By Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg and Sheila Collins
Wednesday, September 26, 2001
The authors argue that welfare repair and an entitlement to living-wage work should supplant current, misguided welfare "reform," and that economic uncertainty and terrorism should not eclipse the needs of poor single mothers and their children.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The future of America's vast economy is more uncertain at this moment in time than at any in our recent history.
This heightens our concern about the future of families headed by women. The 1996 welfare law--often called welfare reform--has been judged successful only because the welfare rolls shrank and not because families headed by women were doing better.
Now that times may be getting worse, we believe those Americans concerned about the well-being of poor families should begin to focus on the need for what we call welfare repair and an entitlement to living-wage work.
In our recently published book on public assistance and the labor market from 1935 to the present, "Washington's New Poor Law," we argue that the 1996 welfare law creating tough new work requirements and five-year time limits actually resembles the temporary, punitive, meager relief laws that reigned everywhere in the United States before the Great Depression. Hence the book's title: "Washington's New Poor Law." We also document the chronic unemployment and underemployment that characterizes the U.S. economy, except during wartimes.
Now, because the 1996 welfare law expires in 2002, there is an opportunity for the advocates of poor women and children to have a hand in real welfare reform. What should that be?
We submit that real welfare reform requires changing work as we know it--in addition to restoring some of the guarantees of Aid to Families With Dependent Children that, since 1935, provided single mothers and their families with at least meager assistance.
How should we measure whether welfare reform leads to economic independence? Instead of the meager, official poverty standard ($13,290 for a family of three in 1999), we should use a self-sufficiency standard based on the actual cost of living for families.
In 1999, a family of three--a mother with one pre-school and one school-age child living in Monmouth County, N.J., the county whose cost-of-living falls in the middle for the state, would have had to earn $42,797 in order to meet her family's basic needs. The same family living in the borough of Queens in New York City--again, the county in the middle range for the City in 2000--would have had to earn $45,836 to meet its basic needs.
These standards are consistent with what most Americans actually believe "financial independence" means: being able to meet the basic needs of oneself and one's family from one's earnings in the labor market.
In contrast, one of the most recent nationwide studies of welfare leavers shows that the median wage for families who left the rolls between 1997 and 1999 was $7.15 an hour in 1999 dollars. Even with the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps, their median annual earning