Living with welfare reform
Chico takes center stage in a national debate
Activists from as far away as New Haven, Conn., joined Butte County residents at a standing-room-only town hall meeting on welfare reform in the Chico City Council Chambers on Feb. 22. Before them was a panel of local leaders led by Rep. Wally Herger, R-Marysville, who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources in Washington, D.C.
Herger will play a leading role in overseeing funding this year, as Congress reauthorizes the welfare reform program from 1996 known as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). Among other things, TANF created work requirements and a five-year time limit on welfare benefits. Herger’s part makes Butte County a front line for national welfare reform activists.
This gathering, organized by the nonprofit, Oakland-based group Lifetime, was a chance to express concerns about a system many believe is in dire need of improvement.
The crowd’s mood was optimistic and wildly supportive throughout the two-hour-plus meeting, broadcast live on community radio KZFR.
“We were really pleased with the turnout,” said Lifetime Program Specialist Aimee Fisher, who was in charge of the event. “Especially the public comment section. We’ve already received a lot of calls and emails since the meeting.”
The meeting covered a diverse range of topics, from personal testimonials to strategies for improving TANF reauthorization as presented by local business experts and financial strategists.
An assertive young New Haven activist from GROWL (Grassroots Organizing for Welfare Leadership), Monica Maldonado, struck a wild chord of approval when she mocked government programs on the East coast that pushed her toward hygiene and nutrition classes, saying she “would rather have a college degree on my wall then a marriage certificate.”
Maldonado had traveled more than 3,000 miles for a personal audience with Herger and to study the town hall forum in Chico to help implement the same kind of process in big cities like Chicago and New York.
By the end, it was clear that a number of legitimate concerns face upcoming reforms and that it will take a community effort to gain certain improvements—and even then there is no safe bet for funding, especially in the wake of Sept. 11.
“Most of the American people support work requirements for welfare recipients,” said Lifetime Executive Director Diana Spatz. “We just think that the work of raising children is valuable and that programs have to make sense realistically for mothers who are going to school and following the rules. Two-thirds of all welfare recipients are children. … Things like time limits and child care are major issues.”
The Friday meeting began with an introduction from second-term Chico City Councilmember and attorney Coleen Jarvis, who noted her own previous experience as a welfare recipient, adding that she was once labeled a “welfare queen” by opponents during her first campaign for council.
Several welfare moms then stood courageously before the panel and told their own moving, often harrowing stories. Many of the women were similar in that they had left home early, become pregnant young, suffered some form of abuse and been abandoned financially by the fathers of their children—but they had all made sufficient strides to better themselves within the rules of the current system.
All of their claims about the ineffectiveness of TANF stemmed from the ultimate goal of welfare reform—which seems geared toward reducing caseloads more than to creating long-term, effective ways to move recipients toward decent-paying jobs. In 2003, more than 100,000 low-income families in California will reach their five-year lifetime limit and lose welfare benefits.
After the women spoke, a number of professionals presented possible strategies for reauthorization. Trudy Duisenbeg, of Enloe Health Systems, spoke of the nursing shortage and available training programs. California Budget Project financial analyst David Carroll said that, although caseload reduction has occurred, progress could not be sustained at current funding levels, particularly in California (a state that receives a current block grant of $3.7 billion), where Gov. Davis has proposed a $500 million cut.
Herger listened attentively to all speakers and was left with the final comment after the 12-person panel—including Butte County Sheriff Scott Mackenzie, county supervisors and social-service leaders from Tehama, Yuba and Butte counties—thanked participants and gave their own slants on the matter.
“I can’t think of anything more important,” offered Herger, who called reform “a team effort” and pointed out that he’s not the only one deciding how to assist those in need. He thanked participants for being “part of the process.”
The recently unveiled Bush administration plan would increase required work hours from 30 to 40 per week, though recipients could put 16 of those hours toward education, training and other aid programs. Supporters like Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson trumpet welfare reform as a great success, since caseloads have been cut in half since 1996. Many involved believe this may have had more to do with the booming economy of the late ‘90s; they point out statistics indicating that millions of children remain in deep poverty as recipients are forced into low-paying jobs.
On Feb. 26, President Bush proposed $300 million ($200 million in federal funds, the rest from matching state spending) in his plan to promote marriage as a way to solve poverty. Many women on Friday hoped that money would go instead to child care, domestic-violence and drug programs and education training.