The cold truth of welfare reform

An attorney for Legal Services of Northern CaliforniaThe Welfare Reform Town Hall Meeting starts at 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 22, 2002, at the Chico City Council Chambers. It will be broadcast live over KZFR community radio, 90.1 FM.

Welfare as we knew it was drastically changed in 1996. The program is now known as TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which reflects its new, temporary nature. Under TANF, poor families are subject to a lifetime limit of five years of cash assistance.

California’s TANF program is called “Cal-WORKS,” with the “WORKS” in capital letters for a reason. All able-bodied adults on TANF must work at least 32 hours a week, paid or unpaid, to be eligible to receive benefits. That’s just one of dozens of requirements that single moms—the overwhelming majority of adults who receive TANF—must meet to receive aid.

They must also be fingerprinted and photographed. Their kids must be immunized and must attend school regularly. They must cooperate in establishing paternity and pursuing child support collection. They must report virtually all income they receive within days of receiving it, and on and on. If they fail to do any one of these things, they are cut off—and sometimes much worse. Should they fail to report income or other facts that affect their benefit level, in Butte County they will likely be arrested and prosecuted for felony welfare fraud and perjury.

Next January approximately 100,000 poor families in California will face their lifetime limit on welfare benefits. In California, “just” the adults in a family are cut off when they reach the limit. But the economic consequences to the kids are devastating when the adults in the household are cut off. After a decade of budget axing, the benefits are breathtakingly low now. The maximum monthly aid payment for a poor Butte County mother with one child is $521. (Remember that mom has to participate in 32 hours of work activities per week to get that amount.) If the mother is sanctioned or cut off for any one of a myriad of reasons, the maximum aid benefit for her one child plummets to $319 per month.

Dramatic reductions in welfare rolls in the last several years compel some basic questions about this phenomenon. Why are people leaving the welfare rolls, and should the ultimate goal of welfare reform be caseload reduction or childhood poverty reduction? In September 2001, 35 parents in Butte County left welfare because they became employed. But, in that same month, more than five times as many poor families in Butte County lost welfare benefits because of punitive sanctions or paperwork errors.

A study of the statistics done by Wider Opportunities for Women shows that, in 2000, only 28 percent of CalWORKS parents in a “work first” program were able to find employment. And those who did were paid only $6.88 an hour—far below the 2000 Self-Sufficiency Standard of $12.72 an hour for a single mom with two kids in Butte County.

Feb. 22 at the Welfare Reform Town Hall Meeting, the people who can give us the most personal analysis of the effects of welfare reform, parents on aid, will tell Rep. Wally Herger, chairman of the congressional subcommittee for reauthorizing welfare reform, and a panel of other Northstate policymakers what life under welfare "reform" is like and what is needed to succeed in pulling themselves and their families out of desperate poverty.