Welfare reform bill leaving too many in basement

November 27, 2001|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush announced a record-breaking $1 billion in grants to help the homeless Nov. 20, he did not address a mystery that his announcement raises:

Why, at a time when Washington is celebrating shrinking poverty and welfare rolls, have the needs of the hungry and homeless as measured by private food banks continued to grow?

Blaming the terror events of 9-11 is not enough.

Food banks, homeless shelters and the charity networks that serve them have been reporting growing demand in recent years, even when jobs, the economy and welfare reform were showing spectacular success.

Curious, I turned to some experts, beginning with Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He was one of the main authors of the welfare reform legislation that a conservative Congress pressured President Clinton into signing in 1996.

Long an advocate of attaching conditions to government support programs, Mr. Rector assured me that the growing food bank demand was not a sign of growing poverty but a sign of people seeking the path of least resistance to free food.

"The most lenient program wins all the clients," he said.

"As welfare reform goes forward, the more people you probably will see going for a free handout to the food bank.

"But I don't think it is a fair measure of hunger, employment or poverty because all of those indicators are going down."

He's right about the indicators, at least, up until 9-11. Poverty among children is down by nearly a third since 1976 to 16.2 percent, census figures show.

The rising tide of prosperity has lifted even the boats of black and Hispanic children, who are showing some of their lowest poverty figures in recorded history.

Poverty declines even more when you include some cash and in-kind programs that the census normally does not count when measuring household income. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit and non-cash benefits like food stamps, housing subsidies, medical insurance, school lunch, child tax credits and child care subsidies.

Yet, while poverty by official measures has declined, other recent studies show food bank demand has climbed.

More than 23 million Americans nationwide sought emergency hunger relief this year from private food banks and other charities in the America's Second Harvest network, according to a recently released study commissioned by the national network.

That's an increase of about 7.5 percent, or nearly two million people, since 1997.

Another four-year survey of users of private emergency facilities by NETWORK, a national Catholic social service advocacy group, found that 80 percent of those surveyed who had lost benefits like food stamps or medical assistance when they left welfare said that their job incomes did not cover the benefits they lost.

"Welfare reform has worked better than I thought it would but it hasn't reduced poverty nearly as much as it should have," said Wendell Primus, a welfare reform expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning economic think tank in Washington.

Mr. Primus' research indicates, for example, that 725,000 families at the lowest income levels actually lost ground in spending power relative to 1995 because of taxes, lost benefits or new expenses they incurred related to their new job after leaving welfare.

Mr. Rector does have a point, many say, when he speaks of the attractive convenience of food banks.

Many workers who still are poor enough to be eligible for food stamps find it easier to turn to a food bank than leave their new job during the day to fill out forms and stand in line for hours on a chance of getting food stamps.

As Congress faces an October, 2002 deadline for re-authorizing the 5-year-old welfare reform law, legislators can point to many successes.

But, for those trying earnestly to work their way out of dependency, improvements are needed to help "make work pay," as the Clinton administration used to say.

States also may need additional dollars from Washington to cope with rising caseloads, if economic gloom continues.

More states might also consider some blended reforms that combine work with welfare for workers who genuinely are struggling to make ends meet.

Both sides of the welfare debate also agree that more needs to be done to encourage two-parent families instead of the single-parent families that now predominate in lower-income households.

Congress doesn't need to fix that which is not broken in its assistance to needy families. But, for those who remain stuck in the economic basement, welfare reform can still use some reforming.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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