This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the passage of the bi-partisan “welfare reform” bill, The Personal Responsibility Act. While having some early success, any objective evaluation shows the long term failure of this act. My personal opinion is that there has been no more harmful legislation for families and children passed in recent history.
More poor people have no cash income, are doubled or tripled up in housing or are homeless. More babies are dying. More children are suffering poor health and educational outcomes. More adults and youth are falling prey to addictions and mental health problems. More people are going to prison or jail. Far too much of the weight of this suffering has fallen on people of color, even though the majority of our poor population is white.
I have been in the “welfare” business for more than 40 years. I worked as a caseworker, social worker, Community Action Agency administrator and for the past 33 years, until my recent retirement, the Director of the Athens County Ohio welfare department. Life is considerably worse for poor people now than it was the day I started as a caseworker in 1973. There were very few food pantries or homeless shelters. Cash welfare and Food Stamps provided a level of assistance that was much closer to the Federal Poverty level. Ohio provided cash assistance and medical care for poor adults without children. That was eliminated more than 20 years ago. Cash assistance for families has been drastically reduced. Today there are far more poor families with children with no cash income than there are left on cash welfare.
Poverty is about money. Period. It’s not really about character. If character flaws caused poverty, why aren’t more Wall Street speculators and politicians poor? If you listened to presidential candidates charges against each other, you would be surprised that any of them had a penny to their name.
Right wing think tanks have argued for years that welfare was so generous and wonderful that poor people had no incentive to take a job. They blamed the welfare system for a whole range of bad behaviors. Out of wedlock births, family breakups, drug use, and laziness are caused by that few hundred dollars a month in a welfare check. If that were true, Mississippi, with its low benefits would have gotten wealthier over the years than say New York which has offered higher benefits. It hasn’t. If that were true, all of the people cut off welfare would be leading healthy productive lives with good jobs instead of struggling to survive. They are not. These highly prejudiced arguments ignore the basic humanity of people and everyone’s desire to work so they can make life better for their children. There is no means test for loving your kids.
Both political parties have capitalized on anti-welfare sentiment. Both have candidates who brag about their experience and their hand in passing or supporting the 1996 welfare law. The only experience that really counts is the very real, painful experience for millions of poor people, mostly children, who have suffered as a result of these bipartisan “reforms”.
Getting back to money — the safety net for poor people has been devastated.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare block grant has been held at roughly $17 billion for twenty years. How many other federal programs have the same budget as 20 years ago? Until 1996 almost all of that cash welfare money went directly to poor people. Now only about $4 billion does. That’s a cut of $13 billion. In Ohio, under the annual cash benefits for poor families have been cut by over $180 million. SNAP cuts have cost Ohioans roughly $550 million a year. The total lost annual income from public assistance reductions in Ohio has been over $700 million. In the meantime, we in Ohio have granted billions in tax cuts for the wealthy.
Keep in mind that these are only the lost benefits in means tested programs. The recipients had to be very poor to be getting them in the first place. Benefits are very low for those still lucky enough to be getting any. Typical cash assistance and SNAP benefits barely provide an income of half the Federal Poverty Level. The reduction of more than $25 billion a year comes out of the very poorest households in the poorest communities in the nation. Just for a reality check on our priorities in this country, we spent $700 billion to bail out Wall Street.
One need only look at the comments offered about any media story about welfare or poor people to see how deeply rooted our prejudice is. The comments are vicious. This prejudice is reinforced by politicians in both parties at all levels of government who speak about our fellow citizens on welfare in a negative way.
I watched first hand as the Ohio welfare system changed from an agency with a mission to help people devolve into one focused more on denying benefits to needy families. It breaks my heart to know that after 40 years of fighting to improve life for our less fortunate neighbors, I left them worse than I found them.
Millions of our neighbors are struggling every day just to survive.
This election may be one of our best chances to actually live up to the morals of compassion for the poor that we espouse. There are no disposable people. They don’t disappear just because you wish they would. Now is the time to regain our democracy and our humanity. We must insist that candidates from both parties at all levels of government commit to putting more money back into protecting the poorest among us. Money must change hands. The minimum wage should be raised to $15. We must restore the safety net for those who can’t work or find a job. All of the billions we have channeled into the hands of the ultra-rich has not made us a better country. Please speak out. It is the right thing to do.
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Jack Frech is a member of The Messenger’s Board of Contributors and is a retired director of Athens County Department of Job and Family Services.