For generations, Americans accepted the idea that the Federal Government should have a leading role in easing the toll of poverty.
Now Congress has voted to overhaul the network of Federal welfare programs that have supported the poor since the New Deal. Even though opinions of the changes in welfare vary among Congressional Democrats $(page 22$), many of them support it, and President Clinton has pledged to sign the bill.
The measure abolishes the Federal guarantee of support for the poor, the program known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children, replacing it with lump-sum Federal grants that states may use as they wish to help the poor. The measure establishes a lifetime limit of five years for welfare payments to any family and requires most adults to work within two years of receiving aid.
Most of the measure’s savings — nearly $55 billion over six years — come from restricting Food Stamp benefits and barring aid to immigrants, even those in the country legally.
The effects of the Congressional votes, and the President’s decision, will resonate far beyond Washington. A grocery cashier serving poor customers in Los Angeles, a 17-year-old immigrant who got a leg up from welfare, a policy analyst who has spent her career immersed in the issue — what follows are comments from those and others who have a stake in the changes to come.
Senior Fellow, Urban Institute
The argument is that the current welfare system has failed poor children. If that’s the case — and I believe it is — then we ought to be coming up with something better.
But that’s not what we’re really doing. We’re taking about $60 billion and withdrawing it from low-income families over the next six years, and we’re not reinvesting that money in more effective anti-poverty programs. We’re not using it to improve Head Start, expand the earned-income tax credit, improve inner-city schools.
It looks as if we’re going to spend the money on either a middle-class tax cut or protecting middle-class entitlements from the budget ax.
This is not welfare reform. It’s a redistribution of income from the poor to the rest of us.
Maria De la Rosa
A 39-year-old cashier at George’s Meat Market in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. Most of her customers are welfare recipients. Many come from the Nickerson Gardens housing project nearby.
This welfare reform is going to affect us a lot. Ninety-nine percent of our clients are on welfare. We get a flood of customers around the first of the month, when the welfare checks have just come in. Most of our sales this morning were with food stamps. There will be a lot more crime, too. Without money, people are going to have to find some way to get food. Already, kids steal potato chips. Why? Because their family doesn’t have any money.
We offer credit to our old-time customers. By the middle of the month, a lot of people’s checks have run out, especially if they have three or four kids. They can’t manage their money. If we go out of business, where else can these people go to get food? No one has a car.
Glenn C. Loury
Professor of Economics, Boston University
We’re biting a bullet now and hoping that will induce changes in behavior in the future. I’m not convinced that it will. I don’t see in the research the degree of behavioral response to incentives that will produce the kind of improvement the advocates of this bill say it will.
I worry that the advocates are trying to do something that can’t really be done with income transfer policy: turn back the influence of modernity. With the influence of television, movies and other media, the changes we see today, like the increase in single-parent families, are as much in the nonwelfare population as in the welfare population.
Bishop Felton E. May
Central Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church
After visiting Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire, I spoke to a gathering of 2,000 women in nearby Mutare, Zimbabwe. As I described the refugee children I had seen sitting naked and violently ill in the mud and muck of the camps, my sermon was interrupted by the women coming forward and laying their coats — the only ones they had — in a tall pile at the front of the assembly for me to take to the refugee children.
After that, they wrapped themselves in sheets of plastic to protect themselves from the chill.
I refuse to believe that Americans care any less about our children — including the 1.2 million children who would be tipped over the edge into poverty by the current proposed ”welfare reform” legislation. If we, as individuals, would be willing to give a hungry child our last loaf of bread, as I believe we would, how can we collectively — as a national Government — turn our back on any child in poverty?
The most significant long-term reform would break down the segregation in housing between the affluent and the poor that keeps us from knowing one another as real people and not just myths.
Senator Phil Gramm
A Texas Republican, and former Presidential candidate who voted for the bill
The message of this legislation is honest and straightforward: If you are able-bodied and on welfare, we’re going to find you training and we’re going to help you find a job, but you will reach a point where you have to go to work.
President, National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic service organization
This is the worst thing that has happened to Hispanics since President Polk declared war on Mexico.
It’s always been a principle that you treat resident aliens the same way you treat everyone else.You expect them to serve in the armed forces, pay taxes and live up to other responsibilities. You don’t say, You’re not a citizen, you don’t have to pay taxes.
Now, you have a requirement to pay in, but the government has no requirement to respond to you. I just think that’s fundamentally wrong. It’s biased; it’s bigotry; it’s anti-immigrant fever run amok.
Rosemary L. Bray
Author of ”Unafraid of the Dark,” a forthcoming memoir of her childhood on welfare and the growth of her political consciousness. Ms. Bray is a former editor on The New York Times Book Review.
What would I do about welfare? I’d begin by remembering my own childhood on welfare, what made it workable (a national commitment to help poor children) and what made it difficult (the contempt of the more fortunate for those who have less).
