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Thrown off the rolls and onto the street
The welfare reform disaster

Review by Elizabeth Schulte | April 18, 2003 | Page 9

BOOKS: LynNell Hancock, Hands to Work: Three Women Navigate the New World of Welfare Deadlines and Work Rules, Morrow/Harperperennial Library, 2002, 336 pages, $13.95.

Lost Ground: Welfare Reform, Poverty and Beyond, Randy Albelda and Ann Withorn, eds., South End Press, 2002, 210 pages, $18.


"ENDING WELFARE as we know it" was Democratic President Bill Clinton's rallying cry as he pushed through his drastic welfare "reform" in 1996. Named the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act," the message was clear--the key to "fixing" the ailing welfare system was discipline, discipline and more discipline.

Through strict restrictions on welfare recipients like work requirements and a five-year lifetime benefits cut-off, Clinton and eager state politicians set out to shrink the welfare rolls. More than five years later, it's clear that they've succeeded in that task--but at a terrible hidden cost to the poor.

Two new books expose the truth behind welfare reform's "success." In Hands to Work, LynNell Hancock takes a personal look into the lives of three women racing to beat the welfare clock in New York City.

She follows the daily obstacles that welfare recipients face, from bureaucratic foul-ups to the trial of finding a place to sleep, from the humiliation of New York's welfare-to-work program to the nearly impossible task of finding affordable child care.

"Christine's typical day was a blur of random required activities. She got the girls off to school, then she took the subway to Brooklyn to straighten out her welfare mess. Back up to the Bronx for rehab and a parenting program…Then over to the shelter to pick Kristopher from day care…There were meetings with caseworkers…with housing experts. She had to beg for subway fare to make all these appointments. If she missed an appointment, she was in danger of losing her welfare, and later her shelter and her kids. Everywhere Christine went she was late. Everywhere she was yelled at for being late…She hated this foxhole feeling."

Folded throughout the three women's narratives are statistics and historical information about poverty in the U.S. And there's useful information about the politicians who made their careers waging an ideological assault on welfare and the people who need it.

Fond of declaring "For every right there is an obligation. For every benefit there is a duty," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani led the assault in New York City. Giuliani's Human Resources Administration appointee Jason Turner, who cut his teeth working on Wisconsin's draconian welfare reform, let it slip in one interview what he really thought about welfare recipients. "I would say everyone has an obligation to work. In fact, it's work that sets you free," borrowing a line from slogan that hung over the front gates of Auschwitz.

While politicians are eager to measure welfare reform's success by the shrinking welfare rolls, they are less inclined to point out what happened to recipients when they left. While no system exists to accurately track what happened to people once they left welfare, an informal study in 1997 showed that the year Wisconsin dropped 43 percent of its welfare recipients, Milwaukee's homeless shelters experienced a 30 percent hike in people.

For more of these facts and figures that debunk the myths about welfare reform, check out the collection of essays, Lost Ground: Welfare, Reform, Poverty and Beyond. For example, take the idea that the old "permissive" welfare system encouraged bloated rolls of people who were "trapped in a cycle of poverty."

In their essay, Sanford Schram and Joe Soss point out that of the people who entered the old welfare system each year, 56 percent of them left within a year, the majority in just over five months. If anything traps poor people in a "cycle of poverty," it's the "reformed" welfare system, which forces recipients into dead-end, low-wage jobs.

Contributors to this collection also take on other aspects of the ideological assault on welfare--like targeting the morality of single mothers by pushing forward programs that focus on promoting marriage rather than affordable child care.

While a few contributions in this book suffer from overly academic style that assumes knowledge, and agreement, with academic feminist theory, in general, Losing Ground does a good job at outlining why welfare reform has been a disaster.

It rightly ends with an essay on welfare rights organizing, highlighting the work of groups like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and the need for the labor movement to join with welfare recipients to oppose these attacks on all of us.

These arguments are more important than ever, as Congress get ready to reauthorize welfare reform and add on further restrictions, like greater work requirements, that will further shred the already mangled safety net.

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