Last year Laura Jackson (name changed for her protection) lost all welfare benefits for herself and her three children. The Brooklyn, New York resident hadn’t reached her two-year benefit limits. She hadn’t refused a work assignment or missed an appointment. But she had, apparently, broken one rule: she’d failed to report that she and her kids each had a savings account. The total amount in all four accounts? Seventy-three cents. Unfortunately, Jackson’s story is not unusual under welfare as we (now) know it.
In the summer of 2000, researchers from the Applied Research Center collaborated with 15 community-based organizations in 13 states to perform a survey of people who have had contact with the welfare system since Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 – otherwise known as "Welfare Reform." The Act ended a federal entitlement program for poor people that had been in operation since 1935. It removed guarantees of minimum support for poor children and opened a new era in which individual states have wide latitude to design and implement their own welfare programs.
Significantly more people of color than whites were required to do “workfare.”
The survey was designed to test for discrimination in the operation of these new welfare programs based on four factors: race, gender, language, and national origin. Whenever possible researchers conducted surveys in respondents’ own languages, including English, Spanish, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Mien. Community groups lent their expert knowledge of local communities and their welfare systems, along with their rapport with community residents.
The survey revealed a number of surprising and disturbing trends.
• Welfare reform has more than halved the welfare rolls, but it has done little to lift people out of poverty.
• The new law did away with existing federal guarantees of childcare and transportation subsidies for people whose benefits end when they get jobs.
• Many people’s medical benefits have mistakenly been terminated when they stopped receiving welfare cash benefits.
• Millions of immigrants lost welfare and medical benefits overnight.
• Devolution, the new version of "states’ rights" has greatly exacerbated the arbitrariness of the welfare system. The federal law gives states wide latitude in setting time limits, benefit levels and work requirements. It has no training requirements for welfare office staff and provides for no direct federal oversight. As a result, there is tremendous variation from state to state in the way people are treated when they seek assistance, and the kind of assistance, if any, they receive.
• In Salt Lake City, Utah, almost 10% of respondents had lost their children to state agencies, compared to fewer than 1% of the respondents in the rest of the country.
• In Alameda County, California, one out of every 20 women surveyed had been to jail for not reporting welfare over-payments.
• In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, respondents reported working in "training" programs counting hangers at thrift stores or flipping burgers – for considerably less than minimum wage.
• For 61% of applicants in Brooklyn, New York, the wait for benefits was over 30 days. A hundred miles north in Hartford, Connecticut, only 34% had to wait that long.
• There is strong evidence of discrimination in all four areas the survey examines. People of color routinely encounter insults and disrespect as they seek to navigate the various programs that make up the welfare system. Women are subject to sexual inquisitions in welfare offices, and sexual harassment at their assigned work activities. People whose first language is not English encounter a serious language barrier when they have contact with the welfare system, in spite of federal protections designed to lift that barrier. Eligible immigrants and refugees are often told to go back where they came from when they try to get help for themselves or their U.S. citizen children.
• Significantly more people of color than white respondents were required to perform "workfare" (i.e., to work not for wages, but for a welfare check.)
• One woman in six had experienced sexual harassment in her work activity.
• More than a third of all women experienced personally invasive behavior from welfare office officials, especially in regards to the applicants’ sex lives.
• There was a significant language barrier for 62% of those whose first language is not English.
• However, for many people discrimination isn’t the biggest problem with the welfare system. Rather, the problem is the system’s general chaos and caprice. Respondents of all colors, genders and nationalities described being caught up in a system that is contradictory, unpredictable, and in many cases simply cruel.
• Fully one-third of all respondents had experienced sanctions of some form – ranging from loss of benefits to incarceration.
• More than 60% had not been informed that they if they are sanctioned they have a right to receive a fair hearing.
• Even at the four "friendliest" sites identified by the survey, 37% of respondents reported being treated rudely, and 38% encountered significant barriers in the application process.
Judge the states’ performance by whether they end poverty, not just reduce welfare rolls.
The new states’ rights approach to welfare reform has engendered a welfare "system" rife with chaos and discrimination. History shows that the most effective action to protect the rights of poor people, and especially poor children, has been taken at the federal – not the state and local – level. Whether it is a question of guaranteeing funds for public schools that serve poor children – through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – or of guaranteeing employment rights through the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal government has been able to act in arenas where individual states either cannot or will not do so.
The PRWORA will be up for re-authorization in 2002, and congressional discussions will likely begin as early as 2001. Survey results suggest a number of concrete recommendations to members of Congress and their advisors:
• Redefine federal-level accountability standards for evaluation of states’ welfare performance. These standards should emphasize ending poverty rather than reducing welfare rolls. Current PRWORA language emphasizes the reduction of rolls, but places no requirement on states to provide welfare programs that actually lift families out of poverty.
• Amend federal policy to expand the existing list of qualifying "work activities." These should include attendance at two- and four-year colleges, and classes in English as a Second Language. The present system often requires people to abandon an education that could lead to a living income in favor of a minimum-wage job or a six-week job training program for a dead-end, low-wage job.
• Establish and centralize federal-level accountability standards for the administration of state welfare programs. Various federal agencies (including the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Labor) have issued guidelines and regulations for the equitable administration of different parts of the PRWORA, but these do not exist in any single place, nor under the jurisdiction of any single office.
• Restore benefits for non-citizens. The current thicket of regulations governing the rights of different classes of immigrants is unfair and confusing. Benefit disparities place tremendous pressure on immigrant families, which often include people of varying immigration status.
• End the use of welfare policy as a form of social engineering. Federal welfare policies should be used to assist people to move out of poverty, not to mould the sexual and relationship practices of poor people.