Not Welfare Reform, but Welfare Deform

New Orleans   You may have missed the fact that welfare reform was on the priority list for the new Congress as it took office in Washington.  You may not have noticed all the signs at the Women’s March there and elsewhere demanding improvements in welfare benefits for women trying to raise children in the current system.  In fact, you may have missed the mention of welfare in the special New York Times supplement featuring stories about the war on poor women as mothers.

In fact, you may have missed all of these references to welfare report and the drastic need to really reform the welfare deform of the last twenty years, because they don’t exist.  Mothers and others on welfare, including their children, have become invisible except as political fodder victimized by old racist and classist tropes about welfare queens and baby-benefit-machines.   Welfare reform was not a priority for the Congress or raised as a major issue by all of the record-setting women who were newly elected.  There were no signs at the women’s marches demanding welfare reform.  The tragedy and travesty of the modern welfare system for poor women as mothers and the price paid by their children was not mentioned in the New York Times’ supplement.  Except as a punching bag for the right, welfare recipients have become invisible.

All of this was grist for the mill in talking to Felicia Kornbluh, a co-author with Gwendolyn Mink, on Wade’s World about their new book, Ensuring Poverty:  Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective.  The only thing clear about the results of the Clinton-era so-called reform “of welfare as we know it” has been how much money it has saved by governments by denying benefits to welfare recipients.  The title of their book is clear.  This is “ensure” as in guaranteeing poverty, not “insure” with an “i” that might entail protecting against poverty.

The book details the results of these deforms:

  • The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) has shortened recipients’ lives by nearly six months while saving governments $28,000 per recipient over her lifetime.

  • 74% of low-income families with children were NOT receiving TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families which is a 73% gap between average TANF grants and federal poverty definitions.

  • In 2016, states spent just 25% of their TANF funds on cash grants to clients, down 70% compared to the period before so-called reform.

  • The single-mother poverty rate is 35.6% overall with 38.8% for African-American female-headed families, 40.8% for Latina-headed families, 42.6% for Native American female-headed families, and 41.5% for families headed by foreign-born women.

The only way to miss the disastrous impact of these reforms and their ongoing punitive impact, is by not looking.  Kornbluh and Mink argue persuasively that it is has been accomplished in no small part because the intersectionality of race, gender, and income have victimized welfare recipients as women and mothers.  Their feminist analysis is also not kind about the division among feminists that has abetted this tragedy.

Part of their book is the story of the Women’s Committee of 100 that formed during the reform fight to argue for a different path.  The committee was largely spearheaded by Hawaii Democratic Congresswoman Patsy Mink, Gwendolyn Mink’s mother, and both Kornbluh and Mink were counted among the one-hundred.

With all of the current discussion of inequality, it was hard not to ask why we don’t have a Women’s Committee of 100 and a standing army of millions of welfare recipients and their supports demanding real reform now.  The time will never be right politically, but the need continues to be urgent.

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Making “Welfare” a Curse Word, No Matter How Many Benefit

BOSTON, MA – OCTOBER 14: Members of the National Welfare Rights Organization march along Summer Street in Boston on Oct. 14, 1969. (Photo by Phil Preston/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kawakawa, New Zealand       Many years ago, we organized tens of thousands of people to demand welfare “rights,” but amazingly to me, the right has managed to usurp a fundamental entitlement by promoting welfare “wrongs.”  The New York Times had a depressing piece on how this tide turned based on an examination of recent work done by Cornell political scientist, Suzanne Mettler.

When I was organizing with the National Welfare Rights Organization in based in Springfield and Boston, Massachusetts in 1969 and 1970, Mettler found that…

7 percent of the average citizen’s income came from federal social transfers, and in 1979 it was 11 percent. By 2014, it was 17 percent, according to Mettler’s analysis of dozens of programs, including means-tested aid like food stamps, benefits tailored to narrow populations like veterans, and broad-based government programs like Social Security.

Of course this doesn’t even count the largest government benefit program we have in terms of cost which is the home mortgage deduction, as I detailed in my book, Citizen Wealth almost a decade ago, because that’s a tax transfer, but because that benefit is enjoyed by the middle and upper classes, no one calls it welfare regardless of the facts.

Ironically, despite the rising number of people benefiting from direct and indirect government benefit programs, Mettler found, surprising none of us, that there’s still no love for the government and these programs, even from beneficiaries.  As the article notes,

Their feelings about government don’t appear connected to their own direct experience of it. But those feelings are shaped by opinions about other people’s reliance on government aid — specifically, on “welfare.”

Welfare has become such a pejorative term in the United States that the Trump administration, fueled by rightwing anti-poor zealots, is trying to rebrand more popular programs as welfare and house them under some agency with “welfare” in the name in order to reduce the support for the programs.  Ronald Reagan doesn’t deserve all of the credit for this, but he was a leader of the hater-pack labeling welfare recipients with a broad brush as “welfare queens.”  Culturally he had help, as many continue to perpetuate myths of themselves and others as the “deserving” poor, rather than the rest of the poor.  All of this despite the fact that thanks to President Clinton and the rest of the gang, there are only 2.5 million people on traditional welfare payments now which is less than 1% of the population.

No small amount of this shaming is evidence of unconfessed racial bias and antipathy to people living in the big, bad city, but no matter the disguise it damages families that need the support and are entitled to receive it.

Mettler is quoted saying that if you want to kill a social program, call it welfare.  She’s probably right, but in every other way, that’s just plain wrong.

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