TOPICS > Economy > Making Sen$e

Why it’s so hard to get off welfare

April 16, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Since 1996, in order to get welfare in the U.S., you have to work. The Clinton Welfare-to-Work program successfully got millions of families off the social safety net program. But today's recipients face stagnant low wages and limited resources for job training, making it nearly impossible for many to gain economic mobility. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s a growing push at the state level to crack down on welfare spending. In some cases, it’s about how much is spent and for how long. In other cases, it’s about making sure the money is spent well.

Kansas became the latest state today, when Governor Sam Brownback signed a law establishing stricter limits on eligibility and the use of benefits. Nearly two dozen states have made some kind of change to their rules.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has been looking into welfare reform and how it’s been working before these latest moves. It’s part of our ongoing reporting Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

ASHLEY MURPHY: The wait is crazy there, like almost three to four hours.

PAUL SOLMAN: Three to four hours?

ASHLEY MURPHY: Minimum to just go, like, into the office.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Boston, 24-year-old Ashley Murphy, single mother of a boy, 4, and girl, 1. She’s been on welfare since 2013, would do anything to get off.

ASHLEY MURPHY: I feel like they kind of look down on you in a way.

PAUL SOLMAN: Murphy is now in a privately funded career training class, hoping to get a job in nursing and off welfare, which she’s on because she quit her last job in retail.

PAUL SOLMAN: And why did you quit?

ASHLEY MURPHY: I was working there for over two years, and I just got $9 an hour.

PAUL SOLMAN: And how many hours did you get in a typical week?

ASHLEY MURPHY: It decreased to like four to eight hours a week.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you were only getting four to eight hours a week at $9 an hour?

ASHLEY MURPHY: And paid every two weeks.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, you obviously can’t live on that.

Thus, it was welfare for Murphy. But to get welfare, you have to work, as of the 1996 welfare-to- work law, passed over skepticism from liberals by a Republican Congress, with support from President Bill Clinton.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: When I ran for president four years ago, I pledged to end welfare as we know it.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so he did. This story is about how that effort has fared.

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Today, a hope of many years standing is in large part fulfilled.

PAUL SOLMAN: Welfare as we’d come to know it began in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s Social Security Act, the aid to dependent children program to help subsidize families that had lost an income-producing father. By the 1970s, welfare had long been a lifeline for single-mother families, and a target of critics, encapsulated by Ronald Reagan’s references to it in runs for the White House.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: It’s now common knowledge that our welfare system itself has become a poverty trap, a creator and reinforcer of dependency.

PAUL SOLMAN: Alina Gardner, a manager at a Boston employment center, doesn’t disagree.

ALINA GARDNER, Career Counselor: I had my first child in 1990. And this was before the welfare reform went in. In those days, you could just be on it forever. You know, there was — there weren’t many expectations.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you were just sitting home collecting benefits. Bad for you?

ALINA GARDNER: If you’re idle and you’re home all day and you’re not taking time to invest in yourself, so then you’re raising children to move into a direction that you want them to be self-sufficient, yes, it’s bad.

WOMAN: You cannot be absent and you cannot be late.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thus, the Clinton welfare-to-work program, which we have covered since its inception, single mothers ushered off the dole and into the work force, often groomed by private contract job placement programs like America Works. The jobs weren’t always great in the late ’90s.

WOMAN: I have cashiers that I need for Krispy Kreme.

WOMAN: Cashier, food prep at Bruegger’s Bagels on 42nd and Sixth.

PAUL SOLMAN: But some held out the hope of upward mobility.

MAN: Dawn, I have a great position for you. You will be involved in some of the creative end of the job, as well as dealing with their client base.

MAN: I also have accounts receivable positions with Time Warner Cable.

HILARY HOYNES, University of California, Berkeley: Research from the 1990s and early 2000s seems to show that the families seem to be doing pretty well.

PAUL SOLMAN: Berkeley economist Hilary Hoynes studies social safety net programs.

HILARY HOYNES: Going into it, there was a very strong fear that incomes would really plummet. And that didn’t happen. There might have been a small group sort of left behind, but, for the most part, I think many people were surprised that it worked.

PAUL SOLMAN: If you just look at the welfare rolls, it more than worked, the number of families on welfare slashed from 12 million 20 years ago to some 3.5 million today. And back in the ’90s, bottom-tier wages were going up, but, says Hoynes:

HILARY HOYNES: That increase in real wages for low-skilled workers in the late 1990s is not experienced in the 2000s.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s the welfare-to-work problem today, says job counselor Alina Gardner: You may find low-wage work, but how do you ever move up?

ALINA GARDNER: Where’s that middle ground, right? There is no more middle ground. It’s either you’re down here or you’re up here, you know?

PAUL SOLMAN: Sociologist Mary Gatta confirmed this when she went undercover at a New Jersey job center, pretending to be unemployed.

MARY GATTA, Wider Opportunities for Women: After a class, I went up to an instructor and I said, I’m looking for a waitressing job. And she said, this is great. We have a job fair on the boardwalk. Go to the job fair. You will get a job. So my next question to her was, well what happens after Labor Day weekend? On the boardwalk after Labor Day, there are no more jobs. And she said, don’t worry. We’re doing a holiday job fair at the mall.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, seasonal low-wage jobs have always been an issue for the poor entering the work force, but it’s been traumatizingly true since 2008.

HILARY HOYNES: Extreme poverty increased by much more in the great recession than we would have expected, and all the evidence suggests that that’s due to welfare reform.

PAUL SOLMAN: Food stamps, housing and health care outlays are up, but welfare checks have shrunk so much that the very poorest single-parent families received 35 percent less than they did before welfare-to-work began.

And there’s another major problem for welfare recipients right now: significantly reduced funding for job placement and training. After being told that work as a waitress would be on and off, undercover sociologist Mary Gatta took the all-important class in how to find a job training program.

MARY GATTA: At the end of the class, they said, well, unfortunately we have run out of training dollars, so you have to wait until the next cycle.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean the class was literally about what training was available, and then there turned out to be none?

MARY GATTA: Yes, there turned out to be no funding.

VANESSA COOPER: I applied for the training in May, but they were not with funds at the time.

PAUL SOLMAN: At the Boston center, Vanessa Cooper also was stymied after the training prep class.

VANESSA COOPER: It was pretty frustrating waiting for funding that wasn’t there.

PAUL SOLMAN: Neil Sullivan has run job placement for the poor in Boston for more than 30 years.

NEIL SULLIVAN: We were much better off in the late ’90s, when the federal investment in welfare reform and job training for welfare recipients was enormous, as compared to the pittance the federal government is able to invest these days.

The result is, welfare recipients languish in the system, and many others are rejected from the system and left to make it on their own. And, quite frankly, they don’t.

WOMAN: What would be the average blood pressure rating?

PAUL SOLMAN: Ashley Murphy is actually lucky to have gotten into a job prep program foundation-funded through the city of Boston.

Let’s hope it gets her a decent job, 19 years after welfare-to-work became the law of the land.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Boston.

GWEN IFILL: Join us for a Twitter chat next week, where we will discuss laws that limit how welfare recipients can spend their benefits. Details are on our home page,