Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit

An article in this Sunday’s New York Times, entitled “Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit,” written by Jason DeParle was both disturbing and informative. You can find the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/us/welfare-limits-left-poor-adrift-as-recession-hit.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1.

As someone who has worked on public policy issues, mostly related to low income families, for the past 15 years, this story really hit home for me. I started working in this field in 1996, right at the height of the debates around “ending welfare as we know it.” I was working for NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund at the time and we were actively engaged in the debates.

We were working to inform Congress about the devastating impact that this new law could have on people – mostly women – who were experiencing domestic violence. Research had come out at that time about the disproportionate number of women receiving cash assistance who were being abused and on how many women found cash assistance to be a life-saving resource that allowed them to finally escape the violence. This advocacy led to to adoption of the Family Violence Option, which intended to allow domestic violence survivors some relief from the strict requirements of the law.

The 1996 welfare reform law, as you can read in this article, imposed significant work requirements and strict time limits on people receiving cash assistance. The debates were highly contentious, with people on both sides of the issue predicting either economic Armageddon or a society where every person would obtain a job that would enable them to become “self-sufficient.” In fact, as this article shows, neither of these predictions turned out to be entirely accurate.

It has been interesting to observe how the political rhetoric around these issues has evolved as the country has experienced a deep recession with significant job losses and rising poverty. You can hardly open a paper without seeing an article about the number of people who have been supported by food assistance in the past several years. And while some politicians and pundits say that this is evidence that the United States is creating a welfare state, others work to debunk the stereotypes about who is accessing food assistance and to tell the human stories of what a difference this support made for their family.

It seems to me that the entire reason to have public assistance programs for needy families is to help people weather significant economic hardships.

As usual, this article raises some important questions: If these benefits are not available to people in need during an economic downturn, what are the consequences for that family and for society as a whole? Why has the political rhetoric around these issues become so divisive and polarized? The Ryan budget looks to essentially dismantle these programs entirely over the long term. Is that what we want as a society? Why does it appear that many of the politicians who portray themselves as highly religious are some of the individuals who are most interested in dismantling these programs to support the poor? And why can’t moderate politicians on both sides of the political divide set aside the rhetoric and work together to find a middle ground, where these critical supports are guaranteed and available for people when they are in need, but still include some strong incentives and work supports? As income inequality grows in this country, do you think that movements like Occupy Wall Street will gain momentum? What will that look like? Do you think that money in politics and Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United impact this debate?

A lot of food for thought in this article. I hope that you will consider commenting! And thanks for reading.

This graph from the New York Times article was amazing to me and may be helpful to put this issue into context:


Filed under Income inequality, Policy, Poverty, Role of Government

10 responses to “Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit

  1. Great post and I very much appreciate your perspective. Two of the dilemmas I witness are (1) people painting everyone on welfare with the same brush and (2) people not being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. I think you would be very interesting to have a cup of coffee with to hear some of your history and anecdotes.

    • I would love to! This post felt a little too connected to my work so I have not written much about this since, but working to eradicate poverty and reduce income inequality is my central passion. I am so glad to know about the work you are doing in this area around homelessness. Such important work! Thanks so much for looking back!

  2. Great blog, Jennifer! I get so tired of hearing people trash welfare programs (they are all lumped together) because of an abuse they have heard about. Clearly there are abuses — of any system where humans are involved. But the programs do so much good and as a wealthy nation we have no excuse whatever for ignoring the chronically disadvantaged. And, as you suggest, some of those who call themselves “religious” are the worst offenders. Kudos to you for keeping us alert to the problems we would prefer to ignore.

  3. I missed some of the follow-up. Like Jenni, I get troubled when a case worker’s load is ovewhelming they cannot do as good a job and kids fall through the cracks. Our homeless family social workers should have no more than 16 families, but even that is a lot. These GOP welfare commercials where they are painting Obama unfairly are quite hypocritical since the Ryan budget would create 14 to 18 million more impoverished Americans.

    • Absolutely. I can tell you that right now, the caseloads are unbearable for caseworkers. In Coorado, caseloads have doubled in the last two years with really next to no new funding. It is not sustainable. Thanks for the comment!!

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