An Overview of Welfare Reform
This page offers an all too brief consideration of contemporary efforts at welfare "reform." We regret that time and space do not allow for more in-depth work on this worthy topic.
We have, however, provided an array of links to some of the best national contacts in the U.S. It is our hope that up-and-coming activists/revolutionaries will join in the efforts to change the face of poverty and homelessness in this country.
And we do, of course, recognize that these issues extend far beyond national boundaries. While we have included a few links to international resources, we invite our readers to email us with further suggestions.
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what's theirs
You better run, run, run...
Oh I said you better
Run, run, run...
Talkin' bout a revolution
One of the most compelling places where cultural differences intersect is in the danger zones of international poverty. Anyone can be poor; that's a fact. And it's a fact which creates commonalities, bridging toward understanding between people who otherwise share very little.
But not everyone is poor, not everyone has been truly povertized. Which makes understanding the core dilemmas of those "without" very difficult. Because poverty isn't about not having enough money to eat what you want; it's about never having enough money to buy what you need. Here in the United States, poverty is knowing that your children don't receive the kind of nutrition you'd like to give them; that you'll have to plan your month around when you can purchase a small amount of groceries, and when you'll have to visit the local food bank to finish out the last weeks. It's being grateful and quiet when that food bank hands out cans of soup that expired two years ago, or bags of cereal with a freshness date six months' gone.
And it's maintaining that demeanor -- grateful and quiet -- when the administrators, workers, and volunteers at various centers "process" your applications, while telling you not to expect too much. Never expect too much. Because everything's "iffy," when you're poor. Everything: where you live; whether you'll finally get into a subsidized housing unit; whether the maintenance crews will ever repair the kinds of preexisting or naturally-ocurring household problems that will likely be blamed on you, the resident; whether reliable transportation will be available to you; whether basic medical services will be offered to you and your children; whether your children have access to the types of educational advantages they'll need; whether increases in utility service payments will mean your lights will be cut off; whether to tell anyone outside "the system" what's going on with you and expect understanding rather than condescension; whether you can do this another day.
Contemporary grassroots movements toward ending poverty and homelessness are not about laying blame. Rather, their collective work is aimed at helping others to identify, understand and overcome the barriers to achieving and maintaining a decent standard of living.
The most deeply povertized groups across the globe are women, children, people of color, and the disabled. Government policy, of course, continues to play a key role in the U.S. Despite gains toward true welfare reform in the 1960s and '70s, the lives of povertized people are on a severe downslope now, with women, children and persons with disabilities still targeted for "change." But to what end?
In the United States, people with disabilities remain the poorest group in the nation. In 2000, there was not one single housing market in the country where a person with a disability receiving SSI benefits could afford to rent a modest efficiency or one-bedroom unit. "Housing wage" data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that people with disabilities who received SSI benefits would need to triple their incomes to be able to afford a decent one-bedroom unit. On average, SSI benefits are equal to an hourly rate of $3.23, only one third of the National Low Income Housing Coalition's housing wage, and nearly $2 below the federal minimum wage. (source: Priced Out in 2000: The Crisis Continues, prepared by TAC and CCD, 2001).
During the 1990s, the federal government gave state and local housing officials and Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) more control over how federal housing funds could be used in their jurisdictions. This policy direction began with the enactment of the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990, and culminated with the passage of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998. Collectively, these new laws have fundamentally altered the landscape of affordable housing funding and decision-making. Now state and local housing officials and PHAs not the federal government decide which low-income populations will benefit from federally funded housing activities. These changes are not well understood by many organizations striving to help disabled peoples; there is a common misunderstanding that the federal government remains the only key player. (Source: Going It Alone, The Struggle to Expand Housing Opportunities for People With Disabilities, authored by TAC and CCD, 2000).
This shift from "big government" (federal) control to the "crazy-quilt" and "confusing morass" of funding control by states and localities is called devolution. In government lexicon, devolution indicates the delegation of responsibilities from the larger federal system to the smaller local systems, which, in theory, will better understand the needs of their constituents.
What has been most notably lacking in this approach to date, however, is the presence of stream-lined service provision and accountability. As a result, there is little protection for those populations who are most needy, and who are often least able to launch a foray through local, state, and federal policies in a search for remedies to individual or group crises.
The Applied Research Center (ARC) offers an unflinching overview:
The Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. (TAC) and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) concur that there is, indeed, very little stream-lining of service provision, in this "complicated housing system":
Today's grassroots anti-poverty organizations continue to work in response to the query, "Where can you get useful and reliable information?" Whether the issue is shelter, food, funding, or education, some of the groups established in the early 1960s to mid-'70s continue to evolve, inform, and push for change.
Whatever the political climate of the day, welfare reform has always been in a state of flux, with changing policies for every generation. We're on a deep down-slope now and, once again, it's the grassroots organizers, rather than the legislators, who are most ardently fighting for change. In the words of Marian Kramer, current co-chair of the National Welfare Rights Union:
Nearly half a century ago, various grassroots activists took hold and began making strong headway toward a true democracy for all peoples in the United States. Chief among these groups was the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which made history between 1966 and 1975, by bringing together legions of welfare recipients. Johnny Tillmon was co-founder of the NWRO. Her legacy continues. The fight is on, still and again.
Look at the big picture. Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift, who delivered twins in May of 2001, isn't really news. Or: she shouldn't be. And giving birth isn't actually a revolutionary act. Unless you're a politician. Or a welfare recipient.
The Applied Research Center (ARC) is on target, here:
Political muckrakers want Swift out of office. At the very least, there is a national conservative sensibility that the woman should atone for this latest punch to government, child-rearing, and feminism (or anti-feminism, depending on who's doing the talking).
From the same quarters come grumblings about women on welfare. Pregnant again? Get off the dole. Forget about education -- even if you're only learning to read. See Jane run? No. Get a job. Just don't become a politician.