In their attempt to divert the media from continued hyperventilation over Mitt Romney’s tax returns and whether he should release more of them, Republicans have advanced another of their clever canards where they accuse President Obama of something they are doing. In this case Mitt Romney and his Republican supporters have accused President Obama of gutting the federal welfare program – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) because his administration wants to give states more leeway in implementing work requirements for people receiving assistance. The Department of Health and Human Services recently sent a letter to states informing them they could seek a waiver of existing rules setting targets for the number of hours recipients spend in “work activities” if they propose better ways to help them find permanent, living-wage jobs.
You would think the party that’s constantly promoting ‘state’s rights’ would applaud such a measure, but NO as with all else that has even the whiff of Obama around it – Republicans have rejected the proposed relaxation as an attempt to gut the work requirements imposed by Clinton’s welfare reform. According to the WSJ:
Federal officials have suggested that states could use the flexibility to let welfare recipients spend more time studying for high-school equivalency diplomas as well as working, or doing jobs that the state government is subsidizing.
But GOP lawmakers and presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the administration was trying to water down the requirements, and was opening the door to letting states count such things as bed rest or going to weight-loss programs. “Work is a dignified endeavor, and the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life,” Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said in a statement.
Romney has since doubled-down on his attack, asserting this week while campaigning in Illinois that Obama is actually trying to gut the program:
“I hope you understand,” Mr. Romney said while campaigning here, “President Obama in this last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare.”
“If I’m president,” he added, “I’ll put work back in welfare.”
According to the New York Times, the speech was part of a coordinated assault with the Republican National Committee, which sounded the same theme in a television ad on Tuesday. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” the ad’s narrator says. “They just send you your welfare check.”
The Obama administration has been busy defending its actions by asserting to qualify for the waiver states would have to demonstrate their proposals would increase work participation by 20% over existing programs.
This newest Republican attack is part of their continuing assault on the poor and the meager programs that support them. Missing from the debate is the type of work welfare recipients are being required to take – often low-wage jobs with little or no benefits – and the costs to their children and families. There’s little debate about the consequences of moving from a system of guaranteed income support for poor families with minor children to a system of temporary income support with mandatory work requirements. I share my story here, to illustrate the consequences of these policy choices.
In 1980 I was a single mother of a three year old boy working for a construction company in New York City. I had received my GED shortly after the birth of my son, but found myself working a series of dead-end jobs. During a period of unemployment, a friend suggested I think about returning to school so I applied and was accepted to the Urban Legal Studies program at the City College of New York (CCNY). When my unemployment insurance ran out, I applied for income assistance – then known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). My monthly benefit was $333.00 in cash and about $200 in food stamps. This amount had to cover the rent ($185), utilities and all other monthly expenses for myself and my son – anyone who thinks we were living high off the hog is either niggardly or delusional.
AFDC was based on the belief that the ability of mothers to stay home with their children was an important social good that should be supported through public policy. Assistance was not time limited (the current law limits lifetime benefits to five years) but recipients were encouraged to seek work. Educational achievement was viewed as part of the pursuit of permanent employment – my case workers both encouraged and facilitated my college attendance.
I moved to a small apartment on the fifth floor of a walk-up across the street from campus and enrolled my son in the day care center CCNY ran for the children of faculty and students. I paid for his daycare by working at the center along with other parents of limited means. The center was staffed by experts in early child development as well as those aspiring to be, my son benefited greatly from the enriching environment they provided as well as the experience of seeing me regularly on campus and sometimes in his little schoolhouse.
Because there were no mandatory work requirements I was able to devote myself full time to my studies and my son. I attended summer sessions and graduated in three years with my B.A. My hard work paid off and I was accepted to Harvard University where I spent the next four years with my son in tow, pursuing joint degrees in law and public policy. I feel it important to note that I paid more money in taxes my first year out of law school than I had ever received in welfare benefits.
I believe it is good government policy to invest in people – our previous welfare policy, however flawed enabled us to do that – now, not so much. It pains me to think a single mother in exactly the same situation today that I faced more than 30 years ago would not have the same opportunities for personal growth and advancement. Pursuing higher education at a two-year or four year college does not qualify under TANF as ‘work activities’. Under our ‘reformed’ welfare program, families are limited to five years of benefits regardless of economic need and mandatory work requirements mean many mothers are forced to commute long distances to work menial jobs at low wages in order to maintain their eligibility for meager benefits. How does this help anyone?
In a country where almost one in four families is living at or near the poverty level, we should beware of political leaders who demonize the poor. The most successful programs for lifting people out of poverty are those that emphasize education, skills development, personal growth and training. I was fortunate to benefit from public policies that funded such programs and supported my desire and drive to succeed instead of punishing me for being a single, unemployed parent. It appears the America with those policies is long gone. Romney’s America has a decidedly Dickensian flavor – the privilege of being born in the USA is no longer enough to insure opportunity – opportunity is now primarily the preserve of those born into privilege and he aims to keep it that way.
The following excerpt from Michael Moore’s landmark film, Bowling for Columbine does a great job of connecting the dots between ‘welfare reform’, corporate profiteering, poverty, ‘at-risk’ children and gun violence.