Federal Welfare Reform Creates "A Crazy Quilt of Arbitrary Rules"

On November 6, 2013 Applied Research Center (ARC) was rebranded as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. The content on this page was published on the ARC website prior to the rebrand.
April, 15 2006

Oakland, CA. Last year Laura Jackson (whose name has been changed for 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 broken one rule: she had failed to report that she and her kids each had a savings account. The total amount in all four accounts? Seventy-three cents.

Jackson’s is one of many stories documented in Cruel and Usual: How Welfare "Reform" Punishes Poor People, a report just released by the Oakland, California-based Applied Research Center. The report summarizes some unexpected results of welfare reform, as revealed in surveys conducted with 1500 welfare recipients in 13 states.

The survey brought to light a number of surprising and disturbing trends, says report author Rebecca Gordon. Welfare programs are less consistent than they used to be, and more likely to operate in a discriminatory way. "Pushing responsibility for welfare programs down to the state and county level has created a crazy quilt of arbitrary rules," says Gordon. "This is the result of a new movement for ‘states rights,’ which has deregulated services for poor people. The survey shows that activities that are encouraged in one state — such as earning money while continuing to receive welfare benefits — are not only discouraged but treated as criminal offenses somewhere else."

According to Gordon, the survey reveals that the welfare reforms enacted under the1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act have led to discrimination in four areas: race, gender, language and national origin. For example, she says, "Significantly more people of color than white respondents were required to do workfare," that is, to work for a welfare check instead of wages. But numbers don’t tell the whole story, she adds. They don’t describe the humiliation of the African American woman whose caseworker told her to change her baby’s name because "he doesn’t need a name that long." Or of the woman who was denied benefits because her child is biracial. "I don’t approve of mixed relationships," her caseworker told her.

For many people, however, discrimination isn’t the biggest problem with welfare reform, the report reveals. Even worse is the chaotic and arbitrary nature of the system. Respondents’ experiences differed tremendously, depending on where they lived, says Gordon. For example, "In Salt Lake City almost 10% of the women we talked to had lost their children to the system. This happened to less than 1% of the women in the rest of the survey. In Alameda County, California, 1 woman in 20 had actually served time for failing to report welfare over-payments."

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, several respondents reported working at "job training" programs in which they spent months hanging clothes on racks at thrift stores or flipping burgers while earning substantially less than minimum wage. "That’s illegal," Gordon says. In Brooklyn, New York, many respondents could not get the translation services they needed, "which means they also didn’t get benefits they were eligible for and desperately needed," she adds, "even though federal law says those services must be available."

The Applied Research Center is a public policy institute advancing racial justice through research, advocacy and journalism.

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Report Documents:

Cruel and Usual Full Report

Cruel and Usual Executive Summary