Nearly three years after the inauguration of welfare reform, Congress and the Clinton Administration would do well to reflect upon the admonition of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who urged America always to be mindful of the ravages of poverty, “for if we are not among its victims, its reality fades from us.”
Since this major social policy reform experiment began, an estimated 1.6 million families have left the welfare rolls. Approximately 4.6 million Americans, mainly women and children, are no longer receiving cash assistance, and caseloads are at the lowest point in thirty years. It is on the basis of these numbers that so many Democrats and Republicans today are trumpeting the “success” of welfare reform. But reduced welfare rolls do not necessarily mean that we have reduced poverty in this country.
What about the fact that we have not seen a drop in poverty to match the caseload decline? What about the fact that millions of Americans work fifty-two weeks a year and are still so destitute they can’t afford to buy food for their children? Do these families have adequate housing, medical care or childcare?
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was supposed to “end welfare as we know it,” replacing the New Dealstyle program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The new law gave states the primary responsibility for welfare, marking the end of the federal government’s guarantee of cash assistance to the nation’s poorest children, and set a five-year, cumulative, lifetime cap on benefits. The stated purpose of the law was a dual one: moving people off assistance and toward economic self-sufficiency.
So as we approach the three-year anniversary of welfare reform, it is fair to ask: How are poor families doing? The answer is: We don’t know. Declining caseloads tell us nothing about whether families are on the road to economic self-sufficiency and better off, or whether they have become unable to escape poverty and are living in more dire circumstances than before welfare reform. The reason we don’t know is that there exists no national, comprehensive portrait, based upon accurate data, of what happens to families when they no longer receive welfare. Today no one at the state, local or federal level is required to track recipients once they have left the welfare rolls. We have moved from “welfare as we know it” to welfare as we do not know it.
A number of recent studies give an inkling of what might be occurring nationwide, however. A report from Families USA, which analyzes Census Bureau data, estimates that 675,000 low-income people, mostly children, do not have medical coverage as a result of welfare reform. NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, collected data on people who visited Catholic social service facilities in ten states with large numbers of people eligible for aid and found an increase of 27 percent in the number of unemployed who do not receive welfare assistance. It also appears that many people who find employment are working at jobs that pay below, often far below, the poverty line. I fear that welfare reform is creating a new class of people, the “Disappeared Americans,” many of whom are children.
Because of these disturbing reports, I recently proposed a welfare tracking amendment that would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to report annually to Congress on the employment, wage, health insurance and childcare status of former Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients. The amendment was voted down 50 to 49 in the Senate, but I will keep submitting it until the Senate does the right thing. The logic in its favor is straightforward. Congress has a serious responsibility to evaluate the new policies it creates and to conduct oversight to discern whether its goals are being achieved. When you try something new, you need to find out whether it works. Why should welfare reform be any different? It is time to find out what is happening around the country to families that lose public assistance, especially in a period of prosperity, when we have seen an increase of 400,000 children in deep poverty.
The Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal once said, “Ignorance is never random.” Sometimes we choose not to know what we do not want to know. In the case of welfare reform, we must have the courage to find out.