Rethinking Welfare Reform

By Maya Rockeymoore

Senior Resident Scholar

for Health And Income Security

National Urban League

Institute for Equality and Opportunity

(Guest Columnist)

In 1996, after Congress revamped the welfare system to require welfare recipients to work in exchange for their grants as a prelude to completely moving off welfare, many lauded the changes. The cheerleaders of the new act, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, confidently envisioned former welfare mothers quickly ending their dependence on public assistance and moving into the workforce.

It is true—and welcome—that since 1996 welfare caseloads dropped from 4.6 million to about 2.2 million today. Now, as Congress prepares to debate the $27-billion program’s renewal, its advocates cite that dramatic decline as evidence of the program’s success.

Yet, even before the current recession began to shake the American economy this fall, studies of those who left welfare and those who stayed indicated that poverty was persisting among welfare-to-work participants.

Equally alarming, the studies also found evidence of significant differences in the success rate of black and white recipients—differences that appear to result from racial bias.

Advocates of the TANF program make two flawed assumptions about the welfare-to-work experience facing recipients.

First, they assume a “level playing field” exists both in the administration of the TANF program and in the labor market that welfare recipients must try to find work in.

That’s a naïve assumption.

In fact, gross racial inequities in the distribution of relief among state-based poverty programs helped convince the Johnson Administration to federalize the welfare program in the mid-1960s. The program’s revision in 1996 returned responsibility for the program’s administration back to the states. One thing we’ve learned is that although much has changed racially in America since the 1960s, racial bias still exists in some areas of poverty relief.

For example, separate studies conducted in Virginia by Professor Susan Gooden, and in Illinois by the Chicago Urban League have turned up similar evidence of disparate racial treatment in some ways the TANF program is administered.

Each study found that program caseworkers were much less likely to refer African Americans than white welfare recipients to crucial education and job-support programs, such as transportation and child care assistance, within TANF.

As for the broader labor market, African Americans have always been penalized with far higher unemployment than whites—their rates often soaring into the double digits during periods of economic recession. In fact, after black unemployment fell to a low of 7.2 percent just last year, it’s now back to double digits at 10.1 percent, while the overall unemployment is 5.7 percent.

These figures reflect a persistent racial bias in the U.S. labor market that favors whites over African Americans and Latino Americans. That bias influences job opportunities for welfare-to-work participants.

Research done under the auspices of the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, show that there is less employer demand for black welfare recipients, that whites have left the rolls at faster rates than blacks, and that blacks are more likely to be forced to return to welfare.

In addition, further research by Professor Gooden shows that blacks are more likely to endure discrimination by employers during the hiring process—often undergoing drug tests and background checks when none is required of white applicants.

The second flawed assumption made by advocates of the current welfare system is that pushing welfare recipients willy-nilly into any available job is enough to alleviate their poverty and dependence on public assistance.

In fact, data from the National Survey of America’s Families show that while the employment rate of African American families rose significantly between 1997 and 1999—a period of robust economic expansion—there was no corresponding decrease in the rates of poverty or food hardship. Housing hardships actually increased among these families.

And numerous other sources also show that, despite its work-based philosophy, the TANF program has failed to reduce poverty among low-income families.

It is unconscionable that welfare reform has left us with a system that forces low-income people, especially women, into dead-end jobs without adequate education or training opportunities. This “work-first” approach has the effect of reinforcing the very social and economic inequities that keeps low-income workers chronically unemployed and underemployed; and its ill effects are exaggerated by mandatory lifetime benefit limits that, once expired, leave recipients high and dry without marketable skills or a reliable source of income.

These and other flaws have become painfully apparent in the months since the recession has spread across the economy. Congress must take heed of them and revamp the program to include education and training opportunities—measures that give recipients a fighting chance to reduce their poverty and dependency on government assistance.

In other words, Congress must be inspired by the economic privation welfare-to-work recipients who put their faith in the system are now enduring to build an equitable program that provides real opportunities for economic self-sufficiency.

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