Shredding The Safety Net:
Welfare Reform As We Know It
Food First Backgrounder, Winter 1998
"At Colonel Sanders they used to put the left-overs in
the garbage bin. There used to be 10 to 15 people every night
looking for food in the garbage, including myself-just looking
for something to eat. I have really seen hunger, especially in
the faces of children. I know it's hard on them. It was hard on
Rufus Herold, former homeless senior, now on the staff at
St Mary's Center, Oakland
Rufus Herold may not be an expert on welfare reform, but he
does know about hunger. Herold could write a book on his experiences
while looking for something to eat. Today he helps other seniors
find their way out of dehumanizing hunger, poverty, and homelessness.
While Herold ladles out soup, our government leaders tell
us that the economy is booming, with low employment, rising incomes,
and shrinking welfare rolls. But more and more people are sliding
through the cracks. Herold wishes that policy makers, who have
never known hunger, could get a closer look at the people waiting
in food lines. Then maybe they would understand, and maybe they
would change things.
On August 22, 199G in the Rose Garden of the White House,
President Clinton signed into law the Orwellian-sounding Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better
known as Welfare Reform, the most sweeping change in our welfare
system in sixty years. With his signature, Clinton's talk of "not
punishing or preaching" became indistinguishable from the
Republican Party's poor-bashing Contract with America. How Mr.
Clinton slid from a welfare plan that would have added about $10
billion more in spending to embracing one that would cut $54 billion
is a sad tale of American politics. Furthermore, it raises the
specter of systematic violations of basic human rights here in
the United States of America, if we are judged by the international
standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted
fifty years ago by the United Nations General Assembly.
In this report we tally the impact of welfare reform, expose
seldom reported corporate profit-taking, and conflict of interest
in privatizing parts of the system, and examine the human rights
implications of current policies. We end with a call to join our
Economic Human Rights: The Time Has Come! campaign.
CHANGES IN THE WELFARE SYSTEM
On the eve of passage of the new welfare act, the Urban Institute
estimated that 2.G million people- including 1.1 million children-would
be pushed into poverty, and 1 million families would lose all
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) funding. [The U.S.
already has the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized
world.] In addition, state cutbacks could push another 2.5-7.5
million people into poverty.
According to the report, 11 million families-10 percent of
all American families-would lose income under the bill, including
more than 8 million families with children.
Welfare reform couples budget cuts with delegation of responsibility
to the states. AFDC has been replaced by Temporary Assistance
to Needy Families (TANF) block grants. AFDC provided monthly cash
benefits to 12.8 million including more than 8 million children;
almost as many whites as blacks, with women accounting for nine
out of 10 adult recipients. AFDC rules were national-under TANF
states create and implement their own rules. Now there is no guarantee
that all who need help will receive it. A significant problem
is that the $1G.4 billion provided yearly in block grants contains
no additional new funding for job creation, training, or placement.
The federal funding level is fixed until the year 2002 with no
provision for inflation, population growth, or increased unemployment.
Furthermore, states can lose their block grants if they do not
remove enough people from the rolls, whether those people find
work or not.
Food stamps have been slashed. More than half of the $54 billion
in welfare cuts ($27.7 billion) are coming from the food stamps
that 25 million poor Americans depend on. Over 80 percent of food
stamps go to families with children. Another $3 billion has been
cut from child nutrition programs, including child care and summer
care programs. Food stamps for adults without dependents have
been slashed to three months out of every three years, and anyone
convicted of felony drug charges is now denied food stamps and
all other benefits.
The new law requires most recipients to find work within two
years, and imposes a cumulative life-time limit of five years
on benefits paid with federal money, with states free to impose
shorter time limits if they like. Mothers who do not or cannot
help establish their children's paternity, have their regular
welfare payments cut by as much as 25 percent. Federal funding
for social services has been cut by a six-year total of $2.5 billion.
Welfare reform cut social security income for some disabled,
food stamps for almost 900,000 legal immigrants who formerly received
SSI, and for nearly all future immigrants. SSI benefits were restored
later to some 250,000 immigrants who were in the U.S. by August
22, 199G. States still have the option of denying immigrants Medicaid
and welfare. New immigrants are excluded from most programs, including
Medicaid, for the first five years they are in the U.S. This is
a $22 billion cut over the six year period, accounting for about
40 percent of the total cuts in the reform bill.