I’d remind those who seem not to know better that poverty is not a genetic condition. . . .
As for practical, concrete efforts: I’d be sure to demand a minimum standard of care from each state, so that states’ rights did not come to mean the right to deny food, housing or medical care to poor children and their parents.
Next, I would be sure to provide basic medical and dental care for every family in America, regardless of income. When poor women know their sick children will be cared for, they are more likely to take an otherwise unacceptable minimum-wage job.
Safe and reliable child care is crucial. . . .
Finally, I would coordinate efforts among law-enforcement and child-support agencies to track down and prosecute adult men who have chosen to have sex with teen-age girls.
These sexual liaisons account for more than 50 percent of all babies born to teen-age mothers, and a significant number of them are coercive in nature. If adult men knew that sex with a woman under 18 — consensual or not — would result in mandatory jail time, teen-age pregnancy rates would plummet.
Founder and director of Project Match, a welfare-to-work program at the Cabrini-Green public-housing development in Chicago
In an ideal welfare system, every welfare recipient must do something every month to prepare for work. Those who refuse to cooperate will lose their grant until they do. However, this strict policy is fair only if the system provides activities and services to meet the needs of every type of welfare recipient. . . .
In a time-limited system, where every month counts, it is more important than ever that there are sensible and creative ways for people to gain the skills and experiences they need to climb the ladder to steady employment.
Representative Robert T. Matsui
A California Democrat who opposed the bill
It’s fantasy to believe the states will be able to protect children in poverty. By abdicating responsibility for America’s poor to the states, we force children to compete with services like fire and police protection. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where state and local government priorities will be. . . .
Nobody should be under any illusions that it will be easy to reinstate over $20 billion in benefits for legal immigrants. Plain and simple, the attack on legal immigrants was a budget-cutting move. To assert that we will somehow find the funds to restore these benefits is naive at best.
President, National Urban League
The states cannot be counted upon to protect their most vulnerable citizens. Years ago, we ended mental health treatment as we knew it, and the states never established community-based mental health care. Fiscally strapped states left those programs in a lurch and removed the safety net.As a result, the mentally ill are out on the streets of the nation’s cities. If you impose a time limit and there is a local labor market where there are not enough private jobs to go around, what are mothers and children going to do? They are going to resort to prostitution and panhandling.
Author of ”There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America”
Welfare did not cause poverty. Nor is it the reason for its persistence.
Put together a cohesive agenda to rebuild these inner-city communities. (After all, that’s really where this current welfare legislation is aimed.)
Strengthen the schools. Build decent housing. Offer drug treatment. Provide job training centers. Create a modest public works program, putting people to work repairing infrastructure in their communities. . . .
In short, furnish opportunity. Then let’s talk about reconfiguring welfare, which might include extending Medicaid coverage for those whose employers don’t provide health insurance, continuing a rent or food subsidy through the first few months of a new job and giving vouchers for child care. Sadly enough, there will be some who, because of depression or drugs or just plain irresponsibility, will remain out of the mainstream. But at least they will have had real choices.
Douglas J. Besharov
Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization
After you get done with all the rhetoric — from both sides — this bill hardly forces states to do anything. States that want to ”end welfare as we know it” now have the tools to do so, but states that want to continue the status quo can do that, too. Real welfare reform is now up to the states.
Professor of political science and public policy at the University of Wisconsin
My specific concern is the draconian cuts in regard to those who depend on food stamps. There will be enormous hardships across the board for all food stamp recipients, and my guess is that 20 percent will be cut in food stamps and that is typically inadequate for supplementing a family. We don’t know if hunger is increasing in this country, but the demand in food pantries is enormous and increasing, and independent pantry contributions are decreasing, so the private sector won’t be taking up the slack. Generally, the principle to put people to work is a good one, but as we discovered in Wisconsin, you have to spend more, not less, to achieve this end. And of course, that’s not going to happen.
Representative E. Clay Shaw Jr.
A Florida Republican and one of the principal authors of the bill
It definitely helps the poor; that is the way it should be. It helps to build their self-esteem and puts them to work. The measure replaces a welfare system with a work program. It will be a revolutionary way we attack poverty. . . . We have a responsibility to see that everyone is given the opportunity and is able to accept a job. It is the obligation of government to allow everyone the opportunity to share in the American dream. We are helping them more than halfway to that goal.
A 28-year-old nurse from Spout Springs, N.C.
I don’t have any problem with people who need help. Things happen. But I have a problem with helping perpetuate the cycle.
When I was a single mother, I worked two jobs in order to support my kids. Some women are having baby after baby, and they’re telling the state, ”Take care of it.” If I can’t afford to have a baby, I don’t have one. Others can be just as responsible. You can get birth control for free.
