I’ll always remember the day President Clinton signed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), or welfare reform, into law. It was August 1996, and I was reading the morning paper in Barstow, California, completing the last leg of a cross-country road trip I’d taken with my daughter to celebrate my finishing school. Having just earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, I would finally earn enough to get my family off welfare—and out of poverty—for good. As I read the news that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act had become law, I hung my head and cried. I felt like I’d crossed a bridge just as it collapsed behind me, and worried what would become of mothers who remained trapped on the other side.
Since 1996, politicians have bragged about passing welfare reform. Even House Speaker John Boehner recently praised TANF as a bipartisan success. But successful at what? If kicking low-income children and their families off welfare is the measure, then TANF was a huge success. States were given bonuses for reducing their caseloads rather than reducing poverty. As long as families were off the rolls, it didn’t matter how or why. Studies show that parents were ten times more likely to get cut off welfare because of punitive sanctions than because they got jobs paying enough to “income off.” In many states, “full family” sanctions cut low-income children off welfare along with their parents. Under the “work first” mantra, TANF caseloads plummeted by almost 70 percent, as nearly 9 million low-income parents and children were purged from the national welfare rolls by 2008. Given the four goals of TANF—promoting low-wage work, encouraging marriage, reducing caseloads and curtailing out-of-wedlock births—these outcomes are no surprise. But if the measure of success is poverty reduction, TANF has failed.
To start, its restrictions on postsecondary education and training—the most effective pathway out of poverty for parents on welfare—make earning a bachelor’s degree nearly impossible. Even earning an associate degree is difficult. “Any job is a good job” was the slogan emblazoned on the walls of county welfare agencies across the country, as tens of thousands of low-income mothers were made to quit college to do up to thirty-five hours per week of unpaid “workfare”: sweeping streets, picking up trash in parks and cleaning public restrooms in exchange for benefits as low as $240 a month.
Contrary to “welfare queen” stereotypes, like most welfare mothers, I worked first. Work wasn’t the problem; it was the nature of the work—low-wage, dead-end jobs with no benefits and little chance for advancement—that kept families like mine on the welfare rolls. Investing in my education enabled me to break that cycle and earn a solid upper-middle-class income. I now pay three times more in taxes than I used to earn working full time in a low-wage, dead-end job.
This trajectory is what motivated mothers like Rya Frontera and Melissa Johnson to pursue nursing degrees, despite being sanctioned: having their families’ cash grants cut off and losing childcare and transportation assistance when they refused to quit school. Whereas mothers in “work first” programs earn less than $9,000 a year, after completing her BS in nursing Melissa graduated off welfare to a career-path job as a registered nurse making $90,000 a year. Similarly, Rya is now a full-time nurse with full benefits working for Kaiser. Not only are they off welfare permanently; both women are filling a crucial labor market need, as our nation faces a nursing shortage with no end in sight. Isn’t that how welfare should work?
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It is also time to end the arbitrary rules under TANF that imposed a lifetime limit of sixty months for receiving benefits, and that allowed states to enact shorter time limits. It took me ten years to overcome a lifetime of physical, emotional and sexual abuse; depression; and post-traumatic stress disorder, one or more of which have been experienced by most mothers on welfare as girls or adults—or in my case, both. In California—home to one-third of welfare families nationally—the experience of “timed off” families clearly challenges the notion that five years is enough; TANF’s work-first emphasis relegated many parents to low-wage jobs that didn’t pay enough to get their families off welfare, let alone out of poverty. Consequently, in 2003 the vast majority of parents in California’s CalWORKs program who reached their sixty-month limit were working and playing by the rules when they timed off welfare for the rest of their lives. And this year, like many states, California shortened its lifetime limit to forty-eight months in response to budget shortfalls, despite having the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. As a result, 22,500 parents were permanently cut off the welfare rolls on July 1.
Ashley Proctor, a young single mother in Oakland, was doing her thirty-two-hour weekly work requirement when she timed off. Her benefits were cut to a “child only” grant of $320 per month. “My son and I are sleeping on a friend’s sofa,” she says. “On the weekends I take him to our storage unit so he can play with his toys.” That’s better than what mothers faced in other states, where time limits as short as twenty-one months were enacted. How unfortunate that Congress, in its infinite wisdom, didn’t put a time limit on poverty instead.
