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Welfare Reform Failing Poor Single Mothers

"Stretched Thin," "Both Hands Tied," and "The War on Welfare" are three new books that highlight welfare reform's failure to address the enduring poverty of single mothers and their children.

The women at the bottom in America, single mothers on public assistance, are sometimes called "drawer people," the subjects of case files that stay in the welfare manager's drawer, year after year. They are mothers who quit work or can't work because they are ill or disabled, or illiterate, or victims of abuse, or the sole caregivers for an elderly parent or chronically sick child.

These so-called hard-to-serve single mothers may include women who fail to apply for the 70 jobs in one month required to qualify for a federal cash grant. They may want to go to school full time, which is against welfare rules in some states. They may be approaching the five-year lifetime limit for cash assistance that most states impose. Or they may simply not own a car.

"I feel like poverty just ... it's a vicious cycle," says one mother on welfare, an Oregon hospice worker with three teen-aged children, in Stretched Thin: Poor Families, Welfare Work, and Welfare Reform, a rare in-depth study of caseworkers and their clients and former clients. "I mean if you get your head above that water, then they're going to drop you. ...You know they are going to let the air out of your lifejacket, and you go back down to the bottom rung again."

The posters in welfare offices proclaim, "Work is always better than welfare." But is it? Not if you're a single mother in a low-wage, no-benefits, dead-end job, according to both Stretched Thin and Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom of the Low-Wage Labor Market, another new book on America's fraying safety net. In close-up studies of single mothers both on and off the dole in Oregon and Wisconsin, two states that pioneered welfare reform, these books report what it's like to stock shelves at Walmart, empty bedpans in nursing homes, or flip burgers at McDonald's, working nights and split shifts — and somehow also trying to raise a family.


"It's all the stresses in the world," says one mother in Both Hands Tied, describing her life as a cleaning woman and the sole caretaker of three children. "You know what I'm saying? You have to do all these things, and then you have to worry about child care, making it home in time to feed them, put them in the tub, clean up the house. ... You're trying to do all this on your own, with no help. What's the word for it? I don't even know the word for it."

The starting point for both books is 1996, when the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program was abolished, ending 60 years of guaranteed monthly cash grants to families without a man present. In its place, a Republican-dominated Congress passed welfare reform, or the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Vowing to "end welfare as we know it," President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed the act into law. Members of both parties agreed that poor single mothers should support their children primarily through wage labor rather than government aid. In practice, this meant that for single mothers to get welfare checks, they also had to go to work.

At the time of its demise, AFDC represented only 1 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. But, as recounted in The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America, a recent book on the history behind the reform, the antipoverty coalition that sought to dramatically expand federal aid to the poor in the 1960s and '70s had long since disbanded. For decades, says Marisa Chappell, the author and a historian at Oregon State University, welfare had been branded as "a destructive program that drove poor fathers away."


Democrats joined Republicans in blaming welfare for a host of society's ills, including gang violence, teen pregnancies and low SAT scores. The press was full of stories about shiftless "welfare queens" with drug-addicted sons. First on a long list of congressional findings for the reform legislation was, "Marriage is the foundation of a successful society." The law noted that the number of people receiving AFDC had tripled since 1965, and more than two-thirds of them were children. It stated that the number of children receiving public assistance — 9.3 million — was "closely related to the increase in births to unmarried women," which had nearly tripled between 1970 and 1991.

But Chappell says the preponderance of research does not support the idea that AFDC encouraged women to stay unmarried or have additional children to increase their welfare payments. "Against all evidence," she says, "both conservatives and liberals insisted that government income support ... discouraged the creation and maintenance of two-parent families among the 'underclass.'"

Like Chappell, the authors of Stretched Thin and Both Hands Tied — four sociologists and an anthropologist — take aim at the philosophical underpinnings of welfare reform, the belief, old as the workhouses of 19th-century England, that cash assistance breeds laziness and the poor themselves should bear the chief burden for improving their lot. All three books examine what happens to poor single mothers working in an economy in which wages are stagnant, benefits are declining, layoffs are rampant, low-paid service sector jobs have replaced good manufacturing jobs and two incomes are required for a family to stay out of poverty. Against this backdrop, the authors say, welfare reform has condemned millions of poor women and children to downward mobility.


