The Harsh Reality of Welfare Cuts

Revolutionary Worker #1077, November 6, 2000, posted at

Laura Morales was sick. She suffered excruciating pain from migraine headaches. Laura, 34 years old, was also on welfare in New York City. And, as a result, she was forced to participate in the Work Experience Program (WEP); working in the basement kitchen of a church shelter. The heat aggravated the pain. All around her, other people were thrown out of the program and lost their checks for minor things like showing up late or missing work without a doctor's note. Laura, who had three children to feed, was simply afraid to miss work. No matter how sick she felt, she kept showing up for WEP, for her $489-a-month check, until the day in August when a co-worker found her sitting in a chair, dead.

People were outraged. Demonstrations have been held in Laura's name. New York Mayor Giuliani argued it wasn't the city's fault that she went to work rather than to see a doctor. Laura's sister, Luz Cruz, told Newsday, "They didn't care. Now she's just one less person on welfare."


The welfare system, which in theory was supposed to be a "safety net" for people, has become an instrument for making the poor un-safe--for driving them into the workforce where they can be profitably exploited. In the U.S., "welfare reform" is the official name for the drive to make poor people desperate enough to work for whatever wages and under whatever working conditions they are offered. For those unable to work, the attack on welfare means the bottom can simply drop out from under them.

An often hidden fact about welfare is that the majority of the people receiving help are children. For decades, the federal program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children supported the families of millions of single women who needed help feeding their kids. The core of the "welfare reform" plan was to force these women to accept whatever low-wage jobs are available by cutting off support to their children. And welfare before the cuts was a bitter existence--in 1994 when 14 million people (or 5.5 percent of the population) were receiving Aid for Families with Dependent Children, the national average (median) check was $366 for a family of three (or $4,392 a year).

After the 1996 federal "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act," children were no longer guaranteed even this thin safety net--their mothers would be kicked off welfare after two years (in many cases) and would be permanently denied welfare after they had received help for a lifetime maximum of five years. This 1996 law cut $56 billion dollars from the federal welfare program--which was used to pay off federal debts to the finance capitalists. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was pointedly renamed "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families."

Since 1996, the number of people receiving welfare help has been cut almost in half, from 12.2 million in 1996 to 6.6 million in 1999. From Los Angeles to New York, people are systematically being cut off welfare and thrown into the depths of impoverishment. In Wisconsin, which is seen as a national model in welfare cuts, the figures are even more extreme: In the mid-1980s 98,000 people received assistance in Wisconsin; today just over 7,000 do.


As welfare was cut, there was a huge official campaign about "moving people from a culture of dependency to a culture of work." This propaganda hid the fact that most women on welfare have, in huge numbers, gotten themselves jobs over and over. Before the 1996 welfare cuts, the overwhelming majority of women on welfare found jobs within two years. At the same time, many women who left welfare for work often could not care for their families on the minimum wage jobs that were available, and so were often forced back on welfare by the harsh realities in the bottom section of the working class.

The wage level in the bottom of the working class averages $2 an hour less than it did 20 years ago--and it simply does not pay enough to raise a family. It is certainly not enough to pay for private child care. Forcing people to take jobs at starvation wages does not "help them out of the welfare trap"--it means forcing them and their children deeper into the most desperate poverty and the illegal economy.

Today, four years later, the initial impact of these cuts can now be seen.

One report by the Urban Institute reported that one-third to one-half of the women forced off welfare experienced serious difficulties simply feeding their children. Nearly 40 percent reported being unable to pay rent or utilities in the preceding year. Thirty-nine percent of former recipients remained unemployed, and a quarter lived in households where no one was working. Of those working, only 20 percent got health insurance at their job.

A national survey by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the average disposable income of the poorest fifth of single-mother families fell by $580 per family between 1995 and 1997. While the government talks of "unprecedented prosperity," the income of the poorest tenth of the population has dropped 14 percent. Meanwhile the Children's Defense Fund documented that between 1995 and 1997 there was a rise in the number of children living in "extreme poverty" (meaning less than half of the amount defined as "poverty line"). The government has cut food to these kids while energetically building the prison cells where many will eventually be imprisoned.

In Arizona a state report documented that the number of hungry people in the state doubled in the last ten years--to 900,000 people. Food pantries across the country are routinely running out of food because of the swelling numbers of hungry showing up for relief. Soup kitchens, that once served mainly single men now find families and senior citizens queuing up for a meal.

