Welfare

Welfare

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 20 1997 12:30 AM

Welfare

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       Let's see, Mickey, your latest thunderbolt is that I have admitted that welfare reform is a part, maybe even a vital part, of a complete strategy to end ghetto poverty, so therefore it is not the worst thing Bill Clinton has done. Come on, you can do better than that. Of course real welfare reform is a part of a complete strategy to end ghetto poverty. The point was, and still is, this isn't real welfare reform.
       I'm not going to reiterate my whole argument, but it comes down to this. Reality. And oversimplification. You think that if you pull the rug out from under people ("Without welfare," you say, "people would have had to move to where the jobs were, as they had done in the past"), they will change their behavior (as if this is only about their behavior) and everything will be all right. You want public jobs, but you will accept a system that offers no requirement for or even strong incentive for public jobs, believing that states will come to see the necessity for creating the public jobs. And then you accuse me of worrying that a large number of people will fall into the abyss. You should be worried, too.
       You make it sound as if the only choice was between the old system and this new thing. Not so. The old system was changing, quite markedly, because of the waivers and because of the underlying view about welfare change that was guiding the direction of the waivers. We should have had the patience to see what happened under those waivers. Evaluations were taking place. We could have waited for what they told us. We did not need to apply a bundle of sticks of dynamite on top of that process. In fact, I would bet you that if the president had vetoed the bill, and we had then seen the 20 percent reduction in the rolls that has now become visible (a big piece of which he could have pointed to in vetoing the bill), the steam would have gone out of the momentum for the Draconian approach. We would be having a considerably more rational debate now instead of having to cope with this brave new world.
       I think we agree on some objectives: People working at jobs that produce (perhaps with income supplementation) a living wage; getting married before having children, and staying married; and being able to afford housing (and not be discriminated against) throughout the metropolitan area. And some other things, I suppose. Better schools, safe neighborhoods, enough affordable child care, health coverage (I don't want to push my luck here). The difference between you and me is I think you can't get there from here with your program, and in fact I also think too many people are going to get hurt along the way to not getting there. And I guess you think I'm a hopeless liberal.
       But, while we're on the subject of what liberals think, I will tell you that I think it is possible to run a successful program that includes compulsory work without having to invoke the threat of permanently cutting off the grant to the entire family, and I will also tell you that it is imperative to have due-process protections before people are cut off in whole or in part. You paint with a very broad brush when you say that "when liberals fudge this issue it infuriates the electorate." I don't think I am fudging anything to insist on fairness and protecting children. Your minimization of the fact that many liberals have crossed the bridge to find compulsion acceptable in the context of a comprehensive, adequately funded program masks the fact that you have crossed a second bridge, to being willing to leave families who play by all the rules with nothing. (Since you don't insist on the investment in public jobs as a precondition to the application of compulsion--if you did, you would have opposed the new welfare law.) All of this is another instance of the vastly oversimplified way in which you approach this whole issue. As to the rest of what I think has to be done if we are going to make any genuine progress, I would refer anybody still reading this exchange of views back to my previous response.
       Your continuing attempt to whitewash what the states are doing is very misleading. The real fact is that most states are not deciding right now, one way or the other, what to do past the five years, although there are a number with time limits shorter than the five years, albeit with various degrees of exceptions.
       Right now there are only a few states that contemplate a system where people who play by the rules and cannot find work will continue to get help at the same levels as they did in the past. Vermont is one of these. Your three examples do not fit this description, because they all involve mandatory hiatus periods in receiving assistance or reduced levels of assistance, or both. Gov. Wilson's proposal for California is for greatly reduced assistance on a voucher basis, to be administered by the counties at their discretion out of a finite pool of money that they get from the state. The Pataki proposal in New York came about because New York is a rare state with a state constitutional requirement to assist low-income people. This has not stopped the governor from proposing to reduce benefits so that they are 45 percent lower by the fourth year, consecutively or cumulatively, in which a person is receiving cash assistance. His proposal for what assistance to provide beyond the five years is for a voucher to be administered by the counties at their total discretion as to amount. Massachusetts is a particularly bad example for your position. Their structure, which you quoted, predates the new law, and they haven't yet acted to take the new law into account. However, it should be recalled that the basic Massachusetts framework only allows people to get cash assistance for two years out of any given five-year period, with limited exceptions at welfare-office discretion. This was a provision which HHS rejected in the waiver negotiations at the time, but it stayed on the statute books and is now perfectly permissible.
       Let's look at your quote from Gary Stangler, which in fact tells us very little. Let me play it back to you. "Most of my counterparts are contemplating some state assistance after five years, at least for certain populations." I'm sure that's true, but it is not a very astonishing statement. The key words and phrases are "contemplating," "some," and "certain populations."
