Yes, most every progressive journal in the country is currently pushing the message that welfare reform was a fraud perpetrated on the people of the United States. We feel obligated to reach beyond the rhetoric, and talk about the impact on the homeless population that we interact with everyday.
How did we get to this situation:
Much of the current legislation is based on myths and misconceptions that exist about welfare and the cycle of dependence. Very little hard research has been done on the welfare system, and the impact of changes. It is a shame that welfare is not considered a national security issue so that we could tap into that funding stream. The media has done its best to root out corruption, and trumpet stories about abuse and fraud. With a lack of research and a constant stream of negative welfare stories, the impression in the eyes of middle America was that people, mostly men, were getting rich off welfare.
The fact is that in no state did welfare benefits lift a person out of a poverty level of income, and in many states welfare was confined to women with children. The able bodied single adults were forced into the workforce or community service. We began going down the wrong path when we left the idea that women should have the option to stay home and take care of their own children for the good of the neighborhood and a better future. And we have arrived at a point in which there is no federal guarantee to a minimum standard in which a child cannot fall below. There is a federal standard for air quality, radio indecency, civil rights, law enforcement, and even care of livestock. But there is no longer a federal standard for a safety net for the poor.
State Control of the System:
Throughout history states have a mixed record on the care of individuals. Some have excelled, but many have not. In Ohio, we fought an obviously flawed educational funding system to the Ohio Supreme Court. How can we be expected to take care of poor children, when we can’t even give them equal access to quality education? States can use the Federal Block Grant to give incentives to employers to hire people off the rolls, build rehabilitation facilities (read: forced labor camps) or put it all in one area like healthcare or childcare. In thinking of some of the characters that have served in the state legislature, one has to conclude that State representatives are not qualified to make these decisions.
What are we really talking about?
We are looking at the establishment of a permanent underclass that will no longer be able to turn to the state for assistance. We are looking at the abject poverty on a scale that we see in the Third World. We are looking at a raid on the resources that were in formerly part of the welfare system by many states for higher priorities such as recreation, prisons, and “community development.” We are entering a period in which we drive down labor costs, and break many of the service unions. We are entering a period in which we see more families attempting to enter the homeless service sector. The big winners will be corrections, homeless services, and temporary labor because of welfare reform.
Driving down labor costs:
Labor unions should be on the front lines in battling welfare reform. If unemployment rates need to stay at the level that they are currently at for Alan Greenspan to be at ease and not raise interest rates, and the states are going to be moving a substantial number of workers from welfare to work, how can these both work together? It is simple drive down labor costs. If a company can hire a welfare recipient for $5 an hour as well as get a tax credit, does the $10 an hour worker stand a chance? There are provisions to protect current workers, but there are provisions for companies not to exploit workers, pollute, and rip off the government, and these are routinely ignored. Ronald Reagan was able to injure the unions, but Clinton/Gore may be able to finally “End-Unions-as-We-Know-It.”
“Give me your tired, your poor, (They can harvest our food, and be viewed as the scourge of our existence and the reason for all of our problems.)"
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, (So that we can beat this out of them and then pacify them with an endless stream of sitcoms and sporting events.)
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, (Who will live off our refuse in soup lines and will not have access to benefits or assistance.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me; (On second thought, keep them.)
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (to those who are worthy or don’t complain too much and who bring wealth to our country.)
— Emma Lazarus and George Voinovich
Haven’t I heard all this before, and nothing really happened?
Didn’t activists say that if we cut General Assistance the sky would fall. There are many things to remember about these debates. First, the most insidiousness aspect of these proposals are that they creep up on us. If on August 22 there were 5,000 people living on the streets and the next day we woke up and there were 10,000 people, we would view this as an emergency and all of our energy would be exerted to reverse the situation. The homeless population increases over years, and we develop a comfort level of immunity to this suffering (until it happens to me). It gets easier to ignore the situation if it slowly increases.
There has also been an explosion in a population of those undocumented people who are staying with family or friends. There is no attempt to measure the number of people living in basements or attics or stuffed into small apartments. The charity of one individual that allows another to stay in their place is not counted and not recognized by the decision makers. Rest assured that these individuals are homeless, and they go to sleep with the smell of the steam grate lingering all about them.
We have a vendor who is again homeless because he has too many people staying in his place. He went through the system, and finally received his disability for a work related injury and was able to get a subsidized small apartment. His former wife and daughter became homeless and moved in with him. This was too many people for a one-bedroom apartment, so he did what any caring father would do. He moved back to the familiar life on the streets so his family could stay in his place until they were able to find housing.
The cold reality is that if someone does not step up to show what the worst case will be if welfare reform continues, people are left with the conservative assertions of politicians that voted for the legislation. Reform was passed to forward a political agenda, and it flew in the face of facts and trends. At least the rhetoric being forwarded by activists is based on real experiences and trends within the community.
Where is this path going?
It is a crime to build stadiums and prisons when we cannot even provide a minimum standard for our children. We are terribly misguided if the three large cities in Ohio are each spending public money on stadiums that are playgrounds for the rich and we cannot provide for our poor citizens. A government that cannot care for the least fortunate, those without a voice and without power, does not deserve to exist, and will fall.
“Society is under obligation to provide for the support of all its members either by procuring work for them or by assuring the means of existence to those who are not in condition to work.”--Maximileien Marie Isidore De Robespierre Guillotined in 1794.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March 1997-April 1997 Issue 20