The Vanishing Americans


The president regards his collaboration with Republicans in welfare reform-the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act-as a vital part of his legacy. As I’ve written, Hillary Rodham Clinton also takes credit for her role in urging her partner to sign the bill. And Al Gore and Joe Lieberman have celebrated what they claim are the significant successes in moving people off welfare and into work.

But for months, Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone has been urging his colleagues to pass a law that would reveal the actual effects of “welfare reform” on the individuals who have been “reformed.”

We already know some of the results. Families USA, the national health consumer group, has reported that of those thrown off the welfare rolls, “the majority were children under 19. Their numbers are likely to increase considerably as welfare reform is fully carried out.”

But there has been no comprehensive accounting of the impact on former welfare recipients who have been reformed out of the federal safety net. “We have,” Wellstone keeps saying, “a new class of people—disappeared Americans—many of whom are children. . . . ‘Welfare reform’ was supposed to help, not hurt, the most vulnerable among us.

“But the anecdotal evidence and partial statistics now coming out should give us pause. . . . We need to find out, in some rigorous and systematic way, what is really happening after they lose their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.”

Neither Gore, Bush, Lieberman, or Cheney has shown any concern whatever about these disappeared Americans. But Ralph Nader emphasizes that “so-called welfare reform at the federal level has changed national policy from a statutory mandate to the states for child sustenance to a mandate for its limitation. . . .

“Yet the Clinton-Gore administration,” Nader continues, “proposes to spend 88 percent of the projected budget surplus over the next decade on three accounts: Medicare, Social Security, and private pension subsidies. Children are clearly not a priority. . . . More than 20 percent of the nation’s children live in poverty—a higher percentage than any other comparable Western nation.”

But children were useful for photo opportunities for the paladins of both the Republican and Democratic parties during the campaign.

In a September 14 news release from the Institute of Public Accuracy in Washington—headed “Welfare: Bipartisan Success?”—Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of New York’s City University, notes: “It is really no feat, and no accomplishment, to cut the welfare rolls unless poverty among single mothers and their children is also reduced.”

In the same news release, Gwendolyn Mink, professor of politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says—on the basis of what information is available—that “three years after leaving welfare, the median income even among employed former recipients was only $10,924—well below the poverty line. . . .

“The hardest hit are women of color and their children: Welfare reform has had an unmistakable disparate racial impact. . . . If Al Gore is truly committed to women’s rights and racial equality, he must fight to repeal welfare provisions that make poor single mothers a separate and unequal caste.”

But Gore has thumpingly focused his campaign on the middle class. Have you heard any references to this “separate and unequal caste” in his priorities?

And Frances Fox Piven adds to Paul Wellstone’s indignation about the vanishing Americans:

“When the Massachusetts welfare department was told that one in three of the people leaving welfare was unemployed, their response was to stop collecting information on why people were leaving the rolls.”

In the newly published What Government Can Do: Dealing With Poverty and Inequality (University of Chicago Press) by political scientists Benjamin Page and James Simmons, they write:

“An analysis of 21 state reports found that most former welfare recipients—even those who were working—were still poor; many had trouble paying for food and utilities.

“Pamela Loprest’s systematic Urban Institute study of early welfare-leavers found that about one-third were back on welfare within a year or two. About 25 percent of those who stayed off welfare had no one in the family working, one-third had to skip meals or cut back on food. . . . A study by the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Coalition for the Homeless found that only a small fraction (8 percent) of former welfare recipients’ new jobs paid above poverty wages—most paid far below—and extreme child poverty was increasing even at a time of economic expansion.”

The Clinton-Gore-Hillary welfare reform act comes up for reauthorization in 2002. As Kandea Mosley reported in the September 26 Voice (“Saving the Safety Net”), there are strongly knowledgeable groups creating a campaign to “target Congress members and educate them about welfare reform . . . and keep pushing for changes in the federal welfare law.”

If there are no fundamental changes in the Personal Responsibility Act, the numbers of people going hungry will only increase—and Kandea Mosley writes that there are already 400,000 people suffering from hunger in this very city. For them, and their millions of counterparts around the country, will either Gore or Bush make any substantial difference during the next four years? It’s time for Nader.