PROVIDENCE, R.I. (U-WIRE) – In 1995, back when there were Top 40 stars who had already gone through puberty, our country entered the era of welfare reform. In that year, Congress passed a law saying five years on welfare was all anyone could get and leaders of both major parties excitedly championed “workfare over welfare.”
These politicians believed if they withheld government aid from welfare recipients, these former recipients would get out into the marketplace and find jobs out of necessity. Once they got jobs, the reasoning went, former welfare recipients would be better off than they were on welfare. By reforming welfare, our friends in Washington actually thought they were doing America’s hard-pressed a favor.
Now the five years have passed and the federal government is dumping people from the rolls. Some of them may be getting jobs just as predicted, but with the current economic slowdown, many are not. However, even for those lucky enough to find jobs, there is a little problem. It seems millions of people who work full time in the United States are still unable to support their families, including those who support children.
The question is this: Where does this fit into the welfare reform equation? The basic assumption behind welfare reform – that work, or full-time work in particular, ensures a modest standard of living – is fatally flawed. A report released last month by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, “Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families,” is the most comprehensive study of family hardships ever published, and its findings are frightening.
“Hardships in America” exposes the danger of using the federal poverty line as a threshold for a decent standard of living. The study examines the cost of living in every community nationwide and determined the “basic family budget” a family of four living in each community would need for food, housing, health care, child care, transportation and utilities. The study determined the national median basic family budget to be $33,511 for a family of four, 91 percent greater than the federal poverty line of $17,463 for a family of that size.
Naturally, some will be suspicious of this inorganically calculated figure, but the results of the report’s study on real working families are even more convincing. Researchers found nearly one-third of families with incomes below twice the poverty level faced a “critical hardship” such as going without food, getting evicted, having to “double up” in housing with another family or not having access to medical care during a serious illness. Nearly three-quarters of families below twice the poverty line faced difficulties such as worrying about food, failing to pay rent, using the emergency room as their primary source of health care, having their phone disconnected or having inadequate childcare.
Of course, there is a racial element to this story as well. Black and Hispanic families are about two and a half times more likely than white families to fall below basic family budget levels. All in all, “Hardships in America” tells a story of intense struggle by great numbers of families in one of the world’s richest nations.
The most important lesson here is that work does not cure all. The federal minimum wage continues to stand at $5.15 per hour, while the median basic family budget requires two parents, working full-time, to each make $8.06 an hour or a single parent working full-time to make $16.11. The minimum wage needs to be raised immediately. However, such a raise will not solve all problems by itself. Even the most ambitious minimum wage hike bill Congress will consider this year, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would raise the base wage to $6.65.
If the wages of America’s lowest paid workers are not going to raise enough to meet the needs of families, then the federal government must take more of the responsibility for these families’ well-being. Welfare reform was a tricky way for the federal government to shirk its responsibility of ensuring all Americans have the basic necessities. The report shows many who have gone from welfare to work and a vast majority of low-wage workers who have never been on the welfare rolls are not making ends meet even if they are clocking in 40 or more hours a week.
Of course, federal aid does not have to take the form of subsidy checks, the aspect of welfare that probably made it so politically vulnerable. The government can and should do more to provide affordable housing, childcare and especially health care. The United States continues to have the embarrassing distinction of being one of the only industrialized nations without universal health care. Currently about 44 million Americans are without private insurance.
“Hardships in America” reveals far more people are in need of health insurance than those who currently qualify for Medicaid, and of course even Medicaid in its current form is far less useful than most private insurance plans. The study shows whether or not a family has health insurance is a greater indicator of a family’s likeliness to experience hardships than whether or not a parent works.
The researchers also found families that lack private health insurance are more than twice as likely to involuntarily miss meals or be unable to pay housing or utilities bills than those with insurance, even after accounting for the difference in income. A person without health insurance can scarcely afford the outrageous cost of health care in this country on a middle-class income, let alone an income much lower.
Revising the state of our health care system and raising the paltry minimum wage are just the first steps for our nation to make so those struggling just to get by will become more of the exception and less of the rule. And a message to first-years: Be thankful for that small dorm room and annoying roommate, because at least you probably will not go into your double one day to find you have been evicted.
Peter Asen’s column originally appeared in the Brown Daily Herald on September 10. Send comments to