The Fallout of Welfare Reform
Social Work Experts Predict: Disaster With a Ray of Hope
Three experts from the School of Social Work shared their
views last week on the impact of the controversial welfare reform bill signed
into law last month by President Clinton.
Professor Sheila B. Kamerman is co-directing two projects related to
"confronting the new politics of child and family policy" in the United States,
both designed to inform and advise government representatives on the changes in
welfare reform. One project will work with state and local governments, the
other with big cities.
"The welfare reform legislation signed into law in August constitutes the
elimination of one particular program--A.F.D.C. (Aid to Families with
Dependent Children). From the perspective of poor children and their mothers,
this can have very severe and punitive consequences. At the present time,
there are about 14 million people receiving A.F.D.C., of whom more than 9
million are children. There are estimates that there will be one million
additional poor children as a result of the eligibility changes and cuts in
funding for welfare.
"Turning A.F.D.C. into a transitional work program is a very good idea, but
it's contingent upon jobs and adequate child care being available. And there's
no assurance of either.
"This legislation represents a major shift to the right, philosophically, with
three kinds of changes: cutbacks in federal funds for social programs, a shift
of federal government's strong social role onto state and local governments and
the remoralization of the problem of poverty, going back to 19th century
America and Victorian England, in which poverty was viewed as a problem of
individuals and their personal inadequacies rather than a consequence of
external economic and social changes.
"The general public thinks that welfare is this enormously expensive program.
The reality is that that cost of welfare is about 1 to 2 percent of federal
social expenditures--it's a very tiny portion of the budget. But it has this
mystique, this symbolism, this stigma attached, that people think a fortune is
"The time was ripe for a major change in welfare. The problem is that it got
distorted by conservatives in the 104th Congress who used it as an occasion to
press forward their views of how people should behave. There is a fantasy that
these changes are going to significantly reduce out-of-wedlock childbirth and
teenage pregnancy. But very little attention is being paid to the consequences
Professor Aurora Jackson is conducting a study of 300 single, black employed
and nonemployed mothers and their preschool children in New York City. The
mothers are currently receiving or have received welfare assistance. Jackson
is examining the interplay among work, welfare and child care.
"Very little is known about how employment affects single mothers with low
incomes, particularly black women, who are disproportionately represented among
those receiving public assistance. Generally, when we look at minority
mothers, we look primarily at the structural issues. We don't look at their
psychological well-being. It's almost as though, psychologically, they're a
blank. And we know very little about the differences among black women. Some
cope better than others. We don't know who they are, why they cope better,
what resources they have access to. If we can understand that, then we can
understand the needs of those who cope less well.
"What I am finding so far is that almost all the mothers in my study, when
asked whether they would prefer employment to public assistance, say they would
rather have a job. However, having a job is very difficult for this group of
mothers because it is difficult for them to find and keep jobs that support
them and provide adequate benefits. And there's another consideration: When
we say we're going to put these women to work, what is it going to mean in
terms of the mothers' absence from the home? Even if there are financial
benefits--and it's not clear there will be--the issue is, do these offset
the mothers' absence from the home when the children are quite young?
"The mothers I've interviewed are very concerned about what's going to happen
to their children. A number are already working two jobs, which still leave
them in poverty. These are black women whom we rarely hear anything about. I
don't think we know what the impact of the new welfare law will be for poor
children over time."
Professor Irv Garfinkel is an expert on contemporary urban issues.
"We want to distinguish between the long run and the short run. The structure
that the welfare reform sets up is potential disaster. In addition to
eliminating the guarantee of cash assistance to poor children and single
mothers, it eliminates the federal matching of state expenditures. That's an
important and underappreciated change that will play out in the long run.
Under the old system, if a state government wanted to give a dollar of aid to
poor people, it only cost them 50 cents because the Feds would pay half. We've
eliminated that and created block grants. Now, if the states want to spend a
dollar on poor people, it's going to cost them a dollar. The effect of that
over time will diminish the amount that states are willing to spend. Any
economist worth his or her salt will tell you that.
"If we have a big recession, the states are not going to be capable of handling
it. That's why we federalized aid to the poor in the first place. Every state
constitution requires a balanced budget. So when you go into a recession you
have less money available at the state level, and one of the things you cut
back on is welfare. The federal government does not have a required balanced
budget, and, in fact, it makes sense from a macro-economic point of view, when
you go into a recession, to run a deficit. That's what brings you out of the
recession. And a welfare program is a natural stabilizer--it's a
counter-cyclical natural stabilizer for the macro-economy. We've just wiped
that out with respect to welfare. In the long run, if that stands, it's a
terrible step backwards.
"In the short run, it's not so bad. Welfare case loads have been going down
because we have the best economy right now since the late 60s, early 70s. The
way the new legislation reads, the block grants are based on the 1994 level of
"Right now, in 1996, case loads are smaller in the majority of states than they
were in 1994. So it turns out the majority of states will get more federal
money in the next several years than they would have if the old law had stayed
in place. But, if the economy turns bad--which it always does in an economy
that is cyclical--states will be in trouble as more people are out of work
and welfare case loads increase.
"It is a blessing that there's more money available in the short run, There's a
window here with this extra money that a lot of good can come out of this.
There's a ray of hope."
Columbia University Record -- September 20, 1996 -- Vol. 22, No. 3
Record Photos by Amy Callahan.