The Essence Dialogue: Will Welfare Reform Work?

By Lise Funderburg

February 1997

When the welfare-reform bill was signed into law last August 22, some human-rights advocates called it a day of shame. Under the new rules virtually all recipients, including children, are entitled to only five years of aid in their lifetime, and nearly all adult welfare recipients must find work after two years on assistance — or lose their benefits. Within the next five years, the law requires half of all current welfare families to work or be removed from the welfare rolls entirely.

For this ESSENCE Dialogue, we asked two experts on work and workfare to consider how realistic — or humane — these goals are. Dr. William Julius Wilson, a professor of social policy at Harvard University, is author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Knopf). Dr. Megan McLaughlin is executive director and CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Inc., which sponsors the Welfare Reform Network, a coalition that advocates for income-security policies and-programs. What they have to say is deeply troubling, but these two wise minds are rich in ideas.

ESSENCE: Will the new welfare-reform law actually get people off the welfare rolls and onto payrolls, as President Clinton has promised?
W.J.W.: Onto payrolls, no. But it’ll certainly get people off the welfare rolls. I don’t believe people will move onto payrolls unless the administration gives some attention to job creation. This is a yery, very severe problem — lack of job opportunities, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods — that has not been addressed.

A study of applicants looking for jobs in fast-food businesses in Harlem found that there were 14 applicants for every individual who was hired. Among those applicants who were not hired, three quarters had not found a single job a year later. Another study pointed out that, given the present growth rate of New York City’s economy, if every new job were given to the city’s current welfare recipients, it would take 21 years to absorb them into the city’s labor force.

Even politicians who supported the new law are now pointing out that there will be a serious problem if jobs are not created. Businesspeople are being encouraged to hire mothers on welfare, but the private sector’s record is not very encouraging, so I don’t have much confidence that it’s going to work.

M.M.: I certainly concur with the view that the law will not get the majority of mothers receiving AFDC [Aid to Families With Dependent Children] off welfare, because there are so many other variables, such as the educational qualifications of the persons who will be competing. Mothers on welfare who do not have sufficient education or job skills and experience will be thrown into the job market to compete with those who do. In New York City alone, about 271,000 residents are looking for work and competing with these welfare clients. Additionally, some studies have shown that employers do not want to hire people from inner-city communities.
Another important factor is child care. If we’re talking about getting mothers to work, extensive child care must be made available.

ESSENCE: Are any men on AFDC?

W.J.W.: Not many. A very, very small percentage, about 7 percent.

ESSENCE: During the Depression, President Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a jobs program that you, Professor Wilson, have suggested would be more effective than workfare. How so?

W.J.W: Workfare is really designed so that people on welfare will work for their welfare checks. The jobs that will be created for them — if they’re created at all — are public-service jobs. I have called for the creation of a WPA-type program or public-sector jobs that would go into effect when people reach the five-year time limit and are cut off from welfare entirely and find themselves faced with very, very severe joblessness. Dr. McLaughlin is correct: Firms in the private sector refuse to hire many inner-city workers because of racial bias and perceptions about their work-readiness skills. A study I recently concluded in Chicago bears this out. And if firms in the private sector cannot or refuse to hire low-skilled workers who are willing to take low-wage jobs, then the issue of jobs for inner-city workers cannot be adequately addressed without considering the policy of public-sector employment as a last resort.

ESSENCE: How would your WPA work?
W.J.W: I have in mind worthwhile public-sector jobs for anyone who wants one. This would include work that’s currently not being done for financial reasons, such as filling potholes; painting bridges; cleaning streets twice rather than once a day; collecting trash twice a week instead of once a week; cleaning municipal parks and playgrounds and other public facilities at a level that would invite use; supervising playgrounds to maximize safer adult-sponsored recreation for all neighborhood children.

M.M.: I would add that there has to be an equal emphasis on education and training. Across the country, women are being asked to leave college to participate in workfare programs. They must report for workfare or lose their check. There’s no attempt to help women get on a career track to ensure that they and their children and grandchildren will be able to stay off welfare.

W.J.W: Education is important. We would hope public-sector employment would be temporary. We eventually want to employ people in the private sector, and to compete, they need training.

ESSENCE: What will happen to people who can’t pull it all together within the time restrictions of the new law? Are we becoming a country without a safety net?

M.M.: There’s no guaranteed safety net anymore. That is clear.

ESSENCE: Should we have a safety net?

M.M.: I think so.
W.J.W.: Every civilized society should have a safety net for needy citizens, and every civilized society should provide every citizen the opportunity to get a decent job, have adequate health care and so on. Let me just point out one thing I think is vital: There is a popular view that people go on welfare because they don’t want to work. Our research indicates that the mothers hate welfare. It is anathema to them; they want to get off. And many do try. They’ll take subminimum wage jobs and then pay for child care, transportation and clothes to wear to work. But more important, because they are working, they lose their Medicaid. These jobs don’t carry medical insurance, so the mothers worry about what’s going to happen when their kids get sick. Then they fall deeper into poverty, can’t make ends meet and end up back on welfare. This is not being discussed. .

M.M.: It’s not as if most of the women on welfare have never been in the labor force and are not trying to get back in. That’s pure fiction, and it is deliberately put across that way because of the distaste many people have for welfare.
But you asked about the safety net. The only safety net that will remain is the child-welfare net, specifically foster care. Some predict that system will balloon greatly. Right now, 460,000 children across the country are in foster care. We can expect refugees from AFDC to fall into this much more expensive program.
Something sinister is happening. Newt Gingrich’s orphanage proposal was taken off the public agenda, but it seems to be very much on the agenda, because if parents are cut off from AFDC and don’t have jobs, what will they do with their children?

ESSENCE: Do any programs or efforts exist that actually help people get off welfare rolls and onto payrolls?
W.J.W.: The successful programs have been where jobs are available. Wisconsin’s welfare plan has received a great deal of attention. This plan includes, by the way, significant public-sector employment along with private-sector employment. One of the reasons it has been able to move people off welfare is that Wisconsin has had a very tight labor market, with low unemployment. If we had sustained tight labor markets with low unemployment [everywhere], then I would feel more comfortable about this law, because jobs would be available. But what happens when we enter a recession? What will happen in Wisconsin when Wisconsin enters a recession?

M.M.: And what happens in states that are still experiencing high unemployment and low job growth?

ESSENCE: How can African-Americans respond to this legislation? Is there some way individuals can make a difference?

M.M.: The African-American community must begin to pay attention and speak up about these issues. We have somehow removed ourselves from the issue of welfare and child welfare. We also have to pay attention to what the states are going to do; that’s where a lot of the action will shift. We have to visit our statehouses to make sure that no major harm comes to children. Finally, I would urge a greater focus on education so that we can prevent people from needing to enter the welfare system.

ESSENCE: Why hasn’t the Black community paid attention to this issue?

W.J.W: The Black community is somewhat ambivalent about welfare. And many Blacks have internalized the myths about public assistance. The Black community is going to have to learn more about the nature of welfare and the reasons so many Blacks are on it.
Some states will do the right thing and keep people from becoming homeless. Other states are not going to come through, and I think the Black community, particularly educated leaders, must monitor this. We just can’t rely on others. Community groups have to work with other progressive groups to make sure we don’t create a human tragedy. We need to hold forums in our neighborhoods, in churches and other Black institutions, inviting researchers who can report on what’s happening to people on welfare, so that everyone is kept informed and aware. African-Americans can also apply pressure, particularly on certain politicians who are vulnerable.