Long lines of gloomy people in business suits at a jobs fair. Foreclosure signs on tidy suburban lawns. Adults moving into their parents’ basement. In the news these days, the face of poverty is middle class, educated and often married: the hard-working, play-by-the-rules victims of the ongoing financial crisis. It’s the man-bites-dog story that never ends.
But what about the people who already were poor before the crisis? Like women on welfare? Oh, them. The welfare reform bill, pompously titled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) and signed by Bill Clinton in the run-up to the election, was supposed to pull these hapless folk off the dole with a mix of carrots and sticks aimed at forcing mothers off welfare and into the workforce. Not only would they find jobs that would allow them to support their children, the theory went; once single motherhood ceased to be subsidized by the taxpayer, poor women would settle down and marry before having kids. On its tenth anniversary PRWORA was widely trumpeted as a success: "Pragmatic progress," declared Newsweek‘s Robert Samuelson. "Everything has worked," Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute told USA Today. "Welfare reform has been a triumph for the federal government and the states—and even more for single mothers," claimed Brookings Institution senior fellow Ron Haskins in its newsletter. On the New York Times op-ed page, Clinton patted himself on the back for a successful triangulation ("At the time, I was widely criticized by liberals who thought the work requirements too harsh and conservatives who thought the work incentives too generous") and for moving millions from "dependence to empowerment."
True, the widespread disaster—1.1 million newly poor children, for instance—predicted by some opponents did not come about: child poverty actually went down. Millions of welfare mothers found work, albeit often casual, low-wage jobs that did not lift them out of poverty. How much of a triumph is it that in the late 1990s, 65 percent of former recipients in South Carolina were working, earning an average hourly wage of $6? Or that in Maryland, in one quarter, about half of former recipients had found work at pay that annualized to roughly $9,500—way below the poverty line for an average family? In a New York City study I wrote about in February 1999, only 126 former recipients out of a sample of 569 even had valid phone numbers, hardly a sign of prosperity and stability; of the 126, 58 percent were supporting their families "mainly through work," and the median wage was $7.50.
But those women were entering the workforce at a moment of labor-force expansion and prosperity in the US economy; 16 million jobs were created in the 1990s. And even then—with a good jobs market, well-funded transitional programs and federal and state coffers flush with tax dollars—most welfare mothers stayed poor. Some, indeed, became poorer than ever, a development that tended to be briefly noted, if at all. As for the effects PRWORA was supposed to have on sexual mores, teen pregnancy did go down—but that happened for many reasons, and the United States is still way out in front of the other industrialized nations, including those with generous supports for young mothers and their children. Single motherhood continued to rise, accounting for 41 percent of all births in 2008, a historic high. Since single motherhood is rising all over the world, in countries from Ireland to Japan, it is not surprising that it has proved resistant to PRWORA’s supposed miracle cure.
If the boom years failed to lift poor mothers into the middle class, how are they faring now that the middle class is becoming the new poor? The fact that the welfare rolls have risen less than 10 percent since December 2007 while food stamp use has soared by 40 percent—an amazing one in eight Americans now uses them—suggests that welfare isn’t reaching poor families: either women who apply are being turned away, or the programs are so minimal, or so onerous, that people aren’t signing up. How do they manage? Sharon Hays, author of Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, writes in an e-mail, "They get by in the same way the poor of New Orleans and Haiti are getting by, by cobbling together every available source of aid and support, and then trying to learn how to adjust to constant suffering and insecurity. Increasing rates of domestic violence are just one hidden story here." And what about women who have reached their state’s time limit—two years, three years, five years—and can’t get welfare for the rest of their lives? Jane Collins, the author, with Victoria Mayer, of Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom of the Low-Wage Labor Market, writes, "In Wisconsin, most people who have used up their time limits are simply out of luck."
Sounds like the laid-off workers for whom Congress recently capped unemployment benefits at ninety-nine weeks—but their situation, unlike that of welfare mothers, evokes widespread sympathy. No one sane assumes that today’s unemployed are loafing, that jobs are "out there" for them or that getting married would solve their problems. If you think about it, though, given that PRWORA has been in effect for nearly fifteen years, it would not be difficult for a mother to reach the lifetime limit, even in Wisconsin, where it’s a comparatively generous sixty months.
I asked Collins if she saw anything good in welfare reform. "It was always a stigmatized program, a football in racial politics. If it were possible to make unemployment and other entitlement programs gender sensitive—to take account of caregiving, for example, and the need for childcare—and put women into these mainstream programs instead of welfare, that would reconceive poor mothers as economic citizens, as workers with rights. And that would be good." But for that to happen, people would have to care.