In Los Angeles a study of single adults cut off benefits was conducted by researchers at UCLA and the nonprofit Shelter Partnership. It showed that 15 percent lived on the streets before the cutbacks, but that after the cuts the number who were homeless had soared to 38 percent.

Federal guidelines pressured state governments to drive people off welfare. States no longer get a set percentage of the money they spend on welfare, instead they get a fixed amount of money (a so-called "block grant"). If they don't spend the whole grant on poor people, they get to spend it on something else. As of September 1999, 45 states and the District of Columbia had stockpiled $7 billion in federal funds (according to a study by the National Campaign for Jobs and Income), money that had accumulated by denying it to poor people. In some states like Wisconsin those funds were used to finance tax cuts for property owners--a transfer of money from those with nothing to those with something. Meanwhile, in the country as a whole, more and more wealth has been moved into the bank accounts of the upper classes. Between 1997 and 1999, the wealth of the 400 richest U.S. families increased by an average of $940 million each."


In September 1997, the Wisconsin state government instituted a program that claimed to "move people from welfare to work." The state law eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with "Wisconsin Works" (W-2). In order to get benefits in Wisconsin you have to work in a community service job like cleaning schools or answering phones at a non-profit agency. It gives no cash assistance and only allows for things like childcare and transportation.

Since the mid-'60s, the number of people receiving help in Wisconsin has dropped 90 percent to 7,000. Most of those who are now working have been forced into jobs that pay little more than minimum wage--generally $6.50 to $7.50 an hour. Nearly one-third of former welfare recipients in Milwaukee work for temp agencies. According to a New York Times analysis of Wisconsin's welfare to work program, "Among those who went to work in 1998, average annual earnings were just $7,700. That is $400 less than they would have received by staying on welfare. And it is just 59 percent of the $13,100 the government says a family needs to escape poverty."

Since W-2 began, 16 percent of the people who have left the welfare roles have neither work nor benefits. Half of them have found support living with partners, or in disability payments, the other half have no recorded "means of support."

What happens to people in this situation? Many suffer with deeper and more intense poverty. Families break up because of homelessness and inability to feed the children. And poor women are often forced into the illegal economy of prostitution and drug trade.

Journalist Phil Wilayto documented that, in the first year of "Wisconsin Works," the infant mortality rate in Milwaukee rose 17.6 percent. The number of forced evictions in Milwaukee County increased from 700, in the year before "Wisconsin Works," to over 2,000. The homeless shelters in the county are full, with mainly women using them, and the number of children taken into foster-care programs has skyrocketed. [Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 4, 2000]

Mayretta McLaine, director of a women's homeless shelter in Racine, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I keep hearing about what an incredible success W-2 is, how much the numbers of people on welfare have gone down and that there are 2,000 families that can't be accounted for. If they want to know where those people are, they should come see me because a lot of them have come through here."

Hard-Hearted Harassment--The New York Story

Georgina Bonilla is a 59-year-old woman with serious health problems. She suffers from high blood pressure, seizures, pain, and tremors in her arms. She has medical prescriptions for these problems but has had no money to fill them. For years, she relied on her son for support. But when his work was cut, he simply could no longer support her.

In November 1998 she went to apply for emergency public assistance at the Hamilton Job Center. She was told she couldn't file the application until she first filled out a Participant Job Profile, which she did. She was then told to wait and she would be called. At the end of the day her name was finally called--but only to tell her to come back the following morning. She came back the next day and was then told to come back in six days. She waited the six days and came back. When she did, a caseworker refused her request and gave her the address of a food pantry.

Lakisha Reynolds is a 25-year-old woman who was laid off from her job. Her unemployment insurance ran out. She had only one temp job in the month when she went to apply for food stamps for herself and her 3-year-old son. She was told emergency food stamps were no longer available--which is a lie. Instead she was given a referral to a food pantry. She was also told she needed to complete a 30-day job search program, and a number of appointments were set up. She then went to the food pantry and was told it was out of food. On her next visit, a few days later, she got there early enough to get food, but as a result she was late for her "job" appointment at the "Job center" and was told she would have to start the application process all over again.

