Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Welfare to Work: Ten Years Later

griftdrift note: This was originally posted in 2005 during a discussion of Hurricane Katrina at another site. Now that the tenth anniversary of TANF is here and congress is beginning to debate where we go next, I thought it was appropriate to repost. Also, I performed some very general edits for contextual clarity.

An Insider's Look At Welfare To Work

From 1997 to 2000, I was the manager of a Welfare to Work team in a major metropolitan area. During that time, we placed around 4000 people in jobs with many finding permanent employment and leaving the welfare rolls for years if not forever. The following are my thoughts as someone who spent time in the trenches during the eye of the storm.

If you research actual monthly welfare payments, you might be surprised. I have found in my experience that people are rather shocked at how minimal welfare payments are. Most have images of welfare queens driving Cadillacs. While I am not so pollyannish to say that this type of abuse does not happen, to think that the majority of people are doing this on $300-$400 a month while supporting a family of four is absurd.

And please, both left and right, do not bring to the table that when combined with food stamps, medicare and other aid, a welfare recipient actually can live more comfortably than a person working for a living. Here's the fact. When TANF (Transitional Assistance for Needy Families) was established, we had to produce charts to convince welfare recipients that working a job somewhere between minimum and living wage combined with the benefits most employers provide would actually give them a higher income! Which leads to the real problem.

The problem with AFDC was not rampant abuse of welfare queens pumping out litters of children to get more checks to fund drug problems, pimps, more Caddies or whatever. The real problem with AFDC was that it had become not what it was intended. It was no longer a safety net but a culture of dependancy. Sometimes going back three and even four generations. One of the saddest things I ever heard was when one of my specialist asked a little boy what he wanted to do when he grew up and he responded, go to the post office to pick up a check.

There is also an element of this truth in public housing. If you live in an urban area, visit a project sometime. I wish I could take you back ten years and have you visit one then. The fact is that poor people were massed together, then walled off from the rest of society creating a kind of American apartheid. Those aren't my words. They are the words of an African American manager on another W-to-W team. He wondered aloud how anyone could have hope of advancing themselves when they had to live in such a closed off world with little hope.
The problem is not that government programs hurt more than they help. The problem is that governments rarely follow things through to the end.

Look back at pictures of Appalachia in the early 20th century and it's hard to say that a public school systems, the TVA, the CCC were not beneficial. Not only did these New Deal programs aid individual families but they elevated entire regions. As late as the 70's, when I was kid, I knew families who did not have indoor plumbing. Do we really want to go back to barefoot kids in overalls who get just enough "learning" to be able to print their name?

Equally, the Great Society and the War on Poverty were also needed. Look back at the urban areas of the 40s and 50s and you will find similar conditions with a slightly different flavor to my Appalachia analogy. There should be no place in America for a child to go to bed hungry.
So the Great Society programs met the basic needs immediately. They put a roof over the head (public housing), put food on the table (food stamps) and give a little money to provide for other basic needs (welfare). Then, for the next thirty years, the government didn't take the obvious next step in the process. Instead of working to move these families into mixed income settings and towards ownership, they were left to rot in their publicly built ghettos where they had little access to real jobs, little access to society at large and perhaps most importantly little need to seek anything beyond the basic necessities.

The Great Society failed not because it was ideologocially unsound or unwarranted. It failed because government did what it almost always does. Just enough and not much else.
Fortunately, in the mid-90s this began to slowly turn around. TANF was implemented. Limits were set on welfare and TANF became a safey net instead of a way of life. This combined with a Marshall plan like jobs program and a move to tear down the projects and rebuild as mixed income began to make a difference almost immediately. Welfare rolls dropped dramatically. And although recidivism was heavy at first that began to tail off as well. Much to the chagrin of some on the left, the homeless shelters did not fill up. There were some that didn't make it and private charities absorbed them. Exactly the way things are supposed to work.

It took a long time but the government eventually started to get it right. Finally, three decades later, the second step of assisting our most abject poor to true independence began.

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