Four years after passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, many government and media reports have declared welfare reform a success. They measure success by reduction in the number of those receiving welfare checks and to some extent by the numbers known to have left the rolls because they have gotten a job. State programs are well on their way toward moving people from welfare to work, it seems, and thereby to “self-sufficiency.”
Many recipients, nonprofit service providers, and policy analysts, however, are less sanguine. States may have reduced their welfare rolls significantly, but poor tracking means they often know little about whether those no longer receiving benefits are better or worse off than before. Some may have jobs for a while, and then lose them for one reason or another; others may be terminated from programs without prospects of jobs. Some eligible people may be discouraged from applying for benefits because they believe them no longer available or because they are treated dismissively by social workers. Meanwhile, the number of people seeking help from soup kitchens and food pantries has risen steadily—even now, after the supposed miracle decade of American economic prosperity.
There are many hazards and indignities for people in the welfare system. Every state now has a more complex system of benefits and services, with changing and confusing rules. Recipients and potential recipients often sit across the desk from caseworkers who are poorly trained and overworked. Many recipients are neither treated with respect nor properly informed of their options. Many of those not eligible or no longer eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are never told that they may still be eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, child health benefits, housing subsidies, child care, or transportation assistance.
Most states require recipients of TANF to work, to attend job training or job readiness programs, or to engage in other “work activities.” Although these programs increase the skills of some recipients, for many they are a waste of time because the people served already know what the programs claim to teach or because the teaching isn’t thorough enough. What many recipients understandably want is the opportunity to acquire a technical skill or obtain a college degree, but most states do not count time in post–high school classes as a legitimate work activity. States require recipients to work at least twenty hours a week after two years of benefits, either at jobs they find themselves or that the welfare offices find for them. More often than not, these jobs require few skills and offer little prospect of development.
The harshness of welfare reform did bring the need for child care to the attention of legislators, and funding for child care for low-income people has increased at both federal and state levels. Even so, the dangers to children ...
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