Wisconsin’s welfare reforms cruel

Ever since Bill Clinton made his notorious 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” Democrats and Republicans alike have found it politically profitable to scapegoat poor women and children, pontificate about the moral failings of the so-called “underclass” and cut ever more extensively into our already tattered social safety net. Thus, during the past four years, we’ve been treated to Clinton lecturing poor teen mothers on the subject of sexual responsibility during a state of the union address; Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich blaming Aid to Families With Dependent Children for creating a “culture of violence” while recommending orphanages as a solution to the problem of child poverty; and Bob Dole boasting that if elected, he’d kick people off welfare at a significantly faster rate than the current administration.
We’ve also had to watch as the House and Senate approved the Republicans’ misnamed “Personal Responsibility Act” — a morally offensive little piece of legislation that denies AFDC payments to mothers under age 18, scales back school lunch programs and restricts recipient access to abortion and family planning services. And, despite the fact that AFDC accounts for only about 1 percent of the federal budget, we’ve been subjected to an endless parade of conservative policy wonks arguing on television that it is necessary to “de-fund” the programs for the poor in order to balance the budget.
Not surprisingly, the popularity of bashing welfare in the national political arena has spurred right-wing governors around the country to press forward with a host of ill-advised schemes for eliminating or downsizing various state-level welfare programs. And no governor has fought with as much vigor for sweeping and punitive welfare reforms as Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, a Republican who many think will be Dole’s choice for vice-presidential running mate. This spring, the Wisconsin Legislature passed Thompson’s omnibus welfare reform package, “Wisconsin Works.” Among other things, the legislation eliminates poor people’s legal entitlement to public assistance, requires virtually all recipients to work and places a lifetime limit of five years on cash benefits.
Predicated on the notion that poverty is caused by individual lack of initiative, dependency on public aid and pathologically self-destructive behavior, Wisconsin’s reform package forces participants — most of whom are women with small children — into the labor market as rapidly as possible with minimum training and support services. The majority of the 70,000 adults currently on Wisconsin’s welfare rolls will be required to report to employment centers where they will be channeled into available full-time jobs. Those who find employment will be eligible for food stamps and, under certain circumstances, health care and child-care benefits. Participants who can’t find regular work in the private sector will be forced to accept community service jobs (or will be given publicly subsidized jobs with private businesses). Failure to work will result in the withdrawal of all support. Even mothers with children as young as 3 months old will be expected to find full-time employment.
Moreover, cash grants (as well as wages from community service and state-subsidized jobs) will be fixed at a flat $555 per month no matter what the size of the recipient’s family. As a result, aid recipients compelled to rely on the state for work will end up earning less than minimum wage. To add insult to injury, educational and job training opportunities currently available to those on welfare will be radically curtailed.
“Wisconsin Works” has been hailed by leaders from both major parties as a model for welfare reform in other states. Although Wisconsin still needs to obtain the necessary federal waivers before going ahead with the changes, the Clinton administration has given every indication that it will permit Thompson to proceed as planned.
Yet, the fact is that the scheme’s callous 19th century-style “workhouse” alternative to the existing welfare system will do nothing to alleviate the problem of rising poverty. If anything, it will make it harder for the low-income families of Wisconsin to improve their economic status. And the impact on indigent, single-parent households will likely be nothing less than catastrophic.
Linden Gawboy of the Twin Cities-based Welfare Rights Committee said the Wisconsin welfare package will almost certainly result in increased homelessness, depressed wages and epidemic child hunger. She said one big problem with the program is that there simply aren’t enough private-sector jobs for everyone who will be required to work. That means the state will have to provide them.
But, as Gawboy pointed out, “There is no way the state of Wisconsin is going create enough public-sector ‘slave jobs’ to employ everyone,” she said. “They would have to create more than 26,000 new jobs in the first six months of the program alone. Right now, there’s only something like 1,700 such jobs in the state.”
What happens when Wisconsin runs out of community service “make work”? Gawboy said the state government will then be able to arbitrarily drop people from public assistance. She claims that under the reform’s provisions, “If you can’t find work or child-care, or if they can’t find work for you, or even if they just don’t like the way you look, the state is allowed to simply turn you away.”
One consequence of expelling masses of people off welfare would be flooding the labor market with unskilled workers. This, in turn, would drive wages for already low-paying, unskilled jobs down even further. To make matters worse, welfare reform participants doing certain kinds of community service for subminimum wage would inevitably displace public workers earning union scale for the same job. This too would push the wage floor down. And because “Wisconsin Works” eliminates most training and educational programs, low-income workers would be left with no way of upgrading their skills in order to compete for better paying jobs.
Not only will the welfare reform package further undermine the perilously weak earning power of those at the lower end of the labor market, but by forcing mothers with infants to work the new package, outrageous strains will be placed on Wisconsin’s already overburdened child-care providers, causing the quality of care to deteriorate. Besides, even in the unlikely event that the child-care system could adequately meet the increased demand, compelling a single mom with a 3-month-old baby to work 40 hours a week would hardly be good for her child. Indeed, in Wisconsin only 34 percent of women with children under 2 work full time.
Gawboy sees the welfare reform package work requirements as an infringement of the bond between parent and child. “No child should be placed into day care against the mother’s wishes,” she argued. “Demanding that a woman leave her 12-week-old child with strangers while she goes out to toil for sub-poverty wages is an outrage.”
The Welfare Rights Committee is urging everyone disgusted by Wisconsin’s vicious welfare reform plan to write protest letters to Gov. Thompson and President Clinton. The group has also called for a boycott of Wisconsin products and has asked people to avoid tourism in the state.
“We need to send a message that the people of this country are fed up with politicians who build their careers by beating up on mothers, children and families living in poverty,” Gawboy said. “Instead of cruel welfare ‘reform,’ we need decent jobs that pay living wages, universal and affordable child-care and health care, and unfettered access to education.” In other words, what is needed is not an end to welfare, but an end to poverty. I couldn’t agree more.
Steve Macek’s column appears in the Daily every other Monday.