Those completely cut off to date have been mostly immigrants
and disabled children. The definition of SSI eligibility for disabled
children has been narrowed, denying benefits for 315,000 of the
9G5,000 low-income children previously covered. Others will be
cut off when the new time limits go into effect, in a maximum
of four years, or less if a state so chooses, or when a recession
THE FIRST CASUALTIES
By the first anniversary of the law, there were 9.9 million
people left on welfare-a drop of more than 2.2 million. This dramatic
shrinkage conveys the impression that welfare reform has been
a resounding success. While administration officials rush to take
credit for the decline in welfare rolls, some acknowledge that
they do not know what has happened to families who have lost assistance.
FOOD BANKS ARE STRAINING
Welfare reform has hit hardest those who cannot afford to
buy or grow enough food to feed themselves and their families.
The food stamp cuts average $4 billion per year while the total
value of all food in all food banks in the country is just $1
billion a year. Second Harvest, the country's largest chain of
food banks, reported in 1997 that it provided some food for almost
2G million people-nearly 10 percent of America's population. Not
all who needed food received it; an estimated 2.3 million hungry
people were turned away because of lack of food.
To compensate fully for the government cuts in food programs
each of the 350,000 churches in the U.S. would have to contribute
an average of $150,000. Very few churches have total budgets that
large. To make up for the shortfall, the non-profit sector would
have to distribute a total of 24.5 billion pounds of food over
the next six years; four times more than current distribution-and
enough to fill 5 million Army National Guard trucks.
Total federal spending for food programs before welfare reform
was only 2.5 percent of the federal budget. Economists expect
that cutting these programs is actually going to cost the government
more through increased health care and other costs of hunger.
STATE CUTS: BALANCING THE BUDGET ON THE BACKS OF THE POOR
The promise of welfare reform was to improve the economic
well-being of poor families. This goal, however, is not being
achieved in most states. Under TANF block grants, 42 states have
adopted policies that are likely to worsen the economic security
of poor families, and 35 have implemented policies that push many
families with children off the rolls. Changes that have reduced
economic security for low-income families include reducing benefits
and restricting eligibility; time limits for benefits; work requirements;
restrictions for legal immigrant families; limited assistance
in obtaining work; and limited subsidized child char.
Many states have adopted stricter work requirements and shorter
time limits than Congress and the President envisioned, with 45
states and the District of Columbia either adopting the federal
lifetime limit of 60 months, or imposing stricter limits. Texas
has the shortest limit of 12 months. Tennessee's is 18 consecutive
months and Connecticut's is 21 months. Ten states have 24 month
limits. Idaho offers a flat grant of $27G per month, while West
Virginia's benefits are capped at $477 per month, and Wisconsin's
are $518 or $555 per month, without regard for family size.
Federal law requires adults to work within two years of receiving
cash assistance, but several states have adopted stricter work
requirements. Florida, Tennessee, and Texas expect adult welfare
recipients to go to work immediately. And at least 19 states do
not increase payments for women who have additional children while
receiving public assistance.
CATCH 22: SHORTAGE OF LIVING WAGE JOBS
"Work!" It is an order to recipients, a philosophy
for administrators, and a mandate under Federal law. Welfare reform
is big on personal responsibility but short on work opportunities.
Minimum wage jobs coupled with a severe shortage of subsidized
child care make working impossible for many recipients.
Many cities have actually lost jobs over the past five to
ten years. Since 1990 New York City, with more than 300,000 adults
in the AFDC case load, lost 227,000 jobs. Many remaining jobs
do not pay enough to support a family. The odds against a typical
welfare recipient finding a job that pays a living wage are about
97 to 1 in the midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan,
Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The non-partisan California Budget
Project calculated that for every available job in California,
there are seven welfare recipients and unemployed workers. The
odds are even worse in 17 California counties where unemployment
is at recession-level 11 percent or greater.
For most of the population targeted for "welfare-to-work,"
job prospects are about as grim as the average worker faced during
the depression. Hard hit are women, especially single mothers
with no high school diploma and little work experience. Women
with less than a high school education face an unemployment rate
of 13.G percent and an underemployment rate of 24.3 percent. For
black women, many of whom live in areas where jobs are particularly
scare, the rates are 20.9 percent and 35 percent, respectively.
A serious obstacle is the low wage that women leaving welfare
can expect to earn. Women leaving welfare usually find low-paid
service, administrative, and clerical positions, mostly at minimum
wage. This doesn't pay enough to support a family.
