Welfare

Welfare

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 29 1997 12:30 AM

Welfare

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       Golly, Mickey, I didn't imagine you were a right-wing person. You seem to be a little sensitive on that point. Putting aside your occasionally nasty tone, your latest comment does tend to narrow the differences between us somewhat. To some extent, our differences concern strategy. However, those are still very major differences. And we do continue to disagree on some substantive points as well, as I'll explore below. Your strategic view is that the welfare bill "will lead to the necessary spending on public jobs and child care." I just don't see it, although I wish I did. By the way, I'll address your accusations of "ample misinformation" later on.
       I see big trouble ahead for poor people. I am not hyping the risks. The trouble is not only with welfare but with the pyramiding effect of the cuts in aid to immigrants (which I know you oppose), in food stamps, in aid to disabled children, in state general-assistance programs, in low-income-housing assistance, and on and on. But I do agree it is trouble that will be reduced if you and I and others can convince America that spending on public jobs and child care (and health care and a number of other things) has to be increased in order to achieve success in reducing ghetto poverty, and other poverty as well.
       And not just spending, I would hasten to say, because money by itself is not good enough. I think we need institutional and structural change that deals with everything from the quality of education received by low-income children to the issues of race and gender discrimination that are so heavily connected to these issues of poverty. Beyond spending and confronting structural issues, I would also stress personal and community responsibility. People do have an obligation to take responsibility for themselves and their children, and the community, beyond government, has a responsibility to assist in a variety of ways. It is quite right that the old solutions do not suffice. I've said all this before, of course.
       The problem I have always had with your position is not your commitment to do something about ghetto poverty, or the principle that public jobs are a big part of the answer. I am a very work-oriented person myself, as you know. My impression is that you don't place your public-jobs strategy into a sufficiently broad context, in a number of different ways. The first relates to your characterization of the problem, which, perhaps unintentionally, tends to narrow it to a welfare problem. To begin with, in every inner-city area of concentrated poverty (although less so in every public-housing project), there are people who are working and struggling to be self-sufficient, there are people who care deeply about their children and are doing everything they can to bring them up right, and there are people who do their very best to create a sense of community and caring and people looking out for one another--in short, people who are taking personal responsibility for themselves and others in an absolutely full and complete way (although they still may be poor or near-poor). When a neighborhood has 40 percent unemployment, that means 60 percent of the people are working. Forty percent poverty means 60 percent not poor. And there are children in these very tough neighborhoods who do make it, although often against incredible odds.
       Too much stress on the welfare part of the problem leads to painting with too broad a brush--in short, to stereotyping. I don't want to be heard as lecturing, since you expressed sensitivity on that point, but it has to do with the starting point of the discussion. The welfare system needed some serious fixing, and a lot of the needed fixing was at the intersection of welfare and work, but welfare is not the problem. It is a problem. (Among other things, understanding the problem of the inner city as being synonymous with the problem of welfare makes the emphasis on ending welfare as the solution overinclusive. While ghetto poverty is our nation's most shameful poverty problem, the inner-city poor constitute a small minority of America's poor. Arbitrary time limits are seen by proponents as a way to introduce a dramatic kick in the behind into the lives of the stereotypical long-term welfare recipients, namely the inner-city poor. I suspect many of the welfare law's proponents would concede on reflection that the arbitrary time limits are less relevant to other groups of long-term public-assistance recipients.)
       Insofar as we are focusing on the inner-city poor, we need to understand how these highly segregated and isolated and increasingly poor neighborhoods came to be that way. We will never solve ghetto poverty as long as we try only to push or fix the people who are there without trying to change the larger context. Personal responsibility is a vital part of the equation, but it is only part of the equation.
       A whole bunch of public jobs doesn't add up to a complete strategy (and I hope I am not caricaturing or mischaracterizing your position). We need to work in a variety of ways to reduce the isolation. We need to look at the relationship of the inner city to the larger urban and metropolitan context, as well as at issues of community and economic development in the inner city itself. We need to be maximizing mobility possibilities for people to move out of the inner city, preferably from a base of having achieved self-sufficiency, but also, à la the Gautreaux case in Chicago, with a housing subsidy if necessary. (The Gautreaux remedy has been carefully evaluated and is quite successful, even more so for the children than for the adults.) This question of mobility is not confined to the issue of residence, obviously. We need, for example, to confront the hostile and unwelcoming way downtown stores and businesses react when inner-city, especially African-American, people do venture inside.
       Even more broadly, we need to be focusing on the continuing pattern of public-policy decisions all over the country that favor the suburbs and their residents over the central city. I know you are familiar with the work of Myron Orfield in Minnesota on this set of issues. We need to be focusing on the job discrimination that confronts people of color, especially young people seeking their first jobs, as they seek private-sector employment, and on the structural discrimination against women that still inheres in pay scales and status throughout the labor market. And, of course, we need to focus on education and preparation for work, and on what happens to people after they do the public jobs you advocate, since my understanding is that you see the public jobs as largely a transitional strategy. (I also believe, as you perhaps do, that there are many important tasks not now being done by anyone that could be the basis for the creation of permanent jobs which would largely hire the currently unemployed.)
       An overemphasis on public jobs in the context of a strategy that is narrowly based on welfare-to-work efforts will result, I am afraid, in underemphasis on the needs of inner-city men, especially young men, for a boost in getting into the job market. If we want women to get married, which we both do, then there have to be more "marriageable males," as William Julius Wilson says. If we want more marriageable African-American males, attention must be paid to the education and economic prospects of young men. This is vital.
