Women and Welfare: Revisiting Reform in the Wake of Economic Crisis

This article was originally published by the Ms. Foundation for Women.

While there’s been plenty of talk throughout this global economic crisis about the fate of the newly jobless, newly poor, middle class, stories about how the tanking of the economy has affected those who were already poor in the “best of times” have been few and far between. In this week’s issue of The Nation, however, Katha Pollitt asks some long overdue questions about the current plight of Americans who entered this recession in poverty — particularly the women among them.

Framing her piece around “welfare mothers,” and the impact that the passage of 1996’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (or PRWORA) has had on their lives, Pollitt notes that despite the tendency of pundits and analysts to label these welfare reforms a “success,” in fact, even in the economically prosperous 1990s, the families most affected by said reforms remained solidly poor. PRWORA may have pushed poor women off the welfare rolls and forced them to find jobs (which conservatives cast as a return to the great American ethic of “hard work”) — but those jobs tended to pay them much less than it actually took to survive, usually earning them salaries well below the annual poverty line. (Hard to see the “success” in all that.)

So how are these women and families managing nearly 15 years after the passage of the PRWORA and in the worst economic climate in recent memory? The hidden truth may be that they aren’t managing at all; they’re simply subsisting. Homeless shelters have seen the impact: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, from July to November 2008 the number of families entering New York City homeless shelters increased 40 percent over the same period in 2007. And as Pollitt points out, while the use of food stamps nationwide has also risen 40% over the last 2 years, there’s been little jump in welfare rates over the same period — meaning, most likely, that the process for accessing the latter type of aid has become so complicated as to “weed out” those who most need it. It’s therefore safe to assume, according to one of Pollitt’s sources, that most of these women and families are now living in a state of “constant suffering and inequality,” vulnerable not just to poverty itself, but to all of its attendant, ugly bedfellows, including increased rates of domestic violence.

There are, of course, solutions to be had to problems of this nature, and, among other things, they involve crafting and pushing for the adoption of policies that put the needs and experiences of women and families at their center — just as Ms. Foundation grantees the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative and the Georgia Citizen’s Coalition on Hunger do every day.

With TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families – a provision of PRWORA that replaced AFDC) up for recertification this year, Congress now has an opportunity to, in the words of grantee Legal Momentum, finally “make [welfare programs] responsive to the mothers and children [they are] intended to serve.” To do that, though, they’ll need to start listening to the women living on the front lines of extended poverty and including their perspectives in the decision-making process — an approach that’s clearly long overdue.

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  • equalist

    The extensive processes one has to go to in order to qualify for needed programs like food stamps, medicaid, WIC, etc, are appalling.  I’ve been on and off of food stamps for three years now, mostly because of missing the numerous meetings, appointments, and “classes” that must be attended for continued assistance, because *gasp* I had to go to work during the scheduled times or risk losing my job.  The people seeking these assistances have little choice in the timing of the meetings, and if it interferes with a paying job, the state’s stance on it is “too bad, you should have been here for the meeting.” When the choices are either go to work and keep a job but miss out on needed aid, or receive the aid and lose the primary income for the family, what kind of a choice is that?  The types of jobs that pay so little as to cause a family to need to be on these assistances generally have little in the way of scheduling flexibility, and missing several hours of work once a month to several times a month (depending on which programs and how many a family may be on) for the various appointments to keep receiving the aid puts employment at risk.

    In addition, actually finding the programs one can qualify for is next to impossible.  Walk into any local office for these programs and ask for a list of what programs are offered.  The answer each time I have done this has been for the receptionist to ask what specific programs I want to apply for without any offer of information.  The only way to find out what programs are available is through word of mouth, and if you’re not familiar with the system when you walk in the door, you don’t stand a chance of getting help.  The forms are long and complicated, and a single wrong answer is usually enough to get a family denied.  The workers at the offices providing the assistance are no help with this, simply telling people filling out the forms to fill them out to the best of their ability, and when the forms come back denied because of one or two wrong answers, the correct method of filling out the forms is not explained, or is done so in the most complicated terms possible.  Varying answers are given to the same questions, some right and some wrong, seemingly in hopes of confusing those seeking assistance even more.

    Then there’s the matter of income limits.  It isn’t uncommon for those on assistance to have to turn down needed overtime or promotion opportunities because the few cents an hour raise, or few hours over their normal pay rate will push them into an income level for the month that would automatically disqualify them from receiving assistance, in essence causing a $.25 an hour raise cost a family hundreds of dollars a month in needed benefits that are replaced by a few dollars a week, and that’s if the increase doesn’t push them into a higher tax bracket, lowering the actual income even more.  Even more detrimental are jobs with high periods and low periods during the year when hours worked and related income fluctuate.  If evaluations are done during high points, a family living well under the qualifying limits during most of the year may be removed from the programs completely for the little extra bit of income offered only during select weeks of high productivity in a job, leaving them to struggle during the rest of the year when income is far less.

    The assistance programs also don’t take into account income lost to taxes and automatic deductions.  The figures that are gone off of are gross, not net, not taking into account that often the family is actually bringing in far less than is being used to determine “income”.  When going in for reassessment of my benefits after obtaining a new job that barely paid enough to cover rent and utilities alone, much less groceries, costs of working (gas, work appropriate clothing, childcare, etc), I was informed that I now made too much money before taxes to be covered under the state medicaid program any longer and my coverage would be revoked in August and I would have to acquire my own health care for myself, but my children would be covered.  Since then, my medicaid for both myself and my children was revoked without warning or notification in March.  I was informed of this when I received a bill from my daughter’s doctor, and my own prescription refill was denied, causing me to stop taking an antidepressant suddenly when I ran out (never recommended by doctors because of harmful, sometimes serious side effects), and causing my daughter to stop receiving needed care because the payments for each visit (Once a week) were more than my entire weekly net pay.

    The programs in general do nothing to encourage self sufficiency, and in fact do quite the opposite by causing needy families to choose between needed income, or needed programs, when neither alone provides enough to survive on.

  • julie-watkins

    The way it looks to me (I’ve heard advocates ranting) is that the politicians want to get credit for helping but they really want to save the funds for corporate welfare cheats and other porkbarrel. Then sometimes the municipal staff interfers. I was told the story of a local program the city council voted for and put in the budget, but the money was never spent and eventually went back into general funds. I only heard one side of the story, this was something that would have happened a decade ago and don’t know how to verify, so I won’t go into details. But it seems possible. The thing about all these hoops one has to jump through, there’s so much opportunity for impeding and gate-keeping. If you’re the right sort of person the staff will be more helpful? And too complicated the money more go to people who aren’t in such desperate need — but they do have time & resources solve the maze.

  • equalist

    There’s not really a right sort of person from what I’ve seen.  They look down on everyone that walks into those offices, no matter what services you’re seeking.  I’m not usually one to judge a book by it’s cover, but based on first glances, they treat people that appear to need the services less just as badly as they treat the most desperate families.  Honestly, it seems like the only ones that really get the help they need are the ones willing to bounce from low paying job to low paying job, or make working the system their full time job.  To truly fix the system, helping families keep the employment they have, and helping them to find better employment while supporting them through the transition as a high priority would be a great start, but would require more work from the system, and from what I’ve seen no one seems willing to put in that kind of effort.

    The story about the program being funded and then not spending any of the funds sounds like the kind of thing that would happen.  The solution to that problem would be to not reward those in charge for denying services by redistributing the funds that aren’t used.  I can see though how this is not really much of an option with the condition state budgets are in now, and the need for funds from anywhere they can be gotten. 

    • faultroy

      The reality is that Aid to Dependent Families is not really there for people in need.  Its real mission is to generate patronage type jobs given to those individuals that qualify because of education, race  or gender.  Feminists and Black advocates (like Barack Obama as he was a “community organizer”) utilize these programs as a means of consolidating politcal power.  Today  “victimhood” is a very profitible commodity.  If feminists and government would really be interested in helping children and needy families, we would stop spending enormous monies on programs that have historically been shown to be ineffective.  Futhermore, aid would be  on a sliding scale based on the income that you make and there would be benefits for trying to improve one’s situation, rather than penalties when one is “a little too successful.”  Feminists especially are particularly evil in maintaining the status quo for their own economic benefit.  They have consistently blocked programs that seek to help poor women take more effective and proactive  control of their lives.  And pretty much all programs they initiate benefits their particular political clout as opposed to  poor women and  women in economic straits. Let me give you a specific example… It is well known that Feminists are against charter schools, against allowing innner city children to attend religious schools and  being home schooled. Because so many feminists are involved in local state and federal government along with education and health, they find this extremely threatening and it is– since it allows the poor choices other than the ones they dictate.  They also block efforts of shared parenting, and they are extremely quick to advocate for the status quo.  They promote programs that are designed to destroy the nuclear family when all studies (including their own)indicate that the quickest way for a woman to join the poverty ranks is through divorce.  Studies since the 1960’s show that the only women’s group that has benefited from so many of these programs to help disadvantaged  and minority women are actually white upper and middle class educated women.  So much of the education dollar has been sucked up by these feminine parasites, there is very little to go around for those that actually need it–women of color and the financially distressed.  Don’t look for circumstances to change.  As long as women believe the lies and misinformation presented as “helping those in need,”  Low income women will continue to be predated upon by their politically astute and hypocritical “sisters”–and black advocates of the Obama genre that seek to only enrich themselves.