POVERTY IS not an attitude problem. Yet all over the country, "welfare reform" programs treat it as such. Their remedy is to "get tough" with the poor. State governments are cutting emergency aid and telling the poor to change their behavior and fix their own lives.
Politicians from George Bush to David Duke to Governors Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Pete Wilson of California are cashing in on the idea that the poor are to blame for their own plight.
But while politicians play to stereotypes by talking about lazy welfare cheats, the real welfare fraud is going on in state houses and legislative chambers around the country.
Welfare reform promises to break the cycle of poverty. It doesn't and it won't. In state after state, government agencies are training people for jobs despite the fact that there are no jobs available to them.
In Arkansas, some of these short-sighted programs include "self-esteem building" seminars in areas with unemployment rates as high as 20 percent.
"It's a little bit discouraging," says David Rickard of Arkansas Advocates for Children. "If there are no jobs where the people are, why the heck train 'em? It don't make a whole batch of sense to me."
Indeed, much of the "welfare reform" trend makes very little sense. Wisconsin, the state that has broken the most ground in the welfare reform movement, is a case study in the bad planning and poor results that characterize these programs.
Welfare recipients who participated in Wisconsin's job training program were actually less likely to find and keep jobs over a two-year period than those who had no job training at all, according to a study by Wisconsin's Employment and Training Institute.
Despite such poor results, the state increased funding for the job training program from $7 million in 1987 to between $45 and $50 million in 1991. And the program became a model for federally mandated job training all over the nation.
Wisconsin has also made national headlines as a welfare reform trail-blazer with its Learnfare program, cutting off aid to families whose teen-agers miss too many days of school. Like the job training program, Learnfare has been a miserable failure.
During the program, drop-out rates have actually increased dramatically in Milwaukee (where most of the Learnfare sanctions occurred). A federal judge issued an injunction against the program where Learnfare sanctions left hundreds of families homeless and hungry, many of them victims of erroneous record-keeping.
Meanwhile, Learnfare did nothing to improve the schools. In Milwaukee, teen-agers were often afraid to attend school because of gang violence. Losing their families' government aid didn't make things better.
Wisconsin's latest experiment is a program called Bridefare, which would encourage teen-age mothers to marry and would cap grants for families that had more than one child. There is no evidence that this state-run effort at social engineering will have any positive effect. But the idea of imposing discipline on poor families has proven to have enormous popular appeal.
If these new-fangled welfare reform programs are so ill-conceived, why are they catching on? The answer is two-fold: money and politics. States are in a budget crunch, scrambling to save money and reduce outlays for social services.
The quickest way to save money on welfare is to kick people off. Politically, tough talk appeals to beleaguered taxpayers, and it passes the sound-bite test, offering a simple solution and a convenient villain for complex social ills.
State after state is following Wisconsin's lead: In California, Gov. Pete Wilson is proposing to cut AFDC by as much as 25 percent and to refuse additional money to families with more than one child. In Michigan, Gov. John Engler cut off general assistance to more than 90,000 unemployed people, many of whom are disabled -- and told them to go out and find jobs. In Maryland, families could lose their welfare benefits if their kids miss school, if they don't see a doctor regularly, or if they fail to pay the rent on time.
Welfare reform policy has already failed. It does not save money. The number of welfare recipients throughout the country continues to rise, and the social costs of allowing a generation of children to grow up deprived will soon come due. Welfare reform does not get people to work. Despite job-training programs, unemployment is still increasing. The only purpose welfare reform serves is to feed a mean-spirited desire to punish the poor.
Poverty is not a psychological problem afflicting individual welfare recipients. It is an economic and social crisis we must confront as a nation.
If our government really wants to break cycles of poverty and welfare dependency, it had better start tending to unemployment, collapsing schools and a deteriorating standard of living -- and stop beating up on the poor.
Ruth Conniff is the associate editor of the Progressive magazine in Madison, Wis.