Welfare myths that don't hold water

April 18, 1994|By Rhonda M. Williams

THE so-called common sense that swirls around today's welfare-reform debate makes little sense.

President Clinton's reform proposals are based on at least two false premises: that being employed eliminates poverty, and that "welfare mothers" are radically opposed to work. Politicians and pundits alike want us to believe that a segment of our society, consisting largely of African Americans, is "dependent" on welfare, having children at taxpayer expense. But this is all part of a welfare mythology that bears little resemblance to reality.

To begin with, African Americans are over-represented among welfare clients because we are over-represented among the poor. And blacks are poorer as a group because our economy -- historically and currently -- fosters white privilege.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, most people on welfare use it to cope with disruptive life events, such as job loss, relocation, or a health emergency. Over a year's time, the vast majority of recipients receive welfare for only short spells. Most people use the system for no more than two years.

Those on welfare are primarily women with children. For these women, welfare provides a means to cope with life's traumas and to stabilize circumstances for themselves and their children.

Many politicians say women on welfare should just get a job. But there are few jobs available, and getting a job is not sufficient for economic survival. In the late 1980s, 40 percent of women working full time and year-round earned less than $13,500 -- perilously close to the Federal poverty line. Without state or corporate financing to help with child care, health care, or transportation, women making $7.00 an hour just cannot make ends meet.

Politicians also like to pretend that women on welfare are living an easy, state-subsidized life. But state and federal policies in the 1980s effectively cut benefits and other social programs while raising eligibility requirements.

With neither work nor welfare capable of supporting a family alone, many welfare recipients also work. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, 40 percent of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children bundle welfare benefits with jobs, either cycling from welfare to work or combining surreptitious work with benefits. These families receive smaller grants and have higher incomes than those who survive only on AFDC and food stamps

Welfare is a tiny portion of the federal budget, but welfare reform is a hot political ticket because its proponents do not want AFDC to interfere with the job market. Since the earliest days of capitalism, employers have argued against welfare and other benefits for the poor because they provide an alternative to low-wage work. The cost-cutting, service-oriented corporations welcome an increasingly desperate work force.

Those who land these jobs -- no matter the quality of the work, the pay or the working conditions -- are deemed "independent." Those who receive AFDC are considered "dependent." But is there any difference? Working at poverty wages cannot be equated with economic self-determination.

The Clinton administration's proposal to cap welfare benefits after two years to force people to work at poverty wages would eliminate the ability of many AFDC recipients to combine work with welfare. In the absence of substantial reform in a low-wage labor market, this reform will increase, not decrease poverty.

Welfare still shields the most vulnerable members of our communities from the worst vagaries and insults of low-wage jobs. Such programs provide citizens a nominal measure of independence from unscrupulous employers.

The myths of welfare -- that welfare families are bigger, that welfare is inherited from generation to generation -- just don't withstand the empirical test. Our problem is not millions of shiftless women having babies for fun and profit. Our problem is too many jobs that don't pay a living wage, and the disproportionate number of adults -- particularly African American and Latinos -- who must accept these jobs.

We don't need welfare reform: We need a responsible and humane humane domestic policy agenda. We need to reject the routine stigmatization of poor families, the racism that sustains and reproduces hostility towards welfare clients.

In the short term, we need to affirm the right of every American to a healthy childhood, affordable child care and health care. In the long term, we need to create labor markets that provide a living wage and guarantee race and gender equity. We must challenge our political leaders to use the marketplace with wisdom and in the pursuit of justice.

Rhonda M. Williams teaches in the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Maryland College Park.

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