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Personal Responsibility

Neil deMause

Do you recall, by any chance, Section 101 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996?

This was the opening section of the bill more commonly known as “welfare reform,” a 260-page document that, when President Clinton signed it in August of that year, earned the odd distinction of being the only pledge from Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America to survive into actual law. That law technically expired in September of 2002, except that Congress kept putting off a decision on what to do next. Staring down the maw of nasty partisan debates, those in Washington concluded that it was easier to live with a system that everyone had grown used to, even if some kept pointing out that its one definable accomplishment  —  reducing the number of people receiving welfare benefits  —  was akin to bragging about the role of tobacco companies in keeping down Social Security payments. Inertia is a powerful thing; in politics, doubly so.

But we were talking about Section 101. For a law that is ostensibly about aid to impoverished families, it’s a rather unlikely opening, saying nothing at all about welfare, or for that matter about poverty. It begins:

(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.

It then continues:

(2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children.

This goes on for quite a while. Section 101 contains much talk of “responsible fatherhood and motherhood” and the percentage of parents who pay child support, detouring into teen motherhood (“(D) Mothers under 20 years of age are at the greatest risk of bearing low birth weight babies”), before concluding with the declaration that “in light of this demonstration of the crisis in our Nation, it is the sense of the Congress that prevention of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and reduction in out-of-wedlock birth are very important Government interests.”

Reading Section 101, you’d think that the welfare law wasn’t about welfare at all, or getting people out of poverty, or who the government will aid and why, but about the sanctity of families. If so, it has a funny way of showing it. 

There’s a problem with writing about welfare, one that most every journalist who’s tried to take on the task has run into: The subject refuses to stay put. Ask someone who’s been on welfare about the system, pre- or post-”reform,” and the conversation will soon be ranging far afield, taking in everything from child care to medical bills to job prospects. Ask someone about welfare, and before you can stop her, she’ll be talking about her life.

Take Jennifer. She first came to my attention when I was researching an article about welfare and education — a combustible mix, given that the 1996 law demanded a one-year limit on time spent in school while getting a welfare check. (The one-year limit has, like much of welfare reform, been applied stringently by some states and ignored by others. One of the never-ending debates over reauthorizing the 1996 law is whether to close these loopholes or blow them wide open.) As I pored through the statistics — a high school diploma can boost earnings by more than 30%, a B.A. by almost double — and searched for the two-line quote that would distill the experience of a million varied souls, a message showed up on an e-mail list for welfare experts and researchers: My neighbor is on welfare, and her caseworker is telling her she can’t go to college. Is there anything she can do?

Jennifer lived in Southern California, and though she didn’t want her full name used for fear of retribution from welfare workers, she was happy to tell her story for the public record. “Call whenever you like,” she says. “My car’s not working right now, so I’m not going anywhere.”

“It all started out,” she began, “when I got laid off work about three years ago.” At the time, she had two small children and a third on the way, with few options to support herself. The father of her younger child refused to pay child support. Her oldest’s dad, her ex-husband, paid all of $389 a month. Evicted from her apartment, living in a motel with her newborn while her two eldest went to live with their respective dads, she saw only one option remaining: “I ended up having to bite my pride and go down and apply for welfare.”

The welfare office was less than helpful. “They said, ‘Go to a shelter, that’d be better for you.’ They argued with me, why didn’t I come get welfare earlier. I said, ‘I thought you’d be glad I wasn’t taking advantage of the state. I’d rather struggle and try to do it on my own. And I tried, but now I need help.’”

“She couldn’t understand that. She thought I was slow, or learning disabled, or on drugs, because what was my problem that I couldn’t get a job?”

Finally, after a couple of nail-biting weeks, Jennifer was approved for welfare benefits. Under welfare reform, the checks — about $600 a month, in her case — come accompanied by a demand: participation in “work activities,” an odd euphemism that can include everything from a paying job to “workfare” (in which your welfare check is your only pay, your hours carefully calibrated to ensure you’re earning minimum wage) to “job search,” which in some states has meant plunking you down in a room with a Yellow Pages and a pencil. This is the wildly popular element that helped carry the 1996 bill to victory: No more would the poor be encouraged just to sit at home with their kids and cash those $600 checks; instead, they’d be launched into the workforce to become productive citizens. As welfare-reform guru Jason Turner, who remade the welfare bureaucracies of Wisconsin and New York City before going on to a job in the Bush administration, told an NPR interviewer: “Work will make you free.” Neither Turner nor the interviewer noted at the time that this phrase had previously been inscribed over the gates of Auschwitz.