For all the rhetoric about reducing chronic welfare dependency, moving poor women toward self-sufficiency and getting their foot in the door of the world of work, the books show, the effect of reform has been to reduce government spending and lift women and children off the rolls — but not out of poverty.

On the 10th anniversary of welfare reform in 2006, Clinton claimed success in an essay ("How We Ended Welfare, Together") for The New York Times, stating that the welfare rolls had dropped by two-thirds, creating "a new beginning for millions of Americans." The gains of the late 1990s, Clinton noted, were buoyed by a strong economy during his presidency, an increase in the minimum wage and expansions in such federal programs as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Head Start, child care subsidies, the collection of child support and incentives for businesses that hired welfare recipients.

"Overall, 100 times as many people moved out of poverty and into the middle class during our eight years as in the previous 12," Clinton said. "Of course, the booming economy helped, but the empowerment policies made a big difference."

Between 1995 and 2000, on the heels of welfare reform, poverty in America did in fact decline, even as the welfare rolls were slashed in half. During those years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the child poverty rate dropped from nearly 21 percent to 16 percent, back to 1970s levels. The poverty rate for households headed by single women fell from 32 percent in 1995 to a historical low of 25 percent in 2000.

But Stretched Thin challenges this supposed success story. Even in the prosperous economy of the late 1990s, it shows, finding a job was not usually a ticket out of poverty. Co-authors Sandra Morgen, an anthropologist, and Joan Acker, a sociologist, both at the University of Oregon, and Jill Weigt, a sociologist at California State University, San Marcos, surveyed more than 900 people, most of them white single mothers, who were taken off the rolls in Oregon or denied welfare benefits in early 1998. They found that more than half — 55 percent — wound up taking jobs that paid wages at or below the poverty line. Two years later, the authors found, nearly half still had family incomes below the poverty line.

Stretched Thin provides a close-up of a punitive system in which a caseworker boasts about his "shaming technique," and poor women forgo raises of 25 cents per hour to avoid losing food stamps.

"They'll pay for your day care to work a minimum wage job for the rest of your life ..." says a waitress who dropped out of community college after her mother fell ill and could not watch the grandchildren. "But they won't pay for day care for a year or two for someone to go to school and get a degree so they could become more successful."

Census data show that poverty rates plummeted in the U.S. between 1959 and 1973, during a period of sustained economic growth. Between 1965 and 1972, as noted in Stretched Thin, federal spending on welfare and other antipoverty programs more than doubled. The U.S. poverty rate reached a historic low of 11 percent in 1973, down from 22 percent in 1959.

Yet by 1973, welfare had been under attack for years. As recounted in The War on Welfare, the Moynihan Report of 1965, written by Assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan for a Democratic administration, proclaimed, "The Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling" and "approaching complete breakdown." Unable to support their families, black men were deserting them, leaving a "matriarchal structure" and a "tangle of pathology" behind, the report said.

Bit by bit, The War on Welfare shows, liberals abandoned their defense of poor women as caregivers and joined the conservative chorus calling for reform. The Moynihan Report, Chappell says, expressed a broad consensus on the American left.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's General Accounting Office found that more than a decade of research had failed to support the view that welfare was fostering two-parent family breakups or out-of-wedlock births. But by then, the country was making a U-turn in the war on poverty.

Today, poverty is on the rise again. The gains of the late 1990s have proved to be unsustainable. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, the overall poverty rate rose to 13 percent, and the child poverty rate rose to 19 percent. Nearly 29 percent of households headed by women in 2008 were poor, approaching 1998 levels.

In remarks before a U.S. House of Representatives committee that month, Carmen Nazario, assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that between 1995 and 2008, the percent of poor single mothers with no work and no welfare had more than doubled, to 35 percent. Well over half the decline in welfare caseloads was due not to a drop in poverty, but rather to a drop in the share of poor families receiving assistance, Nazario said.

"We must be certain that the program remains responsive and accessible to families when they are in need," Nazario said.

