Reality of ‘Reform’

Reality of ‘Reform’

Sharon Hays’s Flat Broke with Children

Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform
by Sharon Hays
Oxford University Press, 2003, 304 pp., $30.00

Since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRA), there has sprung up a cottage industry of studies trying to evaluate the outcome of what New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the most regressive and brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction” and Michigan governor John Engler hailed as “the beginning of a new, empowered life for aid recipients.” Now, with the long-postponed reauthorization of welfare reform again in the air, we have a formidable array of data by which to evaluate it.

Some studies have tracked the declining, and now rising, welfare caseloads, carefully documenting variation from state to state. Others show the increasing concentration of cases in cities. “Leaver” studies give us estimates of how many former recipients have entered the workforce (40 percent to 60 percent), their average wages (relatively low, often below poverty level, but sometimes above), and their material well-being (some are clearly better off, some poorer). “Cycler” studies measure how many who have left the rolls have returned (perhaps 20 percent, so far), and “stayer” studies describe the characteristics of those who have never left the rolls (generally those with “multiple barriers” to employment–disability, mental illness, few skills, little education). We know what’s happened to marriage rates (little) and out-of-wedlock birth rates (still rising, but more slowly). We have data on demand for food at soup kitchens and food pantries, homelessness, and foster care placements (they’re all up). Economists have tried to gauge the relative importance of the economy, reform itself, the earned income tax credit, and other factors in driving down the rolls. There has been no clear consensus, but all seem to have been important. Others have tried to calculate the effect on wages and unemployment rates of this new flood of workers into the market (also no consensus yet).

But what’s missing from these evaluation studies is what makes Sharon Hays’s Flat Broke with Children so welcome: here we see the impact of these new laws on the lives of those who have to confront them, the women and children receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). But it is even richer, for Hays brings us with her into the welfare office and lets the caseworkers who are responsible for implementing the program speak, too. The result is what may be the best book yet on welfare reform. Flat Broke tells us more about living and surviving on the edge in America today than a library full of careful “scientific” evaluations.

Hays vi...