Rep. Lynn Woolsey

WASHINGTON, D.C.–When Lynn Woolsey’s husband left her more than 30 years ago, she was faced with taking care of their three young children on a secretary’s salary of $580 per month–not enough to feed, clothe and house them. With welfare benefits, she was able to get health and child care and food stamps.

“Those were all the support systems that I needed to keep my family together,” she said at an event here, sponsored by the Welfare Made a Difference National Campaign. “And with that safety net we made it.”

Now Woosley’s children are grown, she is a grandmother and she represents Northern California’s Marin and Sonoma counties in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she has served since 1992 and is a member of the House Democratic leadership as deputy whip.

That support system, however, was changed in 1996 when Congress eliminated the welfare entitlement program that supported Woolsey three decades ago and replaced it with a temporary assistance program that requires states to move parents on welfare into jobs as quickly as possible.

The 1996 welfare program set two-year time limits on cash assistance and requires recipients to work while receiving benefits.

The law’s supporters point to significant reductions in welfare caseloads–6.3 million in welfare recipients in December 1999, down from 12.9 million when the law was passed–as evidence that the welfare program is a success.

But critics say the booming economy has helped reduce welfare rolls, while the program has plunged many single mothers–90 percent of welfare parents receiving federal cash assistance–deeper into poverty. The typical welfare family is a single mother in her 20s or 30s with two children. By forcing these single mothers into dead-end jobs that don’t pay living wages and by requiring them to place their children and infants into the care of others, the program ultimately puts their children at greater risk and unravels the fabric of their families, the critics claim.

Critics say welfare reform has plunged many women deeper into poverty

Woolsey is one such critic. “That was quite a trip from welfare to Congress,” Woolsey said. “All across the country you hear stories like mine–women abandoned by their husbands who have made better lives for themselves and their families because of the support they received through the welfare system.”

The other member of Congress who made the trip from welfare to the House of representative, earning a master’s degree in social work along the way, also said at the Washington event that the 1996 law needed to be changed.

Rep. Barbara Lee“You can’t just say we’re ending welfare today, go to work tomorrow,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “You’ve got to have that transition, you’ve got to provide support mechanisms for women” who need transportation, child care, housing, substance and alcohol abuse services, relief from domestic violence, as well as education and job-training opportunities,” she said. Lee did not reveal the details of her rise from poverty and her press secretary Andrew Sousa said she does not often speak publicly about her personal life.

Under the 1996 welfare law, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients have a five-year lifetime limit of eligibility for federally funded cash assistance and they must work at least a designated number of hours per week. States receive financial rewards based on reductions in caseloads, increases in the number of welfare recipients who get jobs, reductions in out-of-wedlock births without raising the abortion rate and increases in the marriage rates. States can also be sanctioned for not moving fast enough.

Woolsey and Lee are working with local, state and national coalitions in gearing up for next year’s congressional reauthorization of the welfare law, funding for which expires in 2002. As part of that effort, the two congresswomen joined other former welfare recipients here last week for events sponsored by the Welfare Made a Difference effort and a national conference organized by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

To make its point, Welfare Made a Difference brought to Washington several other former welfare recipients from across the country whose lives had been turned around by the pre-reform welfare program.

Jillyn Stevens of Salt Lake City also used college as a path out of poverty as a single parent of two children. During the three and a half years she received Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits, she earned two undergraduate degrees. She took a full-time job in 1987 and started graduate school the same year. She graduated in 1990 with a master’s of social work and nearly doubled her income. Today she is a doctoral candidate and earning $65,000 a year as a treatment manager in a substance abuse program.

“Against all odds, I am the first woman in my family to obtain a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “My two adult children are in college, the bank and I own a home, my car is paid for. I live a fairly normal middle class life. Poverty does not have to be a chronic condition for women and children.”

Michelle Alexander of Orono, Maine, says she had no job skills when she went on welfare and would not have been able to afford child care for her young daughter on a minimum wage salary. The change in her life came when she became involved in Maine’s Parents and Scholars program that enabled her to go to college. She is now a research associate at the University of Maine with a master’s of social work and she is working toward a doctorate.

“Education is the only way for parents on welfare to achieve economic independence,” she said. “In my life, welfare made a difference.”

At the Unitarian conference, the preliminary findings of two research efforts underscored critics’ contentions that the 1996 welfare law is deeply flawed and that the basic needs of many families are not being met. They said the welfare program is increasing the number of homeless families, placing more low-income children at risk, pushing parents into jobs that can’t support their families and forcing needy families to jump over bureaucratic hurdles to obtain assistance.

A survey of 4,988 low-income families and current and former welfare recipients in 16 states showed the depth of housing problems. Some 46 percent of those interviewed said they had been homeless at some point in their lives. Of the 748 who were on temporary assistance when they were interviewed, 30 percent later became homeless, 38 percent couldn’t pay their rent or were evicted, 15 percent moved in with others or had others move in with them and 13 percent had to move.

The survey was conducted for the National Welfare Monitoring & Advocacy Partnership, a nationwide alliance of advocacy groups and service providers. The interviews were conducted last year.

Reports show problems in housing, insurance, education and job training

In addition, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s draft report–based on interviews with more than 2,500 people at homeless shelters, social service centers, hospital clinics and other such locations–indicated other failures of the current welfare system. For instance, about half of those surveyed were on welfare and though most would qualify for Medicaid, fewer than 15 percent were enrolled in the federal health insurance program.

Other weak points in the law are the education and job training provisions, Woolsey said at the conference. She recognized the importance of these factors in getting a job–she had two and a half years of college and five years of work experience when she was forced onto welfare. But about half of parents on welfare today don’t even have a high school diploma, which limits their ability not only to get a job but also to get one that pays much more than the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. Someone working for minimum wage 40 hours per week would earn $10,712 in a year. However, the federal poverty level for a family of three is $14,150.

Each year since the welfare legislation passed, Woolsey told the Unitarian conference, she has introduced a bill that would allow education to count as work to meet the work requirements of the law. She said she will push for that change during the reauthorization debate, as well as bills to expand child care for infants and children whose parents work nights and weekends. She also says the reauthorizing legislation should take into account the cost of living and working, including such things as the costs of housing and transportation, especially since most welfare recipients live in cities while most new jobs are being created in the suburbs.

“Welfare has made a difference for millions of Americans,” Woolsey said. “Welfare certainly made a difference for my family. We had a safety net, and it is a safety net that all families should know is there for them–not just for the welfare mom, but also for the children. We have to remember what it means to children who are living in poverty.”

Deborah Mesce is a free-lance writer and former Washington correspondent for The Associated Press.