This country has a penchant for plans to end poverty that do nothing to actually help families struggling to make ends meet.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of welfare reform, which created work requirements and other barriers for families who need the most basic cash assistance. The legislation was aimed at getting people to become self-sufficient. As then-President Bill Clinton put it, “No one who can work should be able to stay on welfare forever.”
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Twenty years later, it’s clear that welfare reform has left more families with fewer resources. There has been a 75% drop in the number of Americans receiving cash assistance since 1996, and a sharp rise in the number of households with children with incomes of less than $2 per day. There are 3 million American children who now live on no money for at least three months out of the year.
Now Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to build on that disastrous legacy.
With his recently released poverty plan, the Speaker called for ending 11 antipoverty programs—including housing assistance, food assistance, and child care—and combining them into a single block grant (the preferred approach under welfare reform).
Ryan claims he is focused on moving people into full-time work—the surest way to get people out of poverty, he says. And it’s true—full-time jobs that pay well and provide benefits are indeed the best path to get out of poverty.
But that’s not what Ryan is promoting, and his solution—like welfare reform before it—would not have helped me. (Nor would his votes—at least 10 times—against raising the minimum wage.)
In my years of receiving government assistance, I worked full-time and went to school full-time. I still needed help to pay for child care, food, utilities, and school. And that’s the problem with both welfare reform and Ryan’s poverty plan: they ignore the fact that people in poverty do work, but they face challenges that people with means do not. When you don’t have money, you can’t pay for car repairs, quality daycare, or work-appropriate attire. It’s harder to overcome criminal records or inadequate educations.
When my college classes began to interfere with my work as a housecleaner, where I barely made $9 an hour, I had to go to part-time. But because of the work requirements added during the 1996 welfare reform, my part-time work status meant I received fewer benefits. My child care grant only covered the hours I was physically in class, so I ended up paying for child care myself. To make ends meet, I took the maximum allowed in student loans, $10,000 a year, and maxed out my credit cards. By the time I graduated, I was $70,000 in debt.
I am considered a success story because I was able to use my degree to support my family through freelance writing, without government assistance. But if I hadn’t fought for years to get a better education, I would still be working full-time for less than $10 an hour, receiving several forms of government assistance to make ends meet.
Politicians like the phrase “welfare to work.” Maybe they think it’s easy to find a job because they’ve never had to pound the pavement with a dozen resumes, spending days filling out applications, waiting for call backs, then interviews, only to find they start at just four hours a week—at $7.50 an hour.
Do all of that while you’re hungry, sleep-deprived, and experiencing stress of a level that has you in “survival mode.” Do that while you have children clinging to you during a phone interview. Then go out and try to find a daycare with openings that will take your government voucher—while stressing over feeding your children and yourself and caring for the housing you’re scared you might lose.
Then. Then reform welfare, Mr. Ryan.