Issues Reporters Need to Address

When Extra! reviewed welfare coverage in 1995 (5-6/95), it was easy to pick out the popular media themes. What passed for debate sounded more like a chorus–exaggerating the burden of welfare programs on the federal budget and scapegoating the poor, the black, the foreign, the female and the young. Relatively powerless groups became the targets of politicians and most of the press, while their advocates were routinely excluded from or belittled in the discussion. Long-time critics of “welfare” from the women’s movement, trade unions and the left were sidelined.

As Extra! demonstrated a year and a half later (11-12/96), this same pattern of reporting was continued by powerful media outlets from early 1995 to August 1996, when President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, or H.R. 3734, popularly known as the “Welfare Reform Bill.”

In the wake of the Act’s passage, media critics could look back over the last two years and bemoan the overwhelming failure of reporters to challenge the assumptions that fueled talk of responsibility, dependency and shame. We could wait to see what sort of a job journalists do testing the reality of the new law against the rhetoric of the debate. But instead of looking back or waiting, Extra! has decided to look ahead.

From a brief survey of reporting being done around the nation, and with the help of service providers, welfare recipients and an assortment of policy analysts and journalists, we’ve pulled together what we think is at least one map of the welfare “story.” The new legislation is complex, but its impact is so great that journalists have a duty to give it careful, thorough attention. These are just some of the areas to address.

Basic Accounting

While Congress was debating various welfare proposals, Capitol Hill discussions drove reporting even more than usual (Extra!, 5-6/95). With the passage of H.R. 3734, much of the welfare story has moved (along with responsibility for welfare provisions) to the state level. If national reporters still want to focus on the political “inside” story, there is plenty of critical reporting left to do.

According to Political Research Associates, a group that studies the right, journalists permitted the seriously flawed reports of conservative think tanks to frame their analysis. A September 1995 report from the Cato Institute, for example, concluded that Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) paid more than low-wage jobs in every state. In calculating the benefits going to AFDC recipients, Cato wrongly included a number of things, like WIC benefits and housing assistance, that a majority of AFDC families do not actually receive (Public Eye, Fall-Winter/96).

The Cato study received widespread media attention and was cited by the governors of New York and California as justification for AFDC reductions, with journalists neither providing nor demanding an accurate accounting of the facts.

Reporters can start with the basics, like just how much money will be devoted to ending poverty: “Legislators produce complex budgets that appear not to be cutting dollars, but just giving localities more discretion,” warns welfare policy expert Liz Krueger of New York’s Community Food Resource Center. A careful reading proves that “communities are in fact being told to do more with less.”

The Human Angle

From the “Welfare Queen” of the ’80s to the “dependent pregnant teenager” of the ’90s, many in the press have allowed cartoon visions of the poor to inflame debate, while the people being discussed are rarely permitted to speak for themselves. Personal stories can be manipulated or removed from context, but thoughtfully done they bring immediacy and complexity to an issue.

From the ailing person with AIDS who has been cut off public assistance but is not disabled enough to qualify for DSI, to the non-unionized workfare worker who has no way to protect herself against harassment on the job, the stories of those feeling the effects of the new law can be an effective antidote to politicians’ simplistic rhetoric.

A number of independent and local reporters have addressed the welfare story in these human terms, including Ruth Coniff at the Progressive, Annette Fuentes and Craig Seymour in In These Times and Nina Siegal at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Every state has myriad agencies and organizations dealing with the effects of the new law that are eager to provide journalists with detailed, “front-line” accounts. (See “Resources” box.)

Calling the Bluff

Media relied heavily on official sources and ideologically driven think tanks in the run up to the passage of H.R. 3734. Now those officials and ideologues have a vested interest in declaring their programs a success. As the people most directly affected by the changes-namely the poor-rarely get to participate in the debate, reporters will bear much of the responsibility for determining whether the general public comes to believe welfare reform has “worked.”

Service providers and advocates for the poor are calling on journalists to investigate, rather than accept, the politicians’ assessment of the legislation’s impact.

A simple call to a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen can provide much-needed contrast to politicians’ self-interested claims that no one will go hungry under the new law, or that private charities will fill the gaps left by cutbacks. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, for example, claimed a success when the total number of families in homeless shelters shrank in his state. Linda Gordon (Dollars and Sense, 1-2/96) discovered that the change wasn’t due to a decline in demand for housing, just a decline in supply: Many homeless shelters had been forced to close down for lack of state funds.

