Examining Welfare Reform
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RAY SUAREZ: We’re joined now by four people who participated in and studied welfare reform. Ron Haskins helped draft the welfare reform law while staff director of the Republican-led House Ways and Means Committee in 1996. He’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Eloise Anderson oversaw welfare reform as head of social services in the states of Wisconsin and California. She is now director of the program for the American Family at the Claremont Institute, a public policy research organization. Peter Edelman served as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, before resigning in protest over the welfare reform law in 1996. He is now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. And Gwendolyn Mink is professor of government and women’s studies at Smith College, and author of “Welfare’s End.”
Well, it’s such a vast topic, and so variable from state to state. Has welfare reform worked and what pushes you to that conclusion?
RON HASKINS: Yes, it’s definitely worked. First of all, as everybody knows, some people say that because the rolls have declined that that’s not enough evidence that welfare is working. That’s certainly correct, so the second thing you have to say is there’s been a spectacular increase in women’s employment, by far the biggest increases we’ve ever had for low income families. At the end of 1999, single female-headed families, the mothers were more likely to work than married mothers for the first time in almost 15 years. And the biggest rise of all has been among never married mothers, and they’re the mothers most likely to go on welfare and stay for a long time.
In just the three-year period there was a 40 percent increase in employment by never married mothers. And third, I would cite poverty statistics — that poverty has declined substantially. If we use a broader Census Bureau measure that includes what I would call the work support system, the earned income tax credit, food stamps, Medicaid and poverty has declined more than twice as much during the 1990s as the 1980s. So I would say welfare reform has been a success. There are problems; I assume we’ll get a chance to talk about those.
RAY SUAREZ: Gwendolyn Mink, has it worked ask what pushes you to that conclusion?
GWENDOLYN MINK: I’m not sure I think that’s quite the right question. I think the right question to ask is whether families are better off now than they were five years ago under the previous welfare system. I think by any number of measures, ranging from the high level of demand for emergency food assistance, emergency shelter assistance, from the low average wage that former recipients earned, and across the spectrum of politics through such issues as the rights of adult participants in the welfare system, clearly families are far worse off. Constitutional fundamental rights are in jeopardy, people are not being allowed to live with dignity and to empower themselves to reach economic security.
RAY SUAREZ: Eloise Anderson, what do you make of the last five years and what drives to you to the conclusions you’ve made about welfare reform?
ELOISE ANDERSON: I think welfare has worked, I think it’s worked better than anybody’s expectations of it working, especially those on the left. And I, my view of that is from watching children who are now engaged in school and education, watching more marriage, looking at people who are feeling much better about themselves, especially women, looking at people understanding that they have something to bring to society, looking at women, mothers, who understand that if they want to get out of poverty it is really their own road out that has to be done. And I just see a very uplifting movement in terms of the poor, believing that they have some control over their lives.
RAY SUAREZ: Peter Edelman, you were a skeptic from the get go, you left the administration.
PETER EDELMAN: Still am. I think the report is mixed minus, Ray, and a lot of what’s happened that’s good is because the economy, fortunately, very lucky for all of us, has been so good and people found jobs. Problems, number one, and this is something we need to work on with legislation and policy, people are not getting out of poverty the way they should. Different question from whether they’re getting off welfare. You need to understand that that’s the basic question, is really how to make people better off. People are working average wage $7 an hour. They’re not working full-time. So many people have jobs that are just part-time and seasonal. So that’s a whole huge agenda of how the people that are working are going to end up really being, having a living wage.
And then the thing we don’t talk about that nobody in this conversation has talked about. All of the people at the bottom who were worse off, we’ve studied this, we know it from the census numbers, we know that the 20 percent of single moms at the bottom are actually, with all this prosperity, worse off than they were when this started, because they’ve lost more in benefits than they’ve gained in earnings. And children have been hurt.
