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.

 

     

       
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While they're standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion

Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what's theirs

Don't you know
You better run, run, run...
Oh I said you better
Run, run, run...

Finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin' bout a revolution

-- from "Talkin' About a Revolution," byTracy Chapman, 1988

 

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?

 

It is an important foundation of contemporary conservative thought that the federal government is the source of, not the remedy for, social problems. In consequence, conservatives attempt to transfer as much authority as possible to smaller and smaller jurisdictions: to states and localities, and implicitly to the nuclear family.

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended the government guarantee of welfare assistance to low-income families which met federal eligibility criteria. Responsibility for administration and setting eligibility requirements was largely passed down to the states, many of which further devolved responsibility to local governments.

The current public assistance crazy-quilt (certainly not a system) is a confusing morass of arbitrary elements without any uniform standards to protect recipients from discrimination and caprice. (The False Foundations of Welfare Reform, prepared by the Applied Research Center, 2001)

 

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:

 

A little history: The resurgent "states' rights" mantra is a familiar one in America. "States' rights!" was the rallying cry of white segregationists during the 1950s and 1960s. It conjures up images of sheriffs attacking voting rights marchers and southern governors blocking black children at the schoolhouse door.
In the context of welfare during the late 1960s, a similar battle was waged for inclusion for all. Some southern states flatly refused to qualify black women for welfare, while other states qualified them periodically, only to disqualify them when the cotton crop needed picking. Other states used a narrow moral standard to determine eligibility, granting benefits to "deserving" widowed mothers while denying them to "undeserving" single mothers of illegitimate children.
"States' rights" activists in the welfare arena argued that states should be able to do as they pleased. Those lobbying for equal rights argued that in the absence of strict federal guidelines, the welfare system, like voting rights, had become arbitrary and discriminatory. Therefore, they argued, just as a set of federally legislated and enforced standards was needed to ensure that all Americans could exercise the franchise, a uniform set of rules was needed to standardize access to and administration of government assistance programs. By the early 1970s advocates and welfare recipients had won a wide-ranging set of protections that guaranteed relatively uniform and equal treatment regardless of administrative jurisdictions.
The opponents of "big government" have been very successful in turning back the clock to the days when local state bureaucrats made up hoops for the needy to jump through, on the basis of their local interests and prejudices.

 

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":

 

Unfortunately, the nation's affordable housing programs are not organized or delivered systematically, but rather through a myriad of complicated programs and housing agencies that have no relationship to one another.  Navigating through this maze has proved very difficult for the disability community.  While there are some provisions in federal law and regulation designed to foster collaboration between government housing officials and the disability community ­ including the Consolidated Plan ­ housing advocates for people with disabilities have not learned how to capitalize on them. 

The disability community is severely constrained by its limited knowledge of federal housing policies and programs.  When disability housing advocates attempt to engage housing officials, they often report that the information they receive is either confusing or not useful to them.  Because every federal housing program is different, it is difficult to know exactly what questions to ask, or to learn how programs can best be used to expand housing for people with disabilities.   

Even local and state housing officials who administer certain federal housing programs are usually unfamiliar with the rules and policies that govern other programs outside of their administrative authority.  For example, PHAs have information on the public housing and Section 8 voucher program, but not on the federal HOME and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs.  Housing advocates for people with disabilities often ask, "If you can't get useful and reliable information from the housing system, where can you get it?" 

 

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:

 

There's got to be a party that's going to spearhead the general strike. One part of it can be electoral, but it's gotta be the fighting in the streets. People are not talking about no Republican Party, or no Ron Dellums, or no Twenty-first Century Party. They want a party of a new type. We represent the revolutionary section. I did not come to that conclusion by myself, because I don't claim to be nobody that's original. It's through collective analysis and theory. -- Marian Kramer (1991 interview with Robert H. Mast, for the book Detroit Lives [Temple University Press, 1994])

 

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:

This attempt to use welfare to attack poor women's right to bear children is not a new phenomenon. In 1971 a Tennessee legislator introduced a bill to force welfare applicants to accept sterilization or lose custody of their existing children. In 1972 a California welfare advisory board proposed that women who give birth to more than two children while unmarried be declared unfit parents and be required to relinquish any subsequent children to the state. During the 1990s, several states introduced legislation involving the birth control drug Norplant, with policy suggestions ranging from making it available through Medicaid, to increasing benefits for women who use it, to requiring women to use it as a condition for receiving benefits. During the period preceding passage of the 1996 law, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proposed that government funds for children born to mothers who were receiving welfare be diverted to programs that would place their babies in orphanages.
The framers of welfare reform were right about one thing: families with one income are generally poorer than families with two or more incomes. In fact, real wages have fallen so steeply in the last 25 years that it is no longer possible to support a family on a single minimum wage income. The solution to this problem is not to force women to marry (assuming this is even an option), or to remain in marriages that may be emotionally or physically abusive. The solution is to craft economic policies that lift all families out of poverty. (The False Foundations of Welfare Reform, 2001)

 

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.

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Text © 2001 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo

Sources: "The False Foundations of Welfare Reform," prepared by the Applied Research Center, February, 2001, available online at ARC; "Priced Out in 2000: The Crisis Continues," report prepared by TAC and CCD, available online at Opening Doors; "Going It Alone: The Struggle to Expand Housing Opportunities for People with Disabilities," prepared by TAC and CCD, available online at Opening Doors.

Original Graphic Image, "Movement: Toward" © 2001 by Emmanuela Copal de León

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