Under current welfare rules, half of the parents receiving cash grants in a given state must work, or the state risks losing federal funds. The grants for a family of three with no income range from a maximum $170 monthly in Mississippi to $923 monthly in Alaska. Single poor parents must work an average of 30 hours per week to qualify, or 20 hours if they have a child under 6. They must look for work as soon as they are able.

Yet Both Hands Tied reveals that the women often end up in truly dead-end jobs. To qualify for federal aid, they are frequently assigned to community service, sorting clothes for Goodwill or cleaning public housing offices. If they refuse these "workfare" jobs, they may be denied assistance. Their caseworkers monitor their attendance and dock their pay if they miss hours.

The co-authors of Both Hands Tied, Jane L. Collins, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Victoria Mayer, a sociologist at Colby College in Maine, focused their study on a group of 33 women in Milwaukee and Racine, Wis., more than half of them African American, who entered, remained on or returned to the welfare rolls in 2003. They found that none of the women was a stranger to work. Virtually all had worked since they were teenagers and had numerous jobs, often lasting more than a year, sometimes with promotions.

Among the personal stories in Both Hands Tied is that of a single mother, a former certified nursing assistant in Milwaukee, who goes on public assistance when her blood pressure during a pregnancy becomes dangerously high. Her former employer did not provide medical leave. Now, seven months after giving birth, she has been assigned to collect rubbish and tend to the landscaping on city traffic islands.

"What am I going to do cutting down bushes?" she asks. "Am I gonna put that on my résumé?"

Federal funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program that replaced AFDC, has remained at $16 billion since 1996, representing a 28 percent decline in real dollars. Congress provided an extra $2.5 billion in emergency funds for 2009 and 2010, and, as Miller-McCune went to press, the House had approved an additional $2.5 billion for 2011. But Congress was not expected to significantly expand the program long term.

"Despite the shocking reality of silent and unmet need, we have heard no clamoring for the reform of welfare reform," Stretched Thin says.

In 1969, as America's cities were burning, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, proposed a plan that would have represented a phenomenal expansion of the nation's safety net. This bit of history, absent now in political memory but retold in The War on Welfare, was called the Family Assistance Plan. It was aimed at blue-collar workers, who were losing manufacturing jobs to cheap labor overseas. The plan would have provided a guaranteed annual income of $1,600 for all American families, or the equivalent of about $10,000 in today's dollars. The National Association of Manufacturers and a group of the country's major industrialists, including the heads of Xerox and the Ford Motor Company, supported the concept.

"It wasn't a socialist revolution, to be sure, but it was a great deal more radical than anything a mainstream politician might offer today," Chappell says.

In a turning point for New Deal-style politics, her book shows, Nixon's plan died after four years of debate, defeated by a conservative onslaught and bitter divisions in the liberal camp. Conservatives attacked it as a "giant step deeper into the quagmire of the welfare state." Welfare activists didn't like it because favored white two-parent families to the detriment of single African-American mothers.

Today, during the country's worst economic crisis in 70 years, even the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C., think tank that helped draft the welfare reform of 1996, says "more attention needs to be paid to the adequacy of the safety net." In testimony before the House Committee on the Budget late last year, Ron Haskins, a Brookings economist and an architect of the welfare overhaul, said, "The 1996 reforms were successful when the economy was strong, and even during a mild recession like that of 2001. But that recession was nothing more than a modest thunder storm; the current recession is a hurricane."

Brookings is projecting the poverty rate will rise to 14.4 percent next year, bringing the total of poor Americans to 45 million.

Early in 2008, while running for president, Barack Obama made a vow to cut poverty in half in 10 years, adding, "I do so with great humility because it is a very ambitious goal."

These three books suggest ways the goal can be reached: Raise the minimum wage. Provide more jobs, better job training and universal child care. Establish a universal monthly child allowance, as 88 other countries have done. Expand unemployment benefits and give them to part-time workers. Require employers to provide paid family leave. Make preschool and college available at low cost or for free.

Or take the advice of Johnnie Tillmon, the national welfare rights leader, Los Angeles laundrywoman and mother of six who said back in 1971, during the Nixon years, "If I were president ... I'd start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing — child raising and housekeeping. And the welfare crisis would be over. Just like that."