Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Low Income Women - "Do We Still Have Their Back"

Last month, I attended the national welfare research conference held by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. My friends and I noted how fewer people there were than in years past – and how there seemed to be a declining interest in women on welfare.

It should not be unfamiliar. That was the status quo for about twenty years – let’s say 1975-1991. That’s when welfare reform started hitting in the 1992 presidential election. All of a sudden everyone was studying and talking about welfare. Another such moment is about to hit – but with a lot less fanfare.

In its rhetoric, welfare reform has been about moving people off of welfare into work—with each state being required to have half of their “caseload” working. But the law included a huge out – every person who left the welfare rolls since 1996 was counted as “working.” Once states got half of their welfare population off, they could ease up on whoever remained and much of the remaining caseload was not engaged in any so-called “work activities.”

All this is about change this fall. In 2005, the welfare law was reauthorized through the obscure Deficit Reduction Act. While conservatives failed to make major changes to the law – they did two things that will further squeeze low-income women with children. First, they ended the 1996 based credit – switching the reference year to 2005. Second, they told the Department of Health & Human Services to tighten the rules for what is considered a work activity.

2 million families now receiving assistance through TANF are going to be in the cross hairs of these new rules—hundreds of thousands of families will have to be “engaged” or moved off the rolls over the next year. The path of least resistance will be to use the Kafkaesquely named strategy of “grant diversion” – a fancy word for stopping people from getting on TANF in the first place by making it a hassle to receive assistance. The more enlightened way to achieve the goals is to enroll people in work activities. But HHS has made the rules so tight, that it will be very difficult for states to provide families the services they need to make a positive transition into the labor market (substance use treatment, job search assistance, training).

Rather, we may see a surge in workfare programs – where families work off their meager welfare checks by filling in for depleted state and local bureaucracies in dead-end positions that provide none of the benefits of regular employment. Not only are these programs bad for women on welfare – they threaten to displace good wage paying jobs.

In many important ways, this second round of welfare reform could be even worse. Take low-income moms who are trying to achieve a college degree while on welfare. People like my friend Diane Reese. She calculated how much she would need to earn to be self-sufficient with multiple children and no spouse and have realized the only way to achieve those wages is to go to college. Under the old law, states could pay these families welfare through state dollars – and keep them out of the calculation. HHS's new rules specifically target college education as a program that was out-of-bounds for women on welfare—and the state only loop hole has been largely closed.

There’s another reason the second round of welfare reform could be worse. After welfare reform passed in 1996, the whole progressive infrastructure (foundations, labor, advocacy groups, community organizers) woke up to their slumber regarding poor women. By targeting the state implementation of the federal law and creating political coalitions more powerful than anti-poverty groups alone, meaningful changes were made. State campaigns fought to keep women on welfare in college; enacting protections for workfare workers; creating transitional jobs program and more.

We have not seen such a groundswell yet. With state flexibility further limited by the DRA, advocacy will have to be focused quickly and coalitions will have to be rebuilt. Organizing can develop the low-income women’s power – and they need allies to “have their back” to ensure the new regulations don’t come down with a boom.
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