       At the same time, again insofar as we are talking about ghetto poverty, we need to be looking at the conditions of life in the inner city, including its economic and community infrastructure. An inner-city community-development strategy is not sufficient by itself, just as a public-jobs strategy is not sufficient, but if we are going to foster work and mobility, neighborhoods have to be safe, their schools have to teach effectively, there should be an economic base, there should be things for kids to do outside of school hours that help them develop fully and stay out of trouble, and so on. I am a big advocate of inner-city community and economic development, not as a panacea but as a part of a strategy.
       This could go on and on, and I think it is a better and more interesting discussion than our back-and-forth about whether the states are being mean or not, but let me say in conclusion of this part of my comment that my answer to your question about whether I am willing to use compulsion regarding minimum-wage jobs with child care and health coverage and the Earned Income Tax Credit is generally yes. I would want to know more about whether the woman is prepared to undertake the job and what it would take to maximize her chances for success on the job, and we might get into a discussion about the sanctions we would impose if she refuses to cooperate. But my answer to your question is generally yes. I really am a work-oriented person.
       I need to address your assertions that I have misrepresented the facts in various ways.
       As to the level of homelessness in Wisconsin, the shelters are bulging in Milwaukee and Madison, or at least they were during the winter. The three largest shelters in Milwaukee had a 30 percent increase over the same period the previous year, and other indicia, like food-pantry use, are up as well--food-pantry use is up 26 percent in Madison. In Milwaukee they set up a shelter-overflow plan, which they had to put into effect this past winter. But you are right that the increases are small in comparison to the number of people who have gotten off the welfare rolls. The jury is still out, and will be for some time, on the ultimate outcome. Perceptions differ. Mr. Volk, whom you quote on the homelessness figures, said the following to the Los Angeles Times: "What we're starting to see is the erosion of the social safety net. You take this strand out, two months later you take that strand out. Pretty soon, you have a gaping hole. It's happened over time, over about two years. But each time it's gotten worse."
       This is what has happened in Wisconsin so far. People have gone off the rolls for two reasons, roughly speaking. They have gotten jobs, or they have been sanctioned or otherwise discouraged from applying or continuing. The total is large both because the economy is hot and because the state has tightened administration in a number of ways. Under the Pay for Performance interim program that has been in place in anticipation of the Wisconsin Works program (also called W-2), thousands of households have been cut off or had their payments reduced, with something like a quarter of those being reinstated when the sanctions were found on appeal to have been erroneously imposed.
       On the other hand, the state has been responsive to criticism in some ways, so the governor has budgeted funding for the burdensome day-care copayments to be ameliorated and for the pay for the community-service jobs to be raised. My complaint about the original child-care copay schedule was not about the copayment at the lowest wage level but that it went up too fast. (By the way, I don't get the logic of your criticizing Health and Human Services for resisting the waiver proposal, based in part on its unhappiness with the original copayment schedule. They could hardly foresee that the governor would bow to criticism and improve the proposal.) My statement about the original community-service pay schedule was based on average welfare payments. I should have broken it down by family size as you have done, but even there the pay is higher than the welfare payment for a two-child family by such a tiny amount that people will in fact not be better off.
       It is still true that the Wisconsin program, while considerably improved, is more of a program to get people off welfare than it is a program to get them out of poverty. When people go to work, they get no earnings supplementation for being in a low-paying job, even one in the private sector. (I indicate below that I would provide earnings supplementation on an evenhanded basis, both because I do not wish to reward people for going on welfare, and because I do not wish to penalize people already working but still poor.) They do get child-care help, and the precise contours of the health-coverage assistance they will get are still in dispute between them and HHS, so the ultimate picture is still evolving.
       An even bigger question is what will happen in Wisconsin when W-2 is in full operation and starts to hit the half of the caseload that has been there for a long time. This is the issue that I have said repeatedly is the heart of the problem everywhere. That is as true in Wisconsin as it is everywhere else. I appreciate your acknowledgment that the tough part of the job lies ahead. If I don't share your optimism that the public jobs and the child care will appear as a consequence of the dynamic that will now unfold, I do agree that we have no choice at this point but to make the maximum positive effort to get them and other needed investments to appear. That is my intent, certainly.
       You criticize me for overstating the meanness of the time limits that are shorter than five years. Yes, most of the states that have shorter time limits offer exceptions, but many of them are couched in vague language and all of them, by definition, place the burden on the recipient to ask for the exception, and leave room for interpretation by street-level bureaucrats as to whether it will be granted. All of this complexity is administratively complicated and costly, and inevitably causes some recipients to fall unfairly by the wayside. And very few states contemplate offering assistance financed with state money beyond the five-year time limit. My article, which you so nicely accuse me of retreating from, says, "There is a cumulative lifetime limit of five years on benefits paid for with federal money." I don't see what it is I am supposed to be retreating from.
       Finally, you correctly point out that the Minnesota earnings-disregard policy is a demonstration which did not apply to the entire caseload. On reflection, I think that the rest of the difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin must be in the sanctioning policy and the other ways in which administration has been tightened in Wisconsin. I think a better policy would combine public jobs with earnings disregards to support low-paying private-sector jobs, i.e., in a sense combining those aspects of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I would apply earnings disregards to people already in low-paying jobs, by the way--in effect a state earned-income tax credit to supplement the federal one, thereby avoiding an incentive to go on welfare in order to qualify. By the way, I didn't like the fact that Clinton's 1994 bill didn't apply the EITC to its community-service jobs, either. I haven't changed my position. People shouldn't work and end up in poverty, although it is also true that incentive structures should be arranged to make private-sector work more remunerative than transitional public-sector work.

Mickey Kausis a contributing editor at the New Republic and author of The End of Equality.Peter Edelmanis a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. He wrote "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done" in the March 1997 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration.