A Pebble In A Pond

Commentary by Jean Taddie

Politicians and other decision-makers have treated welfare reform like a light switch, when in reality reform is more like a pebble in a pond. State and federal lawmakers developed a reform bill in hopes they could “turn off” the problem with welfare as if it were a dangerous beacon needing to be extinguished. What they failed to consider in their attempts to “end welfare as we know it” were the far reaching repercussions their decisions would create.

Welfare reform has not turned off the poverty problem. Instead, cuts to cash payments, food stamps, and day care coverage are setting off ripples of reactions, like a pebble thrown into a pond. Now that welfare reform has been in effect for nearly a year, many families, businesses, churches, and day care providers feel the effects of reform.

Welfare reform makes cuts that do not discriminate. This year, for example, the food stamp program dealt across-the-board reductions. Anyone who received food stamps had their amount cut from 102% to 100% of the Thrifty Savings Plan budget. This cut affects all of the families, children, elderly, and disabled recipients.

For example, Dan, a disabled person who receives social security disability payments, had his food stamps cut from $11 to $10 per month. At the same time his Medicaid deductible climbed for $100 to $108 per month. Mark, a single male looking for work, had his food stamps cut altogether due to welfare reform. Single people without dependents whom the state deems able to work no longer qualify for any food stamps.

Welfare reform puts more of the burden for raising children onto the extended family. Cuts to food stamps, day care, and other benefits can strain family relationships. Sheryl, a single mom with a 16-month old daughter, lives with her working mother. She explained, “My mother was upset when I told her they stopped my food stamps. She was still angry that I had gotten pregnant. Now that I’m not getting the $218 in food stamps each month, she keeps arguing and complaining, ‘I can’t afford to feed both of you.’” Sheryl’s food stamps were cut because she is under age 22 and lives with a parent. She could receive food stamps if she were to move out on her own, however her $279 monthly welfare check would not cover rent.

Businesses are also being asked to assume more responsibility for the poverty problem. Since welfare reform is heavily dependent on putting people to work, companies must belly up to the bar and hire these new workers. Now that the Job Opportunity and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program has been eliminated, employers must assume more responsibility for training low-skilled, low-pay workers. In addition, workers must find a job with good enough pay to support their family. Lisa, a single mother of two girls, is enrolled at Tri-C and is struggling to stay there. “It’s very stressful – trying to go to school full-time, work part-time, and take care of my girls. But I have to get an education. I don’t get any child support and the $5 per hour full-time job I had before I went on welfare didn’t even pay my rent.”

Churches and other charitable organizations are asked to fill in the gaps where services are cut. Food banks try to keep food on their shelves. Churches are asked to consider sponsoring a homeless shelter. Across the country, millions of volunteers are being recruited to help staff the increased demand for services.

Perhaps the biggest crisis in welfare reform is the demand for day care. Federal day care funding is being cut at the same time parents are being required to work as a condition of their benefits. This decrease in funding supply and concurrent increase in demand for day care presents a dilemma. In order to save money, working mothers who were on the brink of needing welfare had their day care subsidies eliminated, putting them even closer to the edge. In addition, the day care industry cannot keep up with the demand. Mothers with infants under 18 months old and parents who work second or third shifts have special difficulty finding affordable day care. Leah, a single mother of a 3 year old boy, said, “I knew right away when I had him that I wanted to get an education so that I could take care of him. I couldn’t start school then because I couldn’t find a day care center in my area that would take a child under 18 months.

Politicians and decision-makers did not account for all the consequences of their policy changes. Welfare reform was mandated from above. Little, if any, consideration was given to the voices of those most affected – the welfare recipients. The poverty problem does not occur in isolation. Meaningful reform occurs from the ground up, with input from low-income families, social workers, day care providers, social agencies, and employers. Only when all of these perspectives are considered will our country ever truly deal with the poverty problem.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH, Issue 21, Cleveland Ohio June 1996