Welfare expert Krueger complains that New York City’s Mayor Giuliani routinely makes inflated and contradictory claims of the number of people moved off welfare into jobs, but “no one [in the press corps] calls his bluff.”

Reporters have a responsibility to research the law and investigate contrasting claims about its effects. The aim is not to point fingers at politicians but to provoke serious, open discussion of what is really needed to alleviate poverty and provide meaningful work for people. “Citizens can make a difference in what happens in their state,” writes Peter Edelman, the former Clinton administration official who resigned over H.R. 3734 (Atlantic Monthly, 3/97). But only if reporters keep them informed.

1. Workfare VS. Fair Work

The keystone of the AFDC overhaul was the mandate to “put welfare recipients to work.” Without a large-scale job creation effort, many states are turning to “workfare” programs that assign recipients jobs, generally in low-skill public sector positions, in exchange for their benefits. There are several areas of concern that deserve reporters’ attention.

One is job rights and conditions for workfare workers themselves. In New York City, where workfare has existed for several years, participants tell horror stories of unsafe and unsanitary worksites, harassment and hopelessness about the “dead end” nature of their assignments, which virtually never lead to permanent work.

Journalists should also examine how the new law undermines real educational opportunity, says Liz Accles, chair of New York’s Community Food Resource Center. Previous laws allowed aid recipients to go to college-or GED class or beautician school-but the new requirements force many to abandon their studies and take workfare assignments that don’t match their skills or prepare them for jobs at decent wages.

Organizations like New York’s Non-Traditional Employment for Women have fought hard to move women into unionized jobs, like construction and firefighting, that pay life-sustaining wages; many now fear workfare programs will steer poor women towards low-paid, female-dominated fields. And Bibiana Andrade of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund worries that welfare jobs may end up segregated racially and ethnically as well, because trainers may not have the language skills to work with non-English speaking clients and states are not required to allocate funds for multi-lingual training.

Labor groups want reporters to address the threat workfare programs pose for low-wage workers. The existence of a miserably paid, unprotected labor pool, they argue, pushes all wages down, and makes it harder for unionized workers to negotiate their own job conditions. Over time, workfare actually shrinks the number of paying jobs.

2. Food Stamps

The implications of the cutback in the food stamp program are an undercovered story. Former Clinton administration official Peter Edelman (Atlantic Monthly, 3/97) cites such cuts, along with the restrictions aimed at immigrants, as examples of provisions of the Welfare Reform Act that have nothing to do with welfare reform, but are “just mean, with no policy justification.”

Under the new law, most able-bodied, unemployed, childless recipients can receive food stamps for no more than three months per year. In California, more than 373,000 legal immigrants will be disqualified for federal food assistance between April 1 and August 22, 1997. As many as 600,000 people will be cut off altogether, including the state’s many thousands engaged in seasonal and low-wage work. The San Francisco Bay Guardian (11/6/96) reports that many of these former food stamp recipients are having a hard time searching for work because they’re so busy lining up for food.

Journalists have to examine the impact of these cuts not just on individuals and families, but on whole communities. “The person who loses their food stamps may not be able to pay the rent; the landlord who doesn’t get the rent doesn’t fix the roof, and so on,” points out New York’s Liz Krueger. And food stamp cuts also trigger a loss of jobs in the food industry, “most of them from just the communities where we’re trying to support infrastructure.”

3. Children & Families

Children’s advocates are calling for a media spotlight on child care. Marlene Halpern of the Children’s Defense Fund notes that workfare is required even for mothers of young children, but child care provisions are limited, and mothers are expected to work even when their kids are sick at home or on school holidays.

Ethel Long Scott of the Women’s Economic Agenda Project adds that competition over “pitiful” child care subsidies is one of the ways the new law contributes to conflicts between welfare recipients and “near-poor working people.” Reporters can’t miss the irony of a policy that, in forcing welfare recipients to rely on child care to meet workfare rules, reduces the availability of child care for many of the working poor who relied on it, thus pushing many of them back on to the welfare rolls.

What’s more, after being told that looking after their own children is not work, some poor women are now being given workfare assignments to look after other women’s children. Halpern sees an important story in this de facto deregulation of child care: Women providing child care services for workfare “credit,” she notes, aren’t screened or trained, and there are no health or safety standards.

