Welfare Special Report
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Washington D.C. welfare caseworker Angela Perkins
Washington, D.C. welfare caseworker Angela Perkins talks to Cynthia Harris. (Juana Arias, Washington Post)

Welfare's Changing Face

By Dan Froomkin
Washingtonpost.com Staff
Updated July 23, 1998

Welfare as we knew it no longer exists.

The 61-year American tradition of guaranteeing cash assistance to the poor came to an end with the signing of legislation in August 1996.

Under the old system, founded during the Great Depression, the federal government provided fairly uniform benefits to the nation's poor – mostly mothers and children – without regard to the details of their personal circumstances, and with no time limit.

But over time, the system became increasingly unpopular. Political opinion turned against the idea of anyone getting rewarded for being idle. Social critics said welfare was responsible for a permanent underclass of people living off government checks because the incentives to go to work were so weak.

Now, a federal system that was once fairly consistent has been turned over to the states, where programs are diverging widely. And it is far from clear whether the poor will be better or worse off.

This essay provides an introduction to the following topics:

  • The New System
  • Some Examples
  • The Concerns
  • The Politics
  • Where It Stands

    This special report includes key news stories and a selection of opinions and editorials from The Post. You can share your thoughts and concerns in our discussion area, or use our select list of links to surf the Web for more.

    The New System

    The welfare "reform" of the Clinton era consists of two major elements: a revolutionary change in the basic goals set by the federal government; and a dramatic "devolution" of responsibility – turning what used to be a federal, centralized system over to the states.

    Reflecting the new federal mission, welfare rules now:

    The devolution to the states is in some ways even more dramatic. Traditionally, the federal government set eligibility guidelines on a national basis, then parceled out money to the states to fund specific programs at certain levels. But now, the federal money allocated for public assistance is sent to the states in block grants. The federal role is limited to setting goals, financial penalties and rewards.

    States and even counties are designing their own programs for the poor, picking and choosing from approaches they hope will get results.

    Many of the new approaches require subjective judgements. A human being has to decide when individual recipients are, say, ready for work and should be cut off from assistance. By and large, those responsibilities are falling to welfare caseworkers – who in the past did little more than hand over checks.

    As a result, assistance to the poor, which used to be pretty recognizable anywhere you went in the United States, now differs dramatically from state to state, from county to county, and even from caseworker to caseworker.

    Some Examples

    Some states and counties are adopting tactics that are much more assertive than the federal guidelines suggest.

    Wisconsin is widely considered on the cutting edge. The state is pursuing an aggressive course that combines strict work requirements with an unrivaled support system. For instance, welfare mothers considered able to work will soon lose their checks, regardless of whether they have a job. But at the same time, community service jobs are being enormously expanded, as is spending on child care.

    In New York City, some welfare recipients are working off their monthly checks by sweeping streets, cleaning parks and doing other municipal chores.

    Twenty-five states are instituting "diversion" programs, one-time payments meant to keep families from ever coming onto the welfare rolls. In some states, including Virginia, families who accept a lump sum for staying off the rolls are barred from receiving welfare for a certain period of time.

    Numerous states are requiring individualized "personal responsibility" contracts, spelling out when adults must go to work and the length and type of training they will receive.

    The Concerns

    The old system was often criticized for granting benefits to people who didn't deserve them – and should instead have been working. But the new system creates the distinct possibility that people who do deserve assistance will be denied it. And because most public assistance goes to families, many of the victims would inevitably be children.

    Standardization, for all its drawbacks, also ensured a certain kind of blind fairness. In the new system, there is so much discretion involved that civil-rights activists wonder whether minorities and people with drug problems will be dealt with fairly, and whether people with legitimate reasons for not being able to work will nevertheless be cut off from assistance.

    All the variation in public assistance could lead to migrations of welfare recipients to places where benefits are more generous.

    And some worry that the result could be a "race to the bottom" as local governments reduce benefits in an attempt to avoid attracting more poor people – or even drive them out entirely.

    The Politics

    Politically, welfare reform is perhaps the most conspicuous example of how President Clinton adopted – some say co-opted – parts of the Republican agenda. Historically, Democrats had defended the old welfare system against GOP attacks.

    Clinton defined himself as a centrist Democrat in his 1992 campaign in part by promising to "end welfare as we know it." After the Republican takeover of Congress, he fended off certain GOP welfare provisions but ultimately signed a bill that liberal members of Congress considered much too cruel to the poor.

    In another notable reversal, it is generally liberals who champion social engineering – and conservatives who scoff at the idea that government should try to change individual behavior. Now it is conservatives who most strongly support certain welfare rules, including the family cap and a requirement that most teenage parents live with their own parents in order to receive benefits.

    When Clinton signed the welfare legislation, critics from the left berated him in particular for the provision that stripped disability and health benefits from legal immigrants. Clinton vowed to "change what is wrong" about the bill and, defying the skeptics, ultimately got Congress to restore those benefits during the balanced-budget negotiations in July 1997.

    Where It Stands

    Supporters of the recent changes in welfare maintain that they will be good for the poor, bringing many of them out of subsidized poverty and into the world of work. Clinton has stumped hard for programs that would help welfare recipients get jobs, training, child care and medical care. He has also encouraged both the private and public sectors to go out of their way to offer jobs to welfare recipients.

    But the evidence suggests that getting the vast majority of welfare recipients into jobs will be difficult. While two thirds of welfare recipients are either on assistance only for a short time, or on-and-off, the remaining third have proven impervious to prior attempts to find them lasting work. For some, the problems are concrete and potentially addressable: lack of child care or transportation. For others, notably those who have never held a job, the problems are harder to tackle: poor health or lack of skills, desire or confidence.

    Will the new welfare system help or punish the poor? Even the results so far are in dispute. On the one hand, public assistance rolls continue to decline sharply – 12 percent in the year after the reform legislation was passed. That decline prompted Clinton to declare that "We now know that welfare reform works."

    But critics attribute much of the drop to a robust economy. They worry about what will happen during the next recession, when jobs become scarce and local governments are looking for ways to cut their budgets.

    And they wonder whether some of the decline in the rolls consists of a new underclass, this one composed of people so disenfranchised and destitute that the government no longer even knows they exist.

    Dan Froomkin can be reached at froomkin@washingtonpost.com

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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