As the mother of a baby under six months old, Jennifer was at first exempt from the work rules; then her four-year-old daughter developed a hip displacement that required surgery, spending six months in a body cast and earning her mother another respite. The cast finally came off, though, and Jennifer reported for her work activities.

Unlike the so-called “multiple-barrier” hard cases that welfare reformers like to bemoan, this was not someone unfamiliar with the working world. In an earlier life, Jennifer had held down a job as an administrative assistant, earning $12 an hour, enough to pay her bills. “I used to have, I thought, somewhat okay job skills. But my self-esteem was shot. My skills are totally rusty, I know — I’ve been watching *Barney* for three years! I have not socialized with anybody, I have no friends, it’s my children and me — I’m on welfare, I don’t go out. I talk to children all day, that’s about it.”

Jennifer was promised a four-day workshop on finding work, but that never materialized. Instead, she was instructed to put together a resume and sent to “job search”: endless hours sitting in front of job center computers, scouring the Internet for postings. On her second day, she was pointed at a job fair and instructed to ask everyone there for a job. “I thought, ‘I am not prepared for this.’”

Jennifer was hoping to get a job assessment to find out what jobs were available, but her caseworker would have none of it. “She said: ‘We don’t care if you get a good job, just get a job.’ Those were her exact words: ‘We don’t care if you get a good job, just get a job.’ She said, ‘You can still get welfare.’ Well, heck, sign me up!”

(One of the bitter ironies of the “end of welfare” is that with many of the jobs available, the pay is so low that workers are still eligible for public assistance. Last year Wal-Mart was revealed to be handing out instructions to its low-wage workers on how to apply for food stamps and Medicaid to supplement their meager wages.)

Meanwhile, another consequence of Jennifer’s decision to apply for welfare was coming back to haunt her. When she first applied, Jennifer knew that more than her pride was at stake: she would also have to give up the child support payments she was receiving for her oldest child, and allow the state to go after her daughter’s father for child support money as well. This practice, known as “recoupment,” is another arrow in the welfare reform quiver, ensuring that poor women have exhausted every last source of income before turning to the state for help.

For Jennifer, it unleashed a nightmare. “During the time when my daughter was having surgery, her father decided to take me to court for full custody, because the D.A. had gone after him for child support. That’s another reason I didn’t want to go on welfare: I wasn’t getting child support from my daughter’s father — I’d rather do it on my own, and struggle, than to have to deal with his crap. He never saw her for two years, but now he wants full custody. He waits until my daughter’s in the hospital, a pain-release thing injecting morphine every five minutes. I was just run-down ragged.”

The court gave the father majority custody, a ruling Jennifer blames on a lousy lawyer. (“When I represented myself, I did fine. When I hired an attorney, I got my daughter taken away.”) The welfare department promptly decided that since she was no longer her daughter’s sole caregiver, she was no longer eligible for cash aid. “I notified the child care worker that I have my daughter during the summer every other week, so I need child care paid for a whole week. She said, ‘We can’t do that.’ I would have to pay for it on my own. Mind you, in order to go to the job search program, I *have* to have child care. So do I pay for it on my own? I don’t have a dollar extra, and I’m not getting paid for the job search.”

We’d been on the phone for over half an hour now, and Jennifer had finally gotten around to talking about what I’d called about: her failed attempt to get the welfare department to let her to go back to school instead of banging her head against the “job search” process. “I kept telling my case manager, ‘I’m not asking you to pay for my schooling.’ I don’t want to be a rocket scientist — I just want some kind of trade so I can support myself.” She was informed that she was welcome to take classes — so long as it wasn’t during her 32 hours a week of work activities.

“And when,” she asked, “do I see my kids?”

At this writing, Congress had just deferred yet again a decision on renewing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, putting off a vote until at least June. Advocates for the poor are bitterly divided over whether this is a good thing or bad: the Senate bill (though not the House) includes $1.2 billion a year in new child-care funds, but these would come packaged with a requirement of more hours spent in work activities, possibly gobbling up any gains with the need for more babysitting hours. More education options are another possibility, but with its other hand Congress is threatening to hike the “participation rates” required of states, eliminating a loophole that has allowed states like Maine to run successful college programs for welfare recipients.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Jennifer what she’d like to see Congress do. She paused, possibly considering how to legislate nicer caseworkers or an employer who would hire her at $12 an hour. Then she said: “Doing something to make sure you don’t end up on it again would be nice.”

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