Now, there are success stories, absolutely, and when mom is working and there’s so many cases that we’ve heard about that I agree children are better off. But there’s got to be good child care, and mom has to know, they have to have the hours of the day when mom is out there working, somebody has got to be responsible. And we’re seeing some new research coming out now that says, especially for adolescents, the results have been troublesome, and we really need to pay attention to that.
RAY SUAREZ: Eloise Anderson, you’ve been working at the state level. How do you answer those specific critiques when it comes to things like child care?
ELOISE ANDERSON: Poor women are not the only women that work, or women who have been on welfare. There are other single moms who work. I think what we tend to do with poor women who have been on aid is to say that you’re different than other working women; you’re different than other poor women. And I think we need to stop that, and we need to let people go and live out their own lives in the ways they see benefit. But taking people’s tax money and giving it to other people and assuming that that will get them out of the poverty, I don’t think over the long-term has proven to be true.
The adolescent issue is very interesting, because I think that it’s not only welfare recipients’ children who are adolescents who are having problems. I think it’s working moms and two-parent working families; adolescents are having the same problems. Adolescence is a time in life where you need to be highly super advised. So it’s not just adolescents, it’s American adolescents having problems. The question is what do we want to do about that, which I think is a different issue than the welfare issue.
The whole notion about low-income jobs, well, most of these women don’t have skills that have higher jobs. One of the ways they will get skills is that when they realize that it’s going to take effort on their part, they’re going to have to give up things in order to get those skills and then go after those skills, and that is not something government can put in there, motivation to do that, and if they’re out there working every day and see other opportunities, they will take those opportunities.
RAY SUAREZ: Gwendolyn Mink, will some of the people who have come off welfare, as Eloise Anderson suggests, eventually be able to climb the ladder in the economy?
GWENDOLYN MINK: Well, some will, certainly, but it’s a very stringent system that builds in all sorts of barriers to accomplishing the kinds of skills enhancements, skills training and so forth that make possible winning access to the better paying jobs. There are limits on how much education you can have, whether you can get vocational training and so forth in the current welfare regime. And all those things basically foreclose opportunities for better wages for lots of women. But as we’re talking about this, the wage side of matters, we often end up forgetting about the care side of the package. And when we’re talking about adolescents, that’s a perfect instance to remind us that one of the things that we’re forsaking in this work for strategy of welfare reform is to honor and support the caregiving work that parents do in families.
RAY SUAREZ: This has put a lot of people who were home full-time back into the work force. And you must have anticipated that when the legislation was being written.
RON HASKINS: Absolutely. It didn’t put them back in the work force, in many cases it put them in the work force for the first time, and they joined the mainstream of American society. I think we ought to make a very clear realization of what the alternatives are here. The system that Peter resigned over when we destroyed the old system was the system that confined mothers to poverty, they of guaranteed to be on poverty, they could not escape poverty as long as they stayed on welfare. They got about $8,000 in cash, and in food stamps in the average state and they had Medicaid coverage.
If they go to work, even at these low wage jobs that both of my colleagues here disparage, they’re making at least $10,000 a year, then, if they have two children, they get $4,000 for the earned income tax credit and $2,000 from food stamps, that’s $16,000, they’re out of poverty, they are much better off. Those are the real two alternatives we face. We have greatly improved these mothers’ chances, and millions of these mothers, maybe a million and a half have seized that opportunity and most of them are better off. Now, we do need to solve the problems that Peter Edelman and that Eloise Anderson and many others have mentioned. But we are moving in the right direction. These mothers and American society are much better off because of reform.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you noted at the outset, Peter Edelman, that the economy produced a lot of jobs — during the period that we call the period of welfare reform.
PETER EDELMAN: Yes, indeed.
RAY SUAREZ: Did we pick all the low hanging fruit, or are we now getting to the toughest cases — core cases on these case loads — that will not be as easy to move off welfare?
PETER EDELMAN: There are two things happening now. It’s absolutely true that the 2 million cases, they’re not all because some of the people who are on the rolls right now are even people who have come on and go off. But there’s certainly some of the hardest cases are left and it puts the question of exactly what we can expect from people.
