Why Welfare to Work isn’t working
By Julissa Trevino
President Obama recently signed a stimulus bill containing $816 billion in new spending and tax cuts, of which $264 billion (32 percent) is new welfare spending. “This represents about $6,700 in new welfare spending for every poor person in the U.S.,” according to FrontPage magazine.
“In the first year after enactment of the stimulus bill, federal welfare spending will explode upward by more than 20 percent, rising from $491 billion in FY [fiscal year] 2008 to $601 billion in FY 2009. This one-year explosion in welfare spending is, by far, the largest in U.S. history.”
This money though, coming out of taxpayers’ checks, will be going toward programs that already aren’t working to reasonable standards.
Still, some people struggle to get by without it. “I’ve been able to go without it, but now I’ve been on it a few months because the electric bills are big. And now my house is under foreclosure,” says 15-year Ithaca resident Lee Hook who’s received some form of financial assistance since her children were young, until they started getting child support. Now Hook is 50 and her children are grown up and finishing college, but she can’t manage on her own.
As of Dec. 31, 2008, 1,319 individuals in Ithaca were using cash assistance—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or safety net assistance (for single, childless couples or individuals)–8,721 were using Medicaid and 6,429 were using food stamps (up about 17 percent from last year’s numbers), though some of these individuals overlap between programs.
In 2002, more than 11 million people in the U.S. were dependent on welfare–they received more than half of their total family income from TANF, food stamps and/or Supplemental Security Income (designed to help the disabled, blind and elderly who have little or no income). This rate is much lower than the rate measured in 1996 (5.2 percent).
This dramatic drop of welfare dependency can be attributed to the welfare reform that Bill Clinton and the mostly Republican Congress passed and enacted in 1996. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which ended welfare entitlement and replaced it with a $16 billion a year state grant to assist needy families created a new program, TANF. Under TANF, recipients were no longer guaranteed welfare benefits based on eligibility, recipients had to be working within two years of receiving benefits and recipients were only allowed to stay on assistance for a total of five years, though it also granted states the right to exempt 20 percent of
cases due to hardship. Within these limits, states were allowed to use the grant how they felt necessary.
However, about 58 percent of welfare recipients still did not have jobs in 2002. The current welfare system does not allow for people to become financially dependent on the government, Ithaca College economics professor Frank Musgrave says. “The idea is to get them out of dependence and into independence, with the hope that that independence promotes not only the country, but growth for these people as well,” he says, particularly citing the five-year limit of assistance.
Scott Sweet, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College, defends the poor and people who need federal and state assistance. “One thing we have to recognize is that many jobs don’t pay a living wage, and it’s not possible for families to make ends meet without some type of assistance, whether it’s food stamps, whether it’s Medicare or some kind of aid program,” he said. “Some people can’t work–because of disability, because they can’t find work and sometimes because they have to care for other individuals.”
While Sweet agrees the welfare system does not cause dependency, he says there are people who are not being helped. Only about half the people who are eligible for food stamps actually apply and receive them, he says. “A number of individuals choose not to use unemployment insurance, even though they’ve contributed to that out of their paychecks mainly because there’s a stigma of taking handouts,” Sweet says.
“[The process of getting financial assistance] is very strenuous. Every six months you have to reapply. They want to know too much of your privacy, but if you have nothing to hide, then why should it matter?” says Hook.
The application process for welfare is rigorous and perhaps even painful (a food stamp application is six pages and a cash assistance application is 16 pages, and interviews are required for both), but why shouldn’t it be? After all, if, as taxpayers, we’re collectively giving about $491 billion to these programs each year, the government should make sure that only those who really need it receive it (if at all).
The assistance available is significant: Food stamps, for example, are income-based and have no work requirements, and there’s no limit to how long people can use the program. Cash assistance is limited in its funding source, and there are ways to get around the five-year limit: “Once you reach a certain time limit, depending on what your specific category is, then there’s [sic] restrictions put on your account itself, but you can still use it,” said Jacalyn Lent, division coordinator for temporary assistance and food stamps at the Tompkins County Department of Social Services. There is no limit on how many programs individuals or families can be on, because it’s income-based eligibility. “Most people that come in and apply for cash assistance… they get food stamps and they get Medicaid as well,” she says.
“[TANF] has a limit of 60 months. However, once you reach 60 months, it’s a different funding stream. It’s not that you can’t receive benefits, it’s just where the money comes from, and then we put more restriction of their cash grant,” Lent says. “So say you’re getting TANF, it is possible that they would get their full monthly grant in cash, on their debit card. And they have the option of paying their landlord directly, paying all their bills out of their cash grant. Once you hit that 60 months, then we would have to change the category and funding stream and at that point would pay their rent for them, we would pay their fuel and utility bills for them, and anything that’s left they would get for cash. They don’t have the option. That’s one of the changes that happen once they reach their limit.”
Hook has been on welfare for four continuous months, and she doesn’t currently have a job, though she says she used to work at the Tower Club at IC through a temp agency. She said it’s hard finding work right now because of the economy, adding, “They’re careful not to give you too many hours because if they give you too many hours, they have to give you benefits.” Hook is currently waiting to hear about her Social Security benefits and says, “but I’ll still be eligible for food stamps.”
Unfortunately, it has come to the point where welfare is like something that feeds off of poverty itself, especially with Obama’s new stimulus package. Under the 1996 welfare reform, caseloads declined by two-thirds, according to the Kansas City Star. “Welfare to Work” is a joke: food stamps don’t have work requirements, and even with TANF, people can skirt around their work requirements by petitioning their case and the five-year limit of assistance isn’t actually enforced.
But under the stimulus package, the payroll for increasing caseloads will be much higher than under the old program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The federal government will pay 80 percent of cost for each new family that a state enrolls in welfare–this is not only taking away power from the state, but it also encourages more people to go on welfare because of the higher availability of funds. There might be strenuous, tedious and some not-so-enforced requirements to receive benefits, but once you’re on welfare, you might not have to get off.
Julissa Treviño is a junior writing major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.