While states like California curtailed much-needed benefits, under welfare reform billions in federal funds were invested in unproven “marriage promotion” programs to marry poor women off the welfare rolls. Never mind that in some of California’s most populous counties in 2003, most timed-off parents were already in two-parent families where one was working. And in a cruel twist, while billions were spent on marriage promotion programs that were mandatory for the states, the Family Violence Option let states choose whether to provide domestic violence services in their TANF programs, including waivers of time limits and welfare-to-work rules. Furthermore, although research shows that women who receive welfare experience domestic violence at double the rate of all American women, not a dime in federal funding was provided for family violence services. Even in California, which adopted the FVO, studies show that as many as 80 percent of CalWORKs mothers are domestic violence victims. Of these, less than 1 percent get family violence counseling and services, and less than one-quarter of 1 percent get waivers from welfare work requirements that could save their lives.
This includes mothers like Felicia Jones, whom my agency, Low-Income Families’ Empowerment Through Education, or LIFETIME, was helping when she went into hiding after her ex threatened to kill her and their children. While on the run, Felicia got a notice of a mandatory welfare-to-work appointment, which had been scheduled on the same day and time as the hearing for her restraining order. When she called to say she couldn’t make the appointment, her caseworker said she couldn’t help her and hung up the phone, and later sanctioned Felicia for missing that appointment. Despite my urging, Felicia was too afraid to request a state appeals hearing and later disappeared. To this day, I don’t know what happened to her and her children.
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Fifteen years of welfare reform, and what do we have to show for it? Poverty is at its highest level in nearly twenty years. The number of children living in deep poverty—in families with income less than 50 percent of the poverty line—is at its highest level in thirty-five years. The unemployment rate for single mothers, who represent 90 percent of parents in the welfare system, has nearly doubled, to a twenty-five-year high. Welfare rolls are rising for the first time since TANF was passed, despite efforts by states to tighten time limits and make it harder for families to get help. In Georgia, for example, families applying for TANF have faced “wait periods” before they can get cash assistance—the welfare equivalent of a poll tax or literacy test—with caseworkers offering to send children into foster care or put them up for adoption to ease the burden. Consequently, since 2002 Georgia increased TANF spending on child welfare–related services by 245 percent. According to Clare Richie, a senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, the state now spends more on adoption services and foster care (58 percent) than it does on assistance to families.
This trend is alarming to people like Georgia State Senator Donzella James, who has been getting calls from constituents whose children are being taken away by the Department of Family and Child Services, the state’s welfare agency. “One woman told me, ‘I’m not a bad mother. I’m just unemployed,’” she said. Similarly, Arizona, Rhode Island and Texas spend nearly half their TANF block grants on child welfare–related services. One has to wonder if this was the plan all along, given the proposal by Newt Gingrich, who was House speaker when TANF was created, to use orphanages to reduce the welfare rolls.
The Great Recession was the first true test of welfare reform during an economic downturn, and TANF failed the grade miserably. The proof is in the numbers: in 1995 the old welfare program served at least eight out of every ten low-income children, including mine. Today TANF serves only two out of every ten poor children nationwide. In passing TANF, Congress and Bill Clinton made good on their promise to “end welfare as we know it.” It’s time to end welfare reform as we know it instead.
Also in This Forum
Betsy Reed: “Occupy the Safety Net ” (Introduction)
Lizzy Ratner: “Food Stamps: The Safety Net That Deserves Its Name ”
Kate Kahan and George Wentworth: “Unemployment Insurance Under the Knife ”
Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich: “The Making of the American 99 Percent ”
Pedro Noguera: “Tearing the School Safety Net ”
Patrick Markee: “The Unfathomable Cuts in Housing Aid ”
Sasha Abramsky: “Medicaid in Crisis ”
Kai Wright: “Hard Knocks in the Bronx ”
Frances Fox Piven: “A Proud, Angry Poor ”