Though many states are promoting welfare reform as a way to “keep families together,” strict time limits on welfare can trap women in abusive situations at home and at the worksite. Martha Davis, legal director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Jennifer Gonnerman (Nation, 3/10/97) that it’s “likely to result in human tragedy if women are stalked in the workplace, but feel they can’t change jobs or stop going to work . . . because they’ll lose their benefits-or if women in abusive relationships feel they can’t leave because there is no safety net for them any longer.”

Domestic violence experts are also concerned about child support provisions. The new law permits federal authorities to force custodial parents to cooperate in establishing the paternity of their children or be denied food stamp benefits. Though waivers are available for women in violent situations, many may choose to give up food stamps rather than risk reprisals from abusive partners, and the grounds on which women can receive waivers are still unclear.

4. Impact on Providers

“Governors, legislators and human services administrators can proclaim their desire to lift millions of recipients off the dole and into work, but it is front-line employees who face the burden of turning words into deeds,” noted Governing Magazine (3/97). Yet reporters have mostly ignored the impact of the welfare changes on these workers, just as they passed over their expertise in the media debate about the need for “reform.”

Reporters on the “welfare beat” have begun documenting the increased pressure on food, housing and medical service providers for low-income families. But service providers complain that too many of these reports, on longer lines at soup kitchens or homeless shelters, for example, have an anecdotal feel that obscures systemic issues, and a superficial style, as reporters do one-time-only stories on issues that require sustained scrutiny.

Social workers should be primary resources for reporters; their real-world experience sheds light on how the policy changes will actually play out. The Louisiana chapter of the National Association of Social Workers held a press conference to outline their problems with that state’s plan, claiming that it “lacks the job training, transportation, child care, educational and labor market structures needed to facilitate meaningful change.” One New Orleans case worker (New Orleans Advocate, 2/18/97) might have been addressing the press as well as legislators when she called for “more thought to the unintended consequences of welfare reform, such as increased family violence and child abuse/neglect issues.”

A number of providers flagged a major scandal brewing in the attempt of big data systems firms-several of them military contractors-to take over welfare management. State governments are eager to save money by “outsourcing” the claims-processing to private companies; and power players like Lockheed Martin, Unisys and Ross Perot-founded EDS are furiously jostling for contracts worth billions of dollars. There’s plenty for journalists to explore here: conflicts of interest, collusion, not to mention the “big picture” implications of this massive handoff from government to the private sector.

5. Civil Liberties & the Constitution

Very simply: Reporters should read the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. As Peter Edelman put it (Atlantic Monthly, 3/97), “This is hardly just a welfare bill.” The preamble alone reveals that the framers aim to modify behavior as much as (or more than) to adjust poverty rates: “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society. [It] is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children,” the authors begin.

But by tying aid to marital status, the state discriminates against a whole class of people–namely homosexuals–whose rights are not protected under the Constitution and whose partnerships are explicitly denied legal status in a growing number of states. Though reporters have largely accepted claims that welfare reform is a strike against “big government,” in fact H.R. 3734 expands, rather than contracts, the government’s role in individual and family decision-making. Legal reporters should pursue the possibility that the Constitution itself may be an under-covered victim of the 1996 Act.

The law provides additional grants for states that can prove that their unmarried birth rate has dropped, but only if there is not a rise in the number of abortions performed-giving states an incentive to reduce even further the availability of legal abortions. And many critics charge that providing benefits only for children conceived before their mother began receiving aid (as states are now free to do) violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, treating equally needy children differently based on the conduct of their parents.

Another troubling aspect of the law has to do with drug testing, points out Debra Small of the ACLU. The state has a mandate to care for the needy and to provide equal protection under the Constitution, yet under H.R. 3734, a person who tests positive for illegal drug use can be denied benefits.

The “reforms” exclude new immigrants from most federal means-tested programs, including Medicaid, for the first five years they are in the country. About 800,000 legal immigrants who currently receive SSI will be cut off. The INS and federal and state governments are required to protect the rights of elderly and disabled people who are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it may be up to reporters to investigate where the welfare law and civil rights law conflict.

Margie McHugh of New York’s Immigration Coalition complains that “The [welfare] legislation blindly assumes SSI recipients are mobile, young, able-bodied and speak English.” Responsible reporters will follow the fates of elderly and disabled noncitizens who have been in the U.S. for a long time, but may lack the mental capacity or education necessary to qualify for legal status (to learn English, pass citizenship tests, etc.). Noncitizens may also be thrown out of nursing or group homes because those institutions will no longer be reimbursed for their care.

Research assitance by Jeanne Baron and Rachel Simpson.