The Breakfast Table

Cutting Welfare


Yes, the Clinton 1996 welfare law is more than a cynical shuffle to the right: it’s a headlong dive to the right. Statistics about states complying with it by cutting people off welfare are to be viewed with great suspicion. And many questions.

“The data show that 28 percent of adults on the welfare rolls are engaged in some sort of work activity,” reports the New York Times today on the front page.

Guess what? This is nothing new. Welfare in the nineties, before and after the passage of the new law, has been so low that it typically has provided only about 70 percent of the federal poverty level. Keep in mind that the poverty level itself is horribly low. Many welfare recipients, studies have shown (they vary in the percentages they give but not in the descriptions of the lifestyle), have worked off the books (the difference now is that it’s official) in low-skill, flexibly scheduled (to fit in with child care) jobs, like babysitting and house cleaning, and still live in poverty. Welfare doesn’t give much money but it comes with Medicaid, and this health insurance is one reason, perhaps the main reason, why some poor people have pursued this patchwork economic existence, particularly those with children.

What is new is the huge reduction of people on the dole. States are rewarded for this. Some states have taken up humane policies–the Times cites Connecticut–and are providing Medicaid and child care for people who have left welfare for work, usually joining the ranks of the working poor. Other state and city governments, as Jason de Parle pointed out in his New York Times Magazine piece last Sunday, are not so humane: the Giuliani administration drops an applicant for welfare if he or she misses even one hour of job search time without an approved excuse. As de Parle observes, “many applicants have chaotic lives–sick children, jailed relatives, flagging spirits–that will lead to a missed hour one day.” It’s one way to keep your numbers down.

Another long-standing condition of welfare has been the story of short-term recipients who use it as a safety net in times of need and then leave welfare and return to the workforce in the low-paying service sector. Then another emergency arises–an ill child needs health care and insurance–and the parent goes back on welfare temporarily. Read Barbara Ehrenreich’s outstanding piece in Harper’s this month–an unpretentious, grippingly detailed sketch of life for the working poor. It all but screams the need for health insurance.

It’s easy to cut poor people from the welfare rolls. But without health insurance, child-care, and job training to fit them for jobs providing a living wage, most are not equipped to stay off, no matter how strong their work ethic. The press needs to ask more hard questions about what happens to the people cut off the rolls–if they’re working in solid jobs, we can celebrate. If they’re homeless (and one Pennsylvania study found a significant increase in homelessness after a state law in the 80s added time caps for home relief recipients)–let’s not.