Welfare Reform Gone Wrong

By Nydia M. Velazquez

The 1996 welfare reform plan is touted as one of the great recent successes in social policy. It was designed to reduce dependency and move beneficiaries from welfare to work. Yet many questions remain unanswered. Yes, the welfare caseloads have dropped in New York City by 60 percent. But we still do not know where those families went. We do not know if they found jobs as the policy intended. They may still be unemployed and impoverished. And we may not know for years.

What we do know is that the five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits began coming due last fall. In New York City alone, 60,000 families will be summarily dumped from the rolls, with their cash benefits slashed to $58.20 a month, just when the economy entered a recession and unemployment peaked at 7.4 percent.

There are some ominous signs of welfare reform gone wrong. The need for emergency shelter is at an all-time high, with 30,000 men, women and children being provided beds by the city. A third of the city's population was living below the poverty level in 2000.

Now, adding insult to injury, President George Bush this month has proposed sweeping changes for those remaining on the welfare rolls. These include new unrealistic work requirements, which force the states to place 70 percent of their welfare caseload in full-time, 40-hour "work activities". That is up from existing requirements to place 50 percent of beneficiaries in 30-hour jobs.

This is particularly regressive because it imposes the requirement on households, not individuals. The president's plan makes no distinction between a single parent and a married couple. That means a single mom with kids has to work 40 hours a week. But a married couple only needs to work 20 hours each.

The effect could be catastrophic. A single parent needs more time at home, not less. No family would tolerate such an imposition keeping them away from their children. Yet this proposal requires twice the work in some homes that have half the resources to cope. Is this the same administration that claimed to put "families first"?

What is more incredible, the Bush administration would make this intolerable situation even worse by freezing day care funding for the next five years. This plan restricts the very resource that could make it possible for a single parent to meet their work requirement!

These proposals are starkly contrasted with those made by the people who must implement this draconian, inflexible plan. The National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislators have repeatedly requested more - not less - flexibility to administer their own welfare plans.

But the Bush proposal expects the hands-on administrators to accomplish these radical goals with fewer resources, especially for worker training, childcare and transportation. Providing tools to help welfare recipients survive off the rolls is what makes reform work, not simply throwing families out and hoping they'll make it on their own.

The president also continues to exploit immigrant communities while ignoring their interests. His photo ops with diverse crowds put a shiny veneer on his harsh policies. In reality he recycles the same old nativist stereotypes of our shoreline teeming with shiftless immigrants bent on living the highlife.

I'm not making this up. The president said this month we need these restrictions to "ensure that welfare policy neither attracts non-citizens to the U.S. to take advantage of welfare, nor induces welfare dependency among non-citizens."

In truth, immigrants come to the United States to work for their families. They work hard, because they know that job opportunities in America are the best in the world.

Yet some immigrants, just like other Americans, need help. While the president extended food stamp benefits to legal permanent immigrants last month, he failed to do the same for welfare. That means the same communities that pay taxes to support welfare cannot benefit from it at all when they need help.

It is easy to forget in our unity against a common enemy that we still face an enemy within: poverty and hopelessness.

We do not know the ultimate effects of the 1996 welfare reform program, whether it is helping or harming our most vulnerable families. Yet this president is pushing forward blindly, ignoring immigrants, burdening single parents, and hawking an extremist policy without considering the consequences.

Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-NY) represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Her legislation includes H.R. 3459, which extends welfare to immigrants and repeals the five-year lifetime limit on benefits.

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