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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.
Professor Sheila B. Kamerman.

  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 being spent.

  "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 for children."

Professor Aurora Jackson.
Professor Aurora Jackson.

  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.
Professor Irv Garfinkel.

  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 federal aid.

  "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.