Executive Director, Jobs For Youth, a program in Chicago that helps welfare recipients find jobs
I would keep the central goal of encouraging people on welfare to become self-sufficient. This simple idea is vital and long overdue.
There are many things I would change, but I would dump the idea of passing the job on to the states without providing them with any direction on how to get it done. As it stands, we have a goal without a game plan. At the same time, we actually know a lot about how to move people from welfare to work. And we should use this knowledge to shape the law. I am astonished that such sweeping legislation could develop, and be passed into law, without looking at successful models. . . .
Also, I would add a ”Plan B” that tells us what to do when there’s a downturn in the economy, and the job market dries up. That has happened before, and only someone out of touch with reality would believe that this won’t happen again.
Senator Christopher S. Bond
A Missouri Republican who voted for the bill
There can be no doubt that the current system is a failure. That should be the one thing that is agreed upon by Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives and anyone else who is concerned about their fellow man today. It is cruel to adults who are treated like numbers when they need public assistance. It is even crueler to the children because it encourages a lifetime of dependency and they are raised in an atmosphere without hope. The current system discourages work, but it encourages illegitimacy. . . .
In Sedalia, a private employer was trying to hire workers at a $6.50-per-hour wage to process food. The employer worked with the local Family Services Division office and had some welfare recipients come out and get jobs. That was a win-win for those folks who got jobs and for all of us in Missouri as taxpayers. Some of the recipients were interviewed and then hired. . . .
However, A few folks did not get a job because they failed a mandatory drug test. . . . As a result of the Federal requirements, they were sent back to get their food stamps without having to take a job. . . . The people of Missouri are fed up with it.
Mayor Edward G. Rendell
A Democrat of Philadelphia
The better solution is the one I urged the President to do: not sign until $12 billion is put in that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said was necessary to properly fund job creation. He should have held his ground and insisted upon the most human of all parts of it, vouchers to go directly for the needs of children of parents no longer on A.F.D.C. — for medicine, diapers, things like that. We’re all in favor of ending welfare as we know it, but with real job creation.
This was a budget- balancing act, not transition from welfare to work. . . .
To me, opportunity means every American who wants to work has a job. The Federal Government has fallen woefully short. It has an obligation to create opportunity, notwithstanding the 10 million jobs that have been created, but generally those jobs do not exist where the highest concentration of welfare recipients live.
Up until recently, the central idea driving welfare reform was the economists’ idea that we need to increase work incentives. Labor economists dominated the debate. This changed in the 1990’s. The focus now is on changing behavior — work, school and family-forming behavior.
A 31-year-old records manager for a law firm. He lives in Brooklyn’s Bushwick area, which has many poor residents.
My parents always pushed me on to go on to school and do the best I could so I could land a good job. As I did so, a couple of people I knew from the neighborhood, they were career welfare people — their grandparents were on welfare, their parents were on welfare. . . . It’s so funny because I remember a guy who grew up with us — we used to play sports together. When I would go to work in the morning, he was going to the park with his basketball. . . .
There are people who do need it, and I really hope to God that there is a way they can prove that they need it, and the government is willing to work with them. I think this an excellent way to weed out the hypocrites, the liars, the people taking us for a joy ride. . . . I hate to hear Democrats saying we’re going to hurt the poor. That’s not necessarily true. What I think we’re going to do is start breathing new life into them.
Ms. Tesfai, 17, emigrated from Eritrea, in northern Africa, five years ago and lived on welfare with her family in Oakland, Calif. She now attends Eagle Rock School, a boarding school in Estes Park, Colo., for teen-agers who have not thrived in conventional school settings. She spoke about teen-agers she knew who had received benefits from the main welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
If I had to reform the A.F.D.C. for teen parents, the first requirement would be that they attend school. The teachers would have a record of their behavior, their attendance and their grades. The reason for this is that a lot of teen parents do not go to class; they can easily write a note explaining why they were absent, and there are no consequences. However, if you check on their academic progress, desire to learn, participation and effort, which might not be reflected in grades, you can determine if the person is willing to change. . . .
I would reform welfare by having the state identify areas in which many people depend on Federal aid; creating schools, which would teach them to speak English and communicate effectively; providing job training and sending them to places that need employees.
Even if the government set up these schools, people might not go to them. The social worker would give structure and firm expectations to the person who is on welfare. The social worker would give the welfare recipient a list of local training schools and a deadline for registration, and would call the school to check up on the process.
If the parent was not attending, the child would get coupons, and there would be no welfare money received. After finishing his or her training, the person would have to get a job, and if the job paid low wages, the government would supplement the income. If the person wanted a better job, he or she could go to job training once a week.
The reason I believe that education is crucial is that people who have never had self-esteem will develop confidence in school to provide for themselves and their children. Let’s not forget that everyone has a dream to succeed in life and make something out of him- or herself. You just need to help him or her with the first step.