I believe in a work-based system. I think we did need to reform the system we had. It was terrible. I wouldn’t have reformed it in this way because it’s left the possibility for really punishing people and pushing them off and not leaving them in a place where they can do the best for their families. But right now we have these hard cases to worry about and we have a recession coming on. I’m very, very worried about it. This policy was, if it’s a good policy, was really a good policy for prosperous times. And we have not got in place now the safety net that has to be there for when the business cycle goes the other way. That’s a tremendous challenge for the society. I’m afraid we’re going to see serious problems if we do not respond and help people as the recession begins to push people out of the labor force.
RON HASKINS: May I make a brief comment about the economy?
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.
RON HASKINS: Everybody talks about the economy, and how critical the role has been and certainly it’s been important. In the late 1960s and again in the 1980s we had extremely hot economies. In the 1980s we had a net increase of 19 million new jobs. You know what happened to the welfare rolls? They increased 12 percent during that period, same thing in the late 1960s.
So to say that hot economy sucks people off welfare and helps them establish independence is false. It did not work. The economy worked because of welfare reform and the tough reforms that Mr. Edelman is concerned about that cause people to look at their lives and say okay, I’m going to try, I’m going to leave welfare and achieve some of the things that Eloise Anderson pointed toward, and that people are better off financially as well. It was not the economy primarily; it was welfare reform primarily.
RAY SUAREZ: Eloise Anderson, go ahead.
ELOISE ANDERSON: I agree with Ron on that. I watched during the 80s a really hot economy going and I watched the welfare rolls in which I was overseeing going up and up and I was like what is going on here! And what is clear to me is that people on this program that we, and welfare workers thought was so wonderful, was really killing people. What we’ve done is open the gates and let people out.
I will agree that there are people on this program that need a very different kind of effort than just giving them a job. But I am not sure that the welfare organizations the way they’re designed across the country are prepared to deal with the multi-barrier people we have. It is a wrong system approach to that. And to talk about people needing not to work in order to be okay, I think flies in the face of everything we’ve learned in the disability program.
RAY SUAREZ: What do you mean by multi-barrier people?
ELOISE ANDERSON: You have people who have substance abuse problems, people who have mental health problems and substance abuse problems. You have people who have all kinds of other issues going on. There’s one study out saying that some of the women on AFDC are depressed. One of the things we know in the disability programs and every disability program, they cry, “we want work, we want our people to work, our people do better when they work.”
If you’re a substance abuser, you do better if you work. If you got a mental health problem, you do better if you work. If you are DD — if you’re a person who is developmentally disabled, you do better if you work. The only place in which I have ever heard that people don’t say you do better is if you’re a welfare recipient. They say well you got to stay home and you’ll fell better. That is absolutely nonsense.
PETER EDELMAN: Quickly, I’ll just say quickly, I think all of us believe that work is very, very important. But there are so many people who are very far away from jobs, there are people who are talking care of small children, there are people taking care of chronically ill children, infirm relatives. You know you really have to have a three dimensional – and Eloise said something that I agree with earlier which is that we shouldn’t be separating welfare recipients out. We’re talking about the problems of children and families in the society and what we need to do and we should really have a three-dimensional view of all the things we need to do so people have a chance to succeed.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, during the five years of welfare reform, Gwendolyn Mink, the overall welfare population has become more concentrated in urban areas and more concentrated in minority communities. What should we take away from those two numbers?
GWENDOLYN MINK: Well, one of the major things to take away from that has to do with the depth of stigma and the depth of racial discrimination in the labor market and in decision-making by employers. One of the reasons that it’s harder if you’re a person of color to enter into the labor market in a very stable way and to jobs that pay living wages is precisely because of discrimination. You can look at the wage gap, you can look at economic opportunities for people who want to be full-time in the labor market, and the evidence is clear. And so when we think about where to go next in welfare policy, we need to redouble our efforts at combating discrimination and making sure that all anti-discrimination laws apply.
RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all for joining us tonight.