THE CHILD CARE NIGHTMARE
For many welfare recipients, the most serious obstacle to
gaining employment is the lack of child care. Almost half the
children supported by AFDC were under age six, and in a survey
about one-third of unemployed welfare recipients cited lack of
child care as reason for their unemployment. Requiring TANF recipients
to work for their benefits has greatly increased the need for
child care. Of the G.5 million children under the age of 13 in
welfare households, only 19 percent receive federally subsidized
WELFARE CUTS HURT ALL WORKERS
Across the country, thousands of people on welfare are going
to work, but generally not at new jobs. Instead many are replacing
employees whose salaries were higher. This displacement is falling
most heavily on the 38 million working poor holding jobs that
pay $7.50 an hour or less. It is projected that the influx of
former welfare recipients into the low-wage labor market will
lower workers' wages by 12 percent by the year 2000.23 Workers
who make $7 per hour could see their wages fall by roughly 84
cents per hour.
The expected fall in wages is steeper for states that have
a larger welfare population: 17.8 percent in California and 17.1
percent in New York. The total income lost by these workers nationwide
is projected at $3G billion a year-$8.5 billion more than total
federal and state spending on AFDC in 1994. In San Francisco,
the city's "workfare" program requires able-bodied adults
who receive general assistance to do "community service,"
a euphemism for clean-up work. Recipients get $5.31 an hour, where
unionized janitors would earn about $15 an hour plus benefits.
This makes it nearly impossible to unionize janitors, as employers
threaten to replace them with workfare recipients. This is actually
a more general phenomenon: when wages at the lower end of the
economic ladder are depressed, those on all the higher rungs are
eventually pulled down as well.
DOES WELFARE REFORM VIOLATE BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS?
Fifty years ago the United Nations General Assembly adopted
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Inspired by
the belief that human dignity requires both freedom from fear
and freedom from want, the UDHR proclaimed the interdependence
and indivisibility of civil-political and economic-social human
rights. It affirmed that all people have a right to an adequate
standard of living, special care and assistance for mothers and
children, education, and adequate employment.
Imposing time limits in the new welfare system without sufficient
living-wage jobs and training, clearly denies adequate employment
for millions. Low wage employment combined with food stamp cuts,
makes it impossible for them to rise above the government's definition
of poverty even though they may work full time. This violates
the UDHR. Those who are completely excluded- people with drug
felony charges, children born after mothers have been on aid for
10 consecutive months (the "family cap"), unwed parents
under age 18, undocumented immigrants, and others-are guaranteed
no economic and social human rights at all. Ending support to
children with disabilities is mean spirited and clearly falls
outside of the UDHR as well.
The right to education for parents is severely compromised
under current policy. TANF recipients are now limited to 12 months
of training, and can no longer enroll in four-year college programs.
Moreover, stringent work requirements and the severe shortage
of child care make the pursuit of any educational program almost
Coerced workfare recipients are denied their right to even
a minimum wage and have no right to unionize. Furthermore, some
workfare sites do not provide worker's compensation insurance,
placing the health and safety of recipients at risk. In our America
of "personal responsibility" and welfare reform, the
basic economic and social human rights guaranteed under the UDHR
are being systematically violated.
ECONOMIC HUMAN RIGHTS: THE TIME HAS COME!
Why should we apply a human rights standard to these issues?
Human rights standards take priority over economic efficiency.
Economic efficiency dictates that policy makers settle on policies
that allow a certain percent of the population to fall through
the cracks, a threshold calculated with cost-benefit analysis.
For example, the factor of economic efficiency allows policy makers
to decide that 30 million hungry people are too many, but 15 million
would be acceptable, or even economically "optimal."
A human rights standard would change that. Even one family going
hungry would constitute a human rights violation, and thus would
make such a policy option unacceptable. If we have zero tolerance
for torture and political prisoners, why should we accept anything
else for hunger?
Mere ratification of an international treaty does not ensure
economic human rights for all, any more than the 14th Amendment
to the U.S. constitution ended racial discrimination. Human rights
may be inalienable, but they are never ensured without a fight.
On the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, Food
First's national campaign, Economic Human Rights: The Time Has
Come!, is working with more than 180 groups across the country
to recommit our country t the goal of human rights for all.
We have organized Congressional hearings on the human rights
implications of increasing hunger and poverty in the United States.
At these hearings Rufus Herold, along with single mothers, homeless
men and women, low wage workers, seniors, and veterans, courageously
told Congressional representatives of their daily struggles against
poverty and hunger. The testifiers, some of whose stories are
excerpted here, demanded that Congress apply internationally recognized
human rights standards to the U.S. We support them in that goal
and invite you to join our campaign.
INSTITUTE FOR FOOD & DEVELOPMENT POLICY
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