|WORKING ON WELFARE|
August 2, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining me now Wendell Primus, director of Income Security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He served in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration before resigning over the 1996 welfare reform bill; Lawrence Mead, Professor of Politics at New York University, and the author of several books on poverty and welfare policy. Sharon Dietrich, managing attorney at Philadelphia Community Legal Services; and Sandra Traylor, district manager of a Family Independence Agency, part of the state welfare system in Detroit, Michigan. Thank you all for being with us.
|Declining welfare rolls|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Larry Mead, looking at those cases and at the overall situation in the country, has the welfare reform been a success in your view?
LAWRENCE MEAD, New York University: There's no question in my mind that it's a success overall. It's led to a dramatic decline in the welfare rolls and more important than that, it's led to a sharp increase in the share of poor adults who are employed. That's really very important for the future. A few years ago only less than half of single mothers, poor single mothers, were employed. Today it's well over half. We also know from surveys that the majority of people leaving welfare are employed. There are some who are not employed, and that's of some concern. But we also don't see signs of acute hardship. We don't see systemic higher levels of homelessness or children driven into foster care. And above all, we see these higher work levels and some chance that people will be able to get better jobs in the future. But even if they don't get better jobs and we need to help them, that will be more popular today than it would have been in the past, exactly because they're working at higher levels. So I see welfare reform as a beginning. It's an effort to help people through employment rather than instead of employment. And that I think bodes well for a more successful antipoverty policy in the future.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Primus, do you think it's been a success? And start with the point that the welfare rolls have declined so much I think it's 38 percent around the country overall, right? This is just in two years.
WENDELL PRIMUS, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: That's right. I think welfare reform has surprised us. Larry is right, caseloads have come down much more rapidly than we would have ever anticipated. More moms and low-income families are working. But the caseloads have come down too rapidly, more than any objective measure of need. And we have found using census data that single mother families with children have actually lost ground economically. They suffered a loss of $500 to $800 in the last two years from '95 to '97, whereas between 1993 and 1995, incomes rose across the income spectrum among these single-mother families. Unlike your third example in your introduction, we find that only 40 to 45 percent of working mothers are getting food stamps. And that's some of the reason why we're finding these income declines over the last two years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But that could be corrected, right, if -- they're not getting food stamps because of not getting the word that they're eligible for them?
WENDELL PRIMUS: That's right. Part of it is just lack of information, part of it is hassle factor. Part of it is the fact that they're working and welfare offices are open during the day and it's a very long process to get an application approved. But that's the reason these families are falling behind.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Mead, your response to that?
LAWRENCE MEAD: I'm concerned also about the food stamp question. I definitely want to make sure that people keep getting benefits that they're supposed to get. But we should also remember that poverty rates are falling and children's poverty rates are falling also. There's also evidence that the amount of money that people are spending at the bottom of society is actually increasing. So though reported incomes might be down slightly, consumption is up. And, again, we don't see signs of hardship; we don't see that people are acutely worse off. I think there are cases of hardship among those not working but overall, there's no doubt in my mind this is an economic gain for the poor.
WENDELL PRIMUS: Well, not only are some families not getting food stamps, they're also not getting Medicaid assistance that they need. And while Larry is right, the count of children in poverty has gone down; another measure of poverty, that by how much children have fallen below the poverty line has actually increased between 1995 and 1997. So on one measure, poverty gap measure, again the depth of poverty, that measure has shown an increase among children. And I think that's a real tragedy. Low unemployment rate, states have more -- surplus welfare dollars and yet we're finding that some mothers are worse off and child poverty, at least some measures are increasing. That shouldn't be happening today in this economy.
|Hitting the goals|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let's go out and see what some people who are working out in the field are seeing. Sandra Traylor, tell us what you're seeing in Detroit.
