It's been more than five years since Congress ended welfare as we knew it by passing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, over the objections of activists who warned of a large-scale social catastrophe once a recession came. Those dire predictions were dismissed as alarmist, and after four years, with welfare rolls down 50 percent, the law was declared a success. Now, with the economy in recession and unemployment spiking to 5.4 percent, the disaster is imminent, if not already upon us. Congress has begun to debate the reauthorization of the act, which expires next year, and this time, its critics are vowing not to go down without a serious fight.
Thanks to welfare "reform," this is the first recession since the 1930s in which we have virtually no safety net. Of the 415,000 jobs the economy shed in October, 111,000 were in the service industry–a sector dominated by the kinds of temporary, low-wage, low-skill jobs commonly portrayed as a stepping stone out of poverty for welfare moms. Only 40 percent of those tossed out of work collect unemployment insurance, an outrage the so-called stimulus package passed by the House does nothing to address. Of the rest, a disproportionate share are poor single mothers, who don't qualify because they have worked part time, left jobs as a result of childcare problems or recently come off welfare. (Before it was eviscerated, welfare functioned as a sort of unemployment insurance system for such women–offering the added benefit of stimulating a sluggish economy by steadying their purchasing power.) Immigrants who entered the country post-1996, comprising a growing share of the low-wage work force, are mostly ineligible for welfare and other benefits. Worst of all, in most states, poor families will be reaching their five-year welfare time limit over the next six months, just as the recession may be deepening.
It is against this ominous backdrop that the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition of grassroots groups, is partnering with organized labor, civil rights, women's and faith-based organizations to push for an overhaul of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the block grant that replaced the old system. Their "End Poverty: Make TANF Work!" campaign is asking Congress to stop the time-limits clock for families in compliance with welfare rules; expand education and training; create a decent public jobs program; restore benefits to immigrants; and insure that women never have to make a choice between their income and the well-being of their kids. Representative Patsy Mink of Hawaii has introduced a bill (soon to be followed by a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Paul Wellstone) that includes many of these proposals.
In recent years, grassroots groups representing low-income women have made great strides at the local and state levels–winning increased welfare benefits, living-wage guarantees, healthcare for the uninsured, real job training and expanded childcare benefits. And they demonstrated some national strength this past spring, winning a partly refundable child tax credit in an otherwise feudal tax bill. Next year's battle over welfare will test their newfound unity. It's a fight many of their members simply cannot afford to lose.