Welfare to Work: Did It Work?

NY Times reporter Jason DeParle’s new book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, And A Nation’s Drive To End Welfare, follows the lives of three mothers in Milwaukie after Clinton ended ‘welfare as we know it’. An interview in Mother Jones this month shows Mr DeParle to be in some ways startlingly naive in his thinking about poverty, but what else is new? For example:

MotherJones.com: Bill Clinton set out to “end welfare as we know it.” Did he succeed?

Jason DeParle: Well he certainly succeeded in overhauling the law and substantially increasingly employment rates among low-skilled women. It was a big success as an employment program, but it was less of a success as a program for social mobility. Implicit and sometimes explicit in [Clinton’s] thinking about welfare was that when mothers went to work their children would do better in school. He talked a lot about hope and dignity and role models and said the families would experience a different social and economic trajectory. But I found a lot less evidence of that taking place.

Most of the debate at the time was, If welfare recipients could go to work in substantial numbers, would there be enough jobs for them? Could they hold the jobs? Could the jobs pay enough for them to survive on? On that level the law worked surprisingly well. Two of the women I followed became workers; Angie had been on welfare for 12 years, Jewell for 8, and neither had a high school degree. Yet they adapted to the workplace very quickly. I think that the evidence would show that their experience was typical in that regard. You could say that welfare reform worked better than we expected and better than we had a right to expect.

So two of them managed to get jobs in what he admits later on was the hottest economy in 50 years and held their familes together in the face of the higher costs. He makes this sound as if such movement was unusual before welfare ‘reform’. In point of fact, it was the norm.

The majority of single mothers on welfare were on it for only a few years until their children were old enough to go to school, earlier if they were lucky enough to live in a relatively enlightened state–like Wisconsin–which funded low-income pre-schools so they had someplace safe to leave their kids while they worked. Membership in the welfare club was overwhelmingly transient before the so-called reform–something like 3/4 of single moms were on it less than seven years–so at best, it would seem that reform only slightly accelerated the process; at worst, it’s taking credit for a good deal of what would have happened anyway. DeParle admits that Wisconsin was especially generous and that he doesn’t know what would have happened to the women he followed if they’d been living somewhere else.

MJ.com: What are some of the policy changes that you feel should be adopted to better serve needy workers?

JD: The Earned Income Tax Credit was crucial to Angie and Jewell’s well-being, and because Wisconsin has a generous one, each of them was getting four to five thousand dollars a year from that program. Their lives were tough enough as it was with that subsidy; I can’t imagine how they would’ve gotten by without it. Simply leaving welfare for work doesn’t make them free of the need for ongoing support, both in the forms of tax credits and food stamp support. That’s a sustenance agenda. To really experience an upward mobility economically they’re going to need to update their skills, and that’s been a real challenge for both of them, there hasn’t been a way for them to combine their work with training opportunities, that’s certainly a place for more policy initiatives. (emphasis added)

What Mr DeParle has done is echo the standard conservative line about welfare being a problem arising from chronic laziness and lousy attitudes about work that was never true to begin with, and rather than acknowledge that, he gushes about what a success reform has been and how easily the women ‘fit in’ to a work environment.

That was never the real issue. The real issue was always the lack of support for women on welfare who wanted to better their lives–no day care, no help covering the huge gaps while they made the transition, penalties for trying to go back to school, no or minimal training programs. In this interview (I haven’t read the book) he slides over an issue that was crucial for a lot of the welfare mothers I used to know when I worked as a pre-school teacher in the 80’s–health care.

As Angie’s earnings went up, her welfare went down, but it wasn’t a complete wash. In the book, I compared her last four years on welfare with her first three years off. Her earned [income] tax credit went up by about $12,000 and her welfare and food stamps went down by about $8,000. She looked on paper like she was $3,400 ahead, but she then had work expenses on top of that — child care, a car — so factor that in and you wipe out most of the gain. She also lost her health insurance. At one point she said she didn’t feel any difference between where she had been when she was on welfare and when she was working, and at first I thought it was just a good-natured complaint. But she released her welfare and earnings records from the past dozen years, so I was able to actually plot what it had been, and when you look at numbers she’s right, it really wasn’t much difference. (emphasis added)

There was a huge difference: her children no longer have health insurance. She worked in a near-minimum-wage job (she recently got a raise to almost $9) with, naturally in America, no employer-provided health insurance; paying for a family policy would cost her–at that level, pretty literally–her paycheck–$4-600/month out of a take-home pay of around $800. The fact that Mr DeParle thinks there ‘really wasn’t much difference’ means he didn’t count those kids’ health costs–the care they’re no longer receiving–in his bottom-line match-up. This is either devastating naivete or deliberate fudging. The breadth of that naivete–if that’s what it is–explodes from a single sentence.

MJ.com: Some of the women you profile were themselves raised by working mothers.

JD: That was one of the surprises for me, they were raised by working mothers, but it didn’t keep them from dropping out of high school and becoming pregnant. At some point during the kid’s adolescence it just left them with less supervision.

Hello, New Gingrich. He’s shocked, shocked that the fact that they were working–the conservative cure-all–didn’t solve all their other problems. He doesn’t mention racism (all three women are all black)–that doesn’t exists any more, right?–or the lack of sex-ed programs thanks to conservative ‘abstinence-only’ SWAT teams or the reality of living in a social setting where kids are forced to adapt like adults in order to survive and in the process lose all sense of where the adult/child line is and what is or is not age-approipriate behaviour. No, it’s a matter solely of too little parental supervision ‘[a]t some point during the kid’s adolescence’, and he can’t even be bothered to make the connection between that lack of supervision and the fact that the parents involved were working long hours, or how that may have fed into his subjects’ decision to go on welfare instead so they could be home with their kids.

Maybe he does all that in the book, I don’t know, but based on this interview, I ain’t holding my breath. In any case, its value is dubious at best in the effort to try to understand what happened after welfare reform passed because it’s following women who participated in the single most expensive welfare-to-work experiment in the nation, a program larded with training and support programs and–as DeParle says–‘awash in money’ that wasn’t available anywhere else. Wisconsin’s experience is so far out of the usual that it can’t be considered as anything other than an anomaly.

I’m putting the book on the sidebar anyway, but with this caveat: its relevance must be understood to be strictly limited at best and misleading at worst. If somebody wants to read it and post a review, have at it. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

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