SANDRA TRAYLOR, Michigan Family Independent Agency: Well, what we're saying is that welfare is definitely working. I'm ecstatic that our district office, which is a project zero site, which is an instrument of helping make welfare work, just hit a goal of employing all of our targeted family independence program customers. They are all currently employed. We hit 100 percent on July 26th. And that's phenomenal. They all -- all of the customers that we had at that point were placed in employment that were targeted for placement.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And explain exactly what you're doing. Yours is essentially a welfare office, right, where people come for services?
SANDRA TRAYLOR: Absolutely. We offer cash assistance, food stamps, child day care and they come into our office and apply. And at that point in time, they are assigned to one of our family independence specialists. And they are referred to what we call a joint orientation with our city of Detroit Work-First contractors. And between the two partners, they do screening and assessment and try and place employers and our clients together in employment. We also specialized our staffing office so that they could work intensely with those that are unemployed to try and remove the barriers. They do receive food stamps, they receive health care, they receive child care and any other supportive needs that they have, we, through our partners, try and make sure that they are met.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. I'm going to come back to what kind of jobs in a minute. But Sharon Dietrich, first to you. What do you see?
SHARON DIETRICH, Community Legal Services: Well, it's certainly true that some of our clients have got jobs and have improved their situations. But I think there are a number of other questions related to job that we've yet to see the answers to. One is: Are they going to be able to keep those jobs? And we've certainly seen many clients who initially got jobs and were not able to keep them. Another is: are they ever going to improve in terms of the income that they get from those fairly low-wage law jobs? And my experience from employment law for the last 12 years is not necessarily without education and training. And, finally there is a whole segment of the client population that has significant barriers to employment that need extra help in order to get jobs to begin with, even though we're in times of economic prosperity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the question, Sharon Dietrich, of poverty? We were just talking about that. Mr. Primus raised it. Are you seeing a rise in the level of poverty? In other words, people's incomes have gone down because of the welfare reform.
SHARON DIETRICH: It's certainly true, as Mr. Primus said, that there are people who have lost their food stamps, lost their medical assistance. Here in Pennsylvania we just got 32,000 people reinstated to medical assistance who never should have lost it to begin with.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. And Sandra Traylor, what about poverty, the level of poverty for your clients?
SANDRA TRAYLOR: Well, the level of poverty, needless to say, our clients are coming into some of the jobs at entry level, but we are still making sure and it's a concerted effort to make sure that they have food stamps, that they have medical assistance. Those are primary and foremost and they maintain that until they are totally self-sufficient.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It sounds like you have a very developed program. Does it depend partly on where somebody comes, what office they come into, how this is all working?
SANDRA TRAYLOR: Well, in Michigan I think there's a concerted effort in all of our offices so, no, I would not state that it would depend upon just my office or any other office. I mean, because we're all trained basically the same throughout the state. And the employment rate and placement rate is hitting everywhere in the state. So I think for the state of Michigan, and we have taken the lead on welfare reform in a lot of different areas, so, no, it has nothing to do with each office.
|Moving to economic self-sufficiency|
|ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Larry Mead, you touched on this a little
bit. But this whole question about work, and as I understand it, one of
the goals is to get families to move to economic self-sufficiency. Is
LAWRENCE MEAD: I think it's beginning to happen. It's important to the to hold welfare reform accountable for all the problems of the low-wage labor market. There are many limitations in the quality of job that people are able to get. But that was true before welfare reform. It doesn't mean that welfare reform is a mistake. It means it's a first step after which we now turn our attention to making sure that work pays, that work continues, that people have a chance to move up and so on. That shades into a much larger question about the overall structure of employment and whether those who are at the bottom of that structure have a fair chance to make it. That's really not a welfare issue. That's an issue for the entire working poor and working-near poor in America. I think we can say that welfare reform is a first step, after which people have a chance to move up. And if they don't move up, it's then more politic to help them. It's possible for government to do something to help them because now they're working and that's a lot more popular than helping people that are not working.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mentioned that before. You think that's a really important aspect of what's happened, don't you?
