Commentator Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg

(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 May Be the Moment to Repair Welfare

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.

Commentator Sheila CollinsIn 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 earnings were only $17,388, far below the self-sufficiency standard.

Moreover, many of these families cannot depend on full-time, year-round work. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed made even less than the inadequate poverty level and, despite the economic boom, the incomes of 10 percent of single-mother families dropped 14 percent since the 1996 changes in the welfare laws.

We argue that single mothers deserve nothing less than being able to have sufficient means to care for their families and that the current welfare law should be fixed with that in mind.

Real welfare reform requires not only an adequate package of safety-net measures, but also reform of the labor market. It means, above all, an entitlement to work, a guarantee of living-wage jobs for all who want to work. This would change work as we know it.

What’s Needed to Change Welfare and Work as We Know It

1. Deprive no one of welfare benefits in the absence of "suitable" jobs, defined as accessible, roughly matching their qualifications, and paying a living wage.

2. Create jobs for all the unemployed at wages comparable to those paid for similar work.

3. Make work pay by raising the minimum wage to at least $7.50 as a first step. This would only bring it back to the equivalent of its peak value in 1968.

4. Support and extend living-wage ordinances that require firms doing business with city governments to pay all their employees at least the prescribed prevailing wage for that type of work.

5. Guarantee affordable, quality child care to all parents who need it in order to remain employed, accept employment, or participate in education and training; and prohibit states from requiring welfare recipients to take work assignments in the absence of quality, licensed care for their children.

6. Increase federal and state commitments to education and training for all workers.

7. Restructure current federal welfare benefits as care allowances in recognition of the work that is done in the home for the very young and the very frail, and make these allowances available to all who need it without time limits.

8. Raise benefit levels to a standard commensurate with health, decency, and a wealthy community.

Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg and Sheila D. Collins are authors of "Washington’s New Poor Law: Welfare ‘Reform’ and the Roads Not Taken, 1935 to the Present," Apex Press, New York, 2001. Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg is professor of social policy and director of the doctoral program at Adelphi University School of Social Work and chair of the National Jobs for All Coalition. Sheila D. Collins is professor of political science at William Paterson University and co-founder of the National Jobs for All Coalition.

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