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 me."

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.


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 hits.


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.


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.


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.


"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.


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 day care.


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.


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 impossible.

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.


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.





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