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Welfare: Where Do We Go From Here?

Round One -- Response
Posted March 12, 1997


I'm fascinated by the confidence of Jason Turner and Robert Rector that this massive kick in the pants is going to magically do the job. About all we know right now is that the welfare rolls have been going down coincident with unemployment's being low for a fairly sustained period of time and coincident with welfare offices in some places responding less favorably to applications than before. The former is a good thing. The latter may or may not be, depending on how the interaction goes in particular situations.

Unless Turner and Rector are basing their arguments on unpublished data, we don't know much else about what is actually taking place. We don't know, for example, who is leaving the welfare rolls. Is it mainly those who come on for shorter stints, or is there a good-sized chunk of long-term recipients getting off? My bet is that it's largely the former, and that the picture will change when the next recession hits. Wisconsin has one of the hottest economies in the country right now. To the extent that the leavers are longer-term recipients who are getting jobs (and again, we don't know this), the next question will be how long they hold the jobs. Despite Turner and Rector's rosy confidence, we liberals -- if it makes Turner happy to use the "L" word -- actually know something from real-world experience about how hard it is for long-term welfare recipients to get and hold jobs, even when they indisputably want to go to work and keep on working. They need extra help and support in various ways. You can't just wave a magic wand.

If Turner and Rector are serious about welfare reform, they should be first in line to insist that we have to collect the data and do the research about what actually happens to people, state by state, under the new law. As things stand right now we are not really going to know, and when some combination of recession and time limits hits down the road, and a whole lot of people can't pay the rent, we're going to have another one of these religious debates in which liberals will say (rightfully) that the plan didn't work because there weren't enough jobs and conservatives will say it was because of those lazy people who didn't really want to go out and make the effort.

Turner in his opening statement does a sarcastic number about how welfare recipients must have fewer social problems than low-wage workers because they make more money. His real point is that welfare benefits are too high in his estimation, but I want to address both points. I actually do think that working is in general better for families than being chronically dependent. That will probably shock Turner, but I think I said that in the Atlantic piece, also. Maybe he didn't notice. But I tell you what -- low-income working families have lots of problems, too. When mom is out working two jobs and doesn't have enough time or energy to stay on top of what the kids are doing, problems happen. The struggle between what Elijah Anderson calls the "decent" and the "street" is tough in low-income communities regardless of whether the parent or parents are working. I know the days of moms being able to choose are over, but I know lots of kids who made it through childhood unscathed because their mom was able to collect welfare after their dad left and never paid child support. But never mind.

In terms of the money, Turner's argument proves a key point: the intersection between work and welfare is screwed up. The poverty line for a mom and two children was $12,158 in 1995. A minimum-wage job pays about $10,700 now. With the earned-income tax credit (which Turner doesn't mention), the gap narrows. But we need to keep working a lot harder on the idea that if you work at a full-time job you shouldn't end up being poor. That's the real lesson in the stuff Turner was throwing at me. By the way, while I'm glad to hear that Wisconsin wants to raise the pay for community-service jobs, what's being proposed is still way less than the minimum wage, and I still want to know why Wisconsin doesn't attach the earned-income tax credit to those "jobs."

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted March 12, 1997

Round Two -- Posted March 25, 1997

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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