       Let me tell you about what is going on in Ohio right now. The Ohio House is about to pass a bill with a three-year lifetime limit and an exception of up to 20 percent for the very limited categories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse, and neglect or deprivation of medical care. The bill is House Bill 408, introduced by Rep. Joan Lawrence, R-Galena. Maybe this won't be the final law, but the point is you make it all sound like love and kisses.
       I might just mention a few other states. Georgia has a four-year limit, just recently enacted, with waivers allowed based on caseworker discretion in individual cases. Utah has a three-year limit, with a 20 percent hardship exemption. Indiana has a two-year limit, and you can earn up to two more years of eligibility, one month for every six months you work (so it would take 12 years of work to qualify for the second two years of eligibility). South Carolina has a five-year time limit, but you can only be on welfare for two years out of any seven-year period. Both the Indiana and South Carolina limits were under waivers granted by HHS under the old law and, because HHS insisted, have escape hatches to their two-year limits for people who play by the rules and can't find jobs, although the existing Indiana statute makes no mention of any exceptions. It is not clear where their legislatures will come out in their current consideration of these issues now that they are no longer constrained by HHS. We have talked in earlier parts of our conversation about New Mexico, Connecticut, and Florida. The New Mexico saga continues, with the governor recently vetoing a legislative effort to soften his proposal and claiming he can implement his ideas without legislation. Lawsuits are now being filed. Connecticut is in play in the legislature right now, and people are waiting to see how the welfare department implements the exceptions to the existing 21-month time limit when the first cases hit the limit this summer.
       Let me be very clear. On the basis of what we know now, there are going to be states--quite a few of them--where significant numbers of children are going to "fall into the abyss" unless currently contemplated policies change. This is not only due to people hitting the time limit because of consecutive receipt of welfare over the next five years. It is also the people who go on and off, who will at some point in their lives hit the five-year limit. It is also the people who can't find child care (and I have not yet seen a place where there is enough child care available) or whose child care blows up on them so that they lose their job--so they have to go back on welfare and then hit the time limit even though they were perfectly willing to work. It is also the people with jobs who feel driven back to welfare when their transitional Medicaid runs out because they have a child with chronic asthma, which is the case for an astonishing number of people who live in the inner city. It is also the people who get sanctioned for missing an appointment or failing to comply with some other detail, especially in the large number of instances where the sanction is erroneous, and then can't pay the rent and then get evicted, and so on and on.
       Oh, and the Wisconsin stuff. You went from extolling those community-service jobs that pay $555 a month, which for a family of three is about half the poverty line, to telling me that "it's better for children, and for communities, to have intact working families making 95 percent of the poverty line than nonworking non-families on the dole at 105 percent of poverty." I just want our readers to know that you took a big leap there. Your second statement, with which it is hard to disagree, has nothing to do with Wisconsin, or for that matter with anything else we were talking about.
       Then there is your continuing thing about HHS and the Wisconsin waiver. The basic problem about the Wisconsin waiver was the same as the basic problem about the welfare bill. It abolished the entitlement to welfare without guaranteeing work (or keeping cash assistance for people who couldn't get work). There was a long list of other things, too. Besides the original child-care copayments that HHS didn't like, there were concerns about the legality of some of the provisions under the Americans With Disabilities Act, about the effect of the proposal on the income status of larger families, about the scope of the privatization provisions, and about the accompanying Medicaid-waiver proposal that would have ended the entitlement status of Medicaid in Wisconsin and imposed large copayments for health coverage. When the president decided to sign the bill he mooted the controversy.
       You are right about the Wisconsin earned-income tax credit. It is a maximum of $86 a year for a family with one child, and $498 for a family with two children. Helpful, but not huge. For families with three or more children, it is $1,529 a year, which is better. I missed that one, although it is also the case that Wisconsin used to have an earnings disregard for welfare as well, which will not be the case with the Wisconsin Works program (W-2).
       I want to say in closing that I hope states come sooner rather than later to understand the complexity of what it takes to get people from welfare to work and keep them working. And the importance of doing so in a way that is also fair to those who are already working and struggling to make it. I also hope they will understand the extraordinary diversity of the individual situations of people on welfare in terms of family dynamics, personal capacity, and personal problems. Finally, I hope they will come to understand that men, especially young men, are as critically important to this equation as the women on whom this law is primarily focused. All of us who are concerned about the new law need to recognize that it presents an opportunity as well as a potential for injury. Everyone concerned should do everything possible to maximize the acceptance of the opportunity and minimize the actualization of the injury.

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.