In a more progressive political world, the current recession would alter and even accelerate the debate over reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law, which expires this year. Far from a success in any case, the 1996 law was at best a policy designed for times when jobs are plentiful. Its drafters were heedless of what a recession would bring, perhaps thinking the business cycle, like history, was no longer operative.
Whatever they thought, the recession is here, and we entered it with a severely weakened safety net. Our unemployment compensation system has been deteriorating for decades. It will reach slightly more than a third of those who lose their jobs and replace only about a third, on average, of the wages of those who do qualify for help. Welfare, with its time limits and complete freedom for states to offer as little help as they like, will not fill the gap. People who go to the welfare office for cash help, food stamps and Medicaid will often be turned away, legally or illegally, because of restrictions on benefits for immigrants, a “work first” welfare office culture that will be slow to change even when there are no jobs available, and lawless practices that divert families away from the help they need.
It’s possible the new year will bring a readiness to think a little more carefully–as governors contemplating declining revenues come to Washington with palms outstretched, but also as people mobilize to demand better policy. A wave of organizing in low-income communities over the past five years–now joined by labor, children’s, women’s, faith and civil rights organizations–has strengthened the constituency for action [see sidebar, page 18]. Polls show a renewed trust in government, and there has been an outpouring of community concern for the victims of terror and its economic aftershocks. Even President Bush has suggested that legal immigrants should be entitled to food stamps.
Public opinion about welfare has changed, too. The 1996 law did at least end the debate over the decrepit system that no one–least of all low-income parents–liked. The resentment and anger that surrounded the old system have largely dissipated, and the public is surprisingly supportive of positive policy. A recent survey conducted by the (admittedly liberal) Washington pollster Diane Feldman found wide support for expanded education and training, assisting families who are working but still poor, focusing welfare policy on poverty reduction and reducing or eliminating work requirements for families with young children.
Of course, the issues go far beyond reauthorizing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the program created in 1996. The challenges include making up for a labor market that fails to provide millions of workers with a living wage, health insurance or the possibility of advancement; addressing the ever-increasing shortage and skyrocketing cost of rental housing; ameliorating the struggles that low-income parents go through to hold jobs and nurture their children at the same time; making sure that both women and men have full opportunities for job success; rectifying the exclusion of immigrants from access to supports that other Americans enjoy; and repairing unemployment insurance so that adequate benefits are available to a greater proportion of the jobless. But welfare reauthorization is coming, and it is important, both intrinsically and because the welfare system is in many ways the “canary in the coal mine” that signals the quality of our national commitment to low-income families.