LAWRENCE MEAD: Absolutely. At the very same time that Congress has taken steps to enforce work, Congress has also done things to make work pay. We have a higher earned income tax credit, higher minimum wage, we're spending more on child care, on health care. And those things are popular today because it means help being working people; whereas previously most of those on welfare were not working. And because we're moving toward a system based on employment, it's now much more popular to help people at the bottom.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You touched on some of this before too, but expand a little bit on these points that you made before about work and whether the jobs are good and whether people are really being moved in o economic self-sufficiency here.
LAWRENCE MEAD: Well, it's a little -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm sorry, I'm asking Mr. Primus here.
WENDELL PRIMUS: Well, I think what Larry has said makes -- there's a lot of agreement. I think the American people are very generous and want to help those that are working. But the problem is that we've thrown up too many barriers to participation. And because of that, again, I'll just repeat the number, 40 to 45 percent of the working poor, and they're all eligible for food stamps, it's only 40 to 45 percent that are getting it. And it's because of that that single mothers with children have actually lost ground in the last two years. And, you know, I think the emphasis on work is good. We should be emphasizing work. But now we've really got to make sure that those subsidies that are there -- the earned income tax credit, Medicaid and food stamps actually get to these families.
|Not on welfare, but also not working|
|ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sharon Dietrich, what are some of the obstacles
that people that you're helping have in working?
SHARON DIETRICH: There are many obstacles, and they range from things like having to travel for an hour and a half on the bus to the suburbs to a job. For a single parent who has a sick child that can be a real problem in terms of being able to keep a job. It's where the absenteeism comes in that leads to a lot of people losing work. There are obstacles to getting jobs from people who may not have a lot of work experience, may have criminal records, may have records of child abuse or neglect and can't get the jobs that they're looking for. There a whole host of things and I think we need to focus on those as well as on the income supports so that people can get and keep work.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Larry Mead, there's a figure that is unclear. What happened to the unaccounted for one quarter or so who are not working but also are no longer on welfare?
LAWRENCE MEAD: Well -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's what the figures are showing, right?
LAWRENCE MEAD: Yes, correct. It's maybe about a third of those who leave welfare do not get jobs. As far as we can tell, they're getting help from friends and family. They have other ways to support themselves in the short term. And one of the concerns is whether they'll be able to continue that. Some of those people return to welfare, as a matter of fact, and maybe that's the right answer. I think the answer in welfare is not necessarily to have everybody leave the rolls. There will be some element that is too disadvantaged to work on an ongoing business. And what they need is some more structured form of employment or community participation where they can do something to help the community without necessarily being fully independent. The goal of the welfare reform is really not to drive everybody off the welfare rolls. It's to make sure that everyone contributes in a way that allows them to claim belonging in their community.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sandra Traylor, can you help us know more about the people? Are you seeing people who are not on welfare but also aren't working?
SANDRA TRAYLOR: Well, those are hard to track because what happens is they come in and they apply and we refer them through the system and they do one of two things: They either request to have their cases closed or they just let their cases close by not cooperating. But the feedback that we're receiving is that we agree there are relatives or friends helping them. And right now I guess because there's lucrative income out there, the family can afford to do this.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh. What would you do now, Ms. Traylor, to make all this work even better?
SANDRA TRAYLOR: Well, we would continue to work intensely with the community focusing on those long-range plans of trying to make sure that the job retention is there of at least a year in the work force, working more with the employers to be more understanding that you are dealing with a population that don't have the same skills that people who have always been in the work force and who are just now entering and making a concerted effort. I think more dollars maybe federally should be put into the employers also for them to give us the support we need.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Dietrich, what would you do to improve this transition, this reform?
SHARON DIETRICH: First of all, I would address the barriers to employment for the people who are still on the rolls. Part of the reason that they're still there is that they tend to be the hardest to employ and they need special help in order to get jobs. Second, I agree with Mr. Primus that we really need to address the barriers to participating in the income supports, and I think earned income tax credit is in particular a program that needs more connection with the former recipients who are now working. And, third, I think that people really need access to post-secondary education and training and in some cases to primary education so that they can advance themselves.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, thank you all four very much.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|