From welfare to workfare
Exploiting the poor at low-paid, dead-end jobs
Linda Averill
volume 29
issue 1
February 2008

In 1996, President Bill Clinton struck a major blow to welfare when he signed the “Personal Responsibility Work Reconciliation Act.” Now the federal government is eliminating aid entirely to poor families who don’t meet strict work requirements. Credit: SSA archives [clinton]; Joe Appel / Tribune-Review [workfare worker]

Whenever Republicans and Democrats talk about reducing the federal debt, they mean slashing social services. The "Deficit Reduction Act" is a perfect example.

It was passed by Congress and signed by George Bush in 2006, not to stop the war and war-profiteering, but to cut $39 billion dollars from social programs over five years.

Among the top targets are poor families on welfare. Now, under new rules implementing this act, 50 percent of families who are on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) will be forced to "earn" their welfare aid and food stamps by working minimum-wage jobs.

In the 1960s, welfare assistance came under a similarly ferocious attack from then-President Nixon. In Washington State, anti-poverty workers (including Radical Women's founders) linked arms with single moms, Black Panthers, feminists, and others to stop the cuts.

Then they transformed a defensive move to save welfare into an offensive movement to win childcare, affirmative action and other vital programs! This also led to legalized abortion in 1972 in Washington State. Across the country, other fightbacks won similar victories.

Today, the times cry out for an upsurge that goes beyond what was won in the '60s and '70s.

Targeting the poor first. Going after welfare recipients isn't new. In 1996, Bill Clinton boasted that he was going to "end welfare as we know it." He then introduced TANF, which put lifetime limits of five years on welfare aid and forced many parents into workfare - jobs that never pay a living wage. Since then, the U.S. government has dramatically reduced those who receive welfare to 1.8 million families, down from about 5 million in 1994.

This hardly means that millions have pulled out of poverty. Most families have moved into the ranks of the working poor, no better off than before.

Clinton's TANF also dumped onto the states the federal government's responsibility for administering welfare. Some states, if they could afford it, picked up the slack and gave poor families fairly wide latitude in how they "earned" their aid. School, job training, substance-abuse treatments, and other programs were part of the mix.

But the Deficit Reduction Act and various new rules now require states to prove that 50 percent of welfare recipients are in workfare-style programs. What counts as work is also significantly narrowed to cancel out education and other programs that help TANF recipients improve their skills and get decent jobs. In addition, states must closely track hours or lose their grant money from the federal government.

Programmed to fail. Shannon Waits, an anti-poverty worker with the YWCA in Seattle, Washington, explains that there are many people who cannot earn a living wage at regular jobs and who suffer the most under the new rules. Many have physical or mental health problems, few job skills and little work experience. Indeed, the government reports that 44 percent of TANF recipients have some sort of disability.

Others lack transportation or basic education. And in many locales across the U.S., there simply are no living-wage jobs available.

Despite all these facts, the government demands welfare payees "go to work." Under workfare, TANF recipients, who are overwhelmingly single moms, are placed in all kinds of public-sector jobs, at agencies such as municipal courts, parks, or the Department of Social and Health Services. They also go to NGOs, where they may fill positions vacated by higher-paid staff laid off by budget cuts. Workfare workers often don't learn new skills from the jobs they perform. Nor do they typically gain permanent employment.

They are treated as charity cases and second-class workers - who earn rock-bottom wages because they are on "public assistance."

If an adult in the family doesn't fulfill all the requirements and bureaucratic conditions of workfare, she and her kids are denied money and food stamps. It's called "full-family sanctions."

Shockingly, federal and state governments also collect and keep most of the money that fathers pay in child support to TANF moms. Almost half of states pass on no child support to mothers on welfare. The rest of the states pay around $50 per month.

Is there any mystery why none of these policies motivate job searches or lift anyone out of poverty?

"Welfare parents are expected to do the impossible," says Shannon Waits. "They go off to work without backup childcare for below poverty wages. Some are refugees in a new foreign land." Anti-poverty workers like Waits are supposed to spy on recipients rather than help them develop job skills and find ways to become self-sufficient. Many skilled and caring social workers are forced to quit rather than become snitches.

Feminists and labor have work to do. Imposing workfare cannot be separated from the drive by big business to eliminate programs, benefits, and rights that help working parents stay employed in the first place.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that half of all full-time workers don't get paid sick days. Ninety-four million workers are not allowed to use their sick leave to stay home with ill children. Poor moms and dads can't afford to take a day off to care for a sick child, much less themselves.

Meanwhile, affirmative action, which helped many women get higher-paying nontraditional jobs, is a distant memory.

When TANF first was introduced, unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) made efforts to organize workers in workfare programs. And these low-paid, equality-seeking souls were ready for it! But in New York, at least, anti-labor laws denied collective bargaining rights to those on workfare. Lackluster efforts and elitist attitudes from officers of some unions didn't help matters any. Today, most workfare workers remain unorganized, although some have formed independent unions.

If things are going to change, labor unions will have to get off the stick, with working women leading the charge. It's time for another offensive of socialists, unionists, feminists, radicals of color, and others to push back and demand the things that all working parents need. And to end barriers like workfare.