Welfare reform: Where are we going?

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – The conference, “Welfare Reform: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going?” brought 500 participants to Bryn Mawr College Feb. 28-March 1 to hear speakers form academia, advocacy groups and government and then to discuss plans for fighting back as the struggle over welfare reauthorization unfolds in coming months.

The keynote address was given by Frances Fox Piven, professor of Political Science and Sociology at City University of New York. Piven told how right-wing think tanks have been working for 30 years, strategizing how to get rid of all government entitlements, especially Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

“Their philosophy, rooted in the 19th century, is the survival of the fittest,” Piven said. “Therefore, they said forcing welfare recipients into the marketplace would toughen them up and make them independent.

“In the Great Society of the 1970’s everyone was doing better. But Big Business mobilized politically in the 1980’s and now corporate money determines public policy as well as elections.”

Piven said that before 9/11 “there was a revival of insurgency,” but the “war on terrorism” is being used to stop social movements. “Voices of dissent are very important at this time,” she added.

The attempt by Eloise Anderson, former head of California’s Department of Social Services, to justify the false idea that out-of-wedlock pregnancies and single parenthood are the causes of poverty, brought raised eyebrows from participants and a sharp rebuke from Susan Gooden, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech.

Gooden said the lack of education and training and racial and gender discrimination in the labor market are the main reasons many single women are poor. The lack of quality childcare and transportation to available jobs are additional reasons.

Randy Albelda, a graduate student in Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, agreed that marriage does not cure poverty. “Two-parent poor families have existed forever,” she said.

Cheri Honkala, director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia and co-chair of the National Welfare Rights Union, spoke from her experience as a former homeless single mother, welfare recipient, history teacher and social worker.

Honkala asked what the numbers “really mean” when government says 55 percent of those on welfare in 1996 are now off the rolls. “Where are they now? How many were pushed over the edge?”

Gwendolyn Mink, professor of Women’s Studies at Smith College, sees Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) as gender policy that abuses women’s rights, takes away their economic security and puts work before the needs of children. Mink cited racist practices in TANF – Black women being sanctioned more often and more harshly than white women and offered less opportunities for training and education.

Mink said the “Family Formation Agenda,” Bush’s plan to push single mothers into marriage is, in reality, a plan to “reform mom” instead of a plan to reform welfare. “Nearly one-third of all women on welfare ended up there because of domestic violence,” she said.

Jacqueline Payne, policy attorney for the National Organization for Women, focused on the Bush administration’s new emphasis on marriage and birth control rather than supporting poor families with increased resources.

“Making $7.50 an hour is touted as success when it is [really only] a poverty wage,” she said. “Demonizing poor women’s character and badgering them about their sexual lives does not provide them with childcare or the ability to earn decent wages.”

Peter Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, was a member of the Clinton administration who resigned in disagreement with the welfare reform law.

“We should be talking about ending poverty and an adequate income for all; strengthening families and protecting children,” Edelman said. “The problem is how our economy is structured – millions of lousy jobs at the bottom and all that wealth stuck at the top.”

Heather Boushey, an economist from the Economic Policy Institute, asked participants to think broader than welfare reform. She said families need universal healthcare and unemployment insurance that covers all workers.

Boushey described the plight of poor women in the 1990s where one in five families faced critical hardships such as homelessness and lack of food. Some 40 percent faced unemployment in a booming economy.

Some lively discussions took place during the breakout sessions as participants grappled with the question, “Where do we go from here?” Ending poverty was the top priority, followed by improved education and job training. Universal healthcare and childcare were common suggestions from many groups. Rebuilding the inner cities through public works programs was high on the list.

The closing speaker was Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), who received resounding applause for her bill, HR-3113, which would make major changes in welfare reform legislation. A similar bill will be introduced in the Senate by Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and John Corzine (D-N.J.).

HR-3113 would exempt recipients from the five-year lifetime limit to care for children under 6 years old and for disabled family members. The time limit clock would be stopped when the economy is in recession and entry-level jobs are hard to find. HR- 3113 would include all education as a fulfillment of work activities.

“TANF is degrading legislation, class war against poor women and their children,” Mink said, adding that Congress should repeal the lifetime ban for drug abusers, which would affect 132,000 children. Mink asked conference participants to make a commitment to passing HR-3113, which she called “a safety net without oppression.” Hearings take place March 12 and 22. “With your help this bill can pass,” she said.