Given the state of our economy, one might expect a welfare reauthorization bill to offer emergency assistance to the poor and aid to those trapped in the low-wage workforce. Instead, the so-called Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone (PRIDE) bill that has just come out of the Senate Finance Committee, like the more extreme bill passed in the House, shows that lawmakers are willfully oblivious to the challenges facing welfare reform.
No jobs to be found in our economy? Let’s increase the work requirements for welfare recipients. No money in the budget for social services? Let’s launch a new $1 billion program to cajole women down the aisle. Job training needed? Let’s cut the amount of time that recipients can devote to literacy or vocational education.
The provisions in the PRIDE legislation are not only bad as individual proposals, they reflect a punitive vision of welfare reform that can never address the root of persistent poverty in America.
One of the most significant changes offered by the PRIDE bill increases the number of hours that welfare recipients must work in order to receive assistance. While current law gives full credit to those who work 30 hours per week, the new Senate legislation would require 34 hours each week, and the House version of the bill would require 37.
Ignore for a moment that increasing work requirements in the Bush economy, which has dropped some 3 million private sector jobs since March 2001, makes about as much sense as packing an extra sweater for your afternoon hike into the desert. Even from a conservative perspective, the proposal undermines what boosters point to as a key to welfare reform’s purported success: allowing individual states to find out for themselves what works. In effect, PRIDE would force states to subsidize questionable “workfare” programs, rather than devoting money to job training or other needed services.
A second problem comes from PRIDE’s view of what counts as “work.” There is no doubt that Senate bill is better than House legislation, which would prevent recipients from receiving “core hour” work credit for education or for their job searches. Nevertheless, the bill creates six-month limit on credit for substance abuse treatment and literacy training. And both pieces of legislation reject caring for one’s own children as core labor: Even single mothers with children under six, who currently must work 20 hours to get benefits, will have to meet a 24 hour-per-week standard (or the full 34 hours if House leaders get their way). Nevertheless, the final legislation will only include substantially increased funding for childcare if disaffected senators succeed in adding money through amendments.
Raising kids may not fit into the Republican definition of family values, but getting married sure does. A second major provision in the PRIDE legislation proposes spending $1 billion over five years to promote marriage. Certainly, everyone likes a nice wedding. But that doesn’t mean that the cash-strapped government should devote itself to leaning on poor women about their marital status.
Instead of promoting self-respect and self-sufficiency, the PRIDE bill risks encouraging bad marriages. The Bush Administration, eliminating any doubt about the anti-feminist ideology behind pro-marriage proposals, has opposed broadening the scope of the funding mandate to include objectives like preventing teen pregnancy.
The condescension apparent in the PRIDE provisions is part of a much larger attitude problem that prevails in the current era of “welfare reform.” This disposition treats the poor themselves, rather than poverty, as the problem. In his influential 1962 book, The Other America, social critic Michael Harrington used the idea of a “culture of poverty” to describe how the barriers erected against the poor reinforce one another. While low wages prevent you from getting health insurance, the lack of good medical care often makes it difficult to hold down a job. Those most in need of affordable housing are gouged for substandard apartments. If you have young children, or if a dependent relative falls ill, multiple generations can be condemned to poverty.
These same complications exist today, recently described with self-deprecating wit in Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling Nickel and Dimed, where the author tries to make ends meet on near-minimum wages. However, the invocation of the “culture of poverty” has come to mean something else entirely for most people. In the past decades conservative pundits have perpetuated the stereotype of the lazy yet calculating “welfare queen,” who (as writers like Charles Murray suggested) jumps at the opportunity to grow dependent on public assistance.
Following this latter vision, today’s welfare reform talks a lot about promoting “personal responsibility” and trimming welfare caseloads, but it doesn’t take on the mission of reducing want and deprivation. Thus, the “War on Poverty” has morphed into what activists call the “War on the Poor.”
But ultimately, genuine welfare reform must involve a renewed drive to address the structural forces that trap the poor in conditions of hopelessness. This means creating a system of universal health care, reviving the forgotten mission of building affording housing, guaranteeing that jobs pay living wages, and ensuring that workers can exercise their right to form a union.