Reforming Welfare--Take Two
Framing the Coming Debate
As Congress revisits the welfare debate in 2002, three principles underlie a meaningful agenda for reform: Income support, education and training should be more widely available to low-income families; families and the government should both be responsible; and the well-being of families matters most.
The old system divided the welfare poor from the working poor, splitting the constituency for such programs. With the rolls now so small, the safety net of cash assistance has even fewer defenders. Emphasizing TANF's relevance to a broader segment of the working poor makes sense not only as policy but as political strategy. The recession accentuates the point. TANF is an integral part of the panoply of protections for the unemployed, distinguishable only in technical details from the rest of the anti-recession toolbox (unemployment insurance, food stamps, energy and housing assistance, and so on). One crisis, one people, one safety net. The politics and the policy can go hand in hand.
Moreover, advocates will command moral authority by exposing how the current system consigns even rule-abiding TANF recipients to continuing poverty. Not applying time limits to families who "play by the rules" is a matter of fairness. So is making sure that two-parent families qualify for benefits, and assuring that child-support payments actually go to the children they are supposed to support instead of being kept by the state to offset past welfare payments. It is both better policy and better politics to offer TANF benefits to low-income workers--including cash supplements as well as education and training--regardless of whether a family received TANF before a member got a job.
Political force also inheres in the idea that families and the government should both be responsible. When people take responsibility for themselves but need support to achieve an income they can live on, they should get it. When the economy falters either nationally or locally, and when people with limited work experience and capacity cannot find work, time limits should be suspended and public jobs programs should offer work, training and placement assistance. Sufficient assistance should be guaranteed as the economy sours and joblessness continues to rise.
Family well-being is another idea that represents both policy truth and political saliency. Especially to protect children, an adequate cash safety net needs to be in place at all times. Requiring states to measure and report on the sufficiency of their cash grant levels against a fair standard is a minimum step to be taken. Requiring states and localities to follow their own rules is another. The federal government should penalize states that create a lawless culture in the welfare office, that inappropriately divert or arbitrarily sanction families, or that fail to screen and serve families in crisis, including domestic violence survivors. The meanest states need to be reined in--by, for example, requiring face-to-face interviews before anyone is cut off. Accommodating parents with sick, disabled or very young children, or infirm relatives, by reducing work requirements and suspending time limits would also promote family well-being, as would requiring employers to expand family-friendly policies and offering states incentives to establish paid family leave. At the end of the day, state performance should be measured against outcomes that matter, including the reduction of family and child poverty. States should be required to collect and publicly report data on their performance, broken down by race and ethnicity to insure that services are provided equitably.
A new vision for welfare will require many changes in perspective. Policy-makers and political elites will have to acknowledge that TANF needs to accommodate the realities facing low-income families today. States and welfare administrators will have to change the orientation of the system from "beat them down" and "get them off" to "lift them up." Federal and state resources must be sufficient to meet the scale of the need.
Low-income people and their allies will have to articulate a bold new vision for poverty reduction and create the public will to realize it. This is a daunting task. Good antipoverty policy has never been a hallmark of the American social fabric.
But elements auguring positive movement are in play. People are in motion at the grassroots level. The public seems more receptive. The convergence of recession, time limits and brewing state fiscal crises creates an opening for change. In this context, a new vision for welfare may gain broader support than one might initially suppose. Certainly the price of inaction--for low-income people and for our society--is far too high.