New York City, which was once famous for its liberal welfare system, has become ground zero for the drive to inject desperation into the lives of the most poor. The heart of the New York program is to make getting welfare checks and food stamps so difficult and humiliating that people simply give up trying. The results have been staggering. In 1994 there were 1.1 million people on welfare in New York City, today there are just over 560,000. More than half a million people--the vast majority of them children--have been driven off public assistance, in a city where one in four people live in poverty and four of every ten children are poor.

A battering ram for driving people off welfare in New York City has been the Work Experience Program (WEP). WEP is not a program of permanent jobs for people. It is a mandatory program of work for benefits, or workfare. On average there have been 40,000 people in the WEP program at any given time--performing jobs ranging from sweeping courthouses to picking up trash on the side of highways to cleaning the restrooms in the city's parks.

WEP is a program to force people to work at terrible jobs for incredibly low wages--so that they will give up on welfare and take jobs in the regular economy or find other ways to survive. At the same time WEP workers have been put to work at minimum wage in jobs once done by unionized city workers--who have higher wages, benefits, pensions and negotiated contracts.

WEP workers have been introduced alongside job cuts in the Parks department, Sanitation, and in the very welfare offices responsible for cutting benefits. In that sense WEP has been a tool for undermining the situation of city workers--which in turn impacts negatively on the overall conditions of the working class in the city. And the crude exploitation of this WEP labor has been financially lucrative for the local government. According to the New York Times, "a former Giuliani aide has valued the labor contributed by the welfare workers at more than $500 million a year."

WEP's most immediate effects have been to drive people off welfare, exerting harsh control over those that remain. Even before getting into WEP (or to get any kind of benefits) a person has to get through intensive police-state scrutiny. The city has 1,500 "fraud investigators" who screen every applicant twice, first in a Brooklyn office and then in a home visit. Along with this are finger and video imaging--electronically taking people's fingerprints and pictures.

Once in WEP, people are thrown off the rolls for the most minor work infraction--missing a single hour of work can result in being "sanctioned"--meaning you are denied benefits.

In 1997 fully 69 percent of the home relief (single adults) in the program were "sanctioned" off the rolls. The threat of sanctions means putting up with the worst conditions for pitifully small benefits, as in the case Anderson Carter. Carter, 49, with heart trouble, diabetes and high blood pressure, was working a WEP job in 100 degree weather last July when he suffered a stroke on the job and died eight days later.

One New York study showed that six months after leaving welfare in 1997, nearly half of the people had not found steady, permanent work and nearly a third had not found any work at all.

WEP has not been the only way people have been kept from getting assistance. In 1997 Jason Turner was brought to New York from Wisconsin to head up the City's welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration. In line with the "Wisconsin model," welfare offices were renamed "Job Centers."

In December 1998 a class action lawsuit was filed against the city because of the systematic denial of benefits going on in these centers. In the complaint filed in court, similar stories are told over and over again. People--desperate, without food, whose children are sick--told of facing city authorities determined to drive them out of the welfare offices. The practices were so extreme that in January 1999 a federal court found that New York City was illegally deterring people from applying for food stamps, Medicaid, and emergency assistance. Often the officials blatantly lied--telling people they were not eligible for benefits like food stamps that they were entitled to. The court ruling changed nothing. In July 2000, the judge in this case said he found no reliable evidence that the city had stopped its practice of illegally denying emergency benefits.


The impact of welfare cuts would have been even more cruel and intense if significant numbers of former welfare recipients had not been able to at least find some temporary low-paying jobs. The dismantling of the welfare system is happening in an economy where the overall number of low-paying jobs is increasing, and where the capitalists in some areas report a relative "labor shortage."

However, this also means that the real impact of these cuts will not fully hit until the economy hits a recession--when unemployment rises and the number of jobs shrinks. Under those conditions, millions of the poorest working women will be thrown out of their jobs--and will not find new work. And for the first time in decades, they and their children will not be guaranteed emergency assistance.

The national welfare cuts have driven millions of people deeper into poverty. This has enriched the capitalists by expanding the pool of the lowest paid workers. It has worked to drag down the wages of the working class as a whole. And it has injected even more insecurity, fear and desperation into the lives of poor women and their children. Much of this has been hidden in the reports on welfare cuts--and it is certainly hidden in the presidential election campaign of 2000 where the politicians of both parties congratulate themselves for their roles in the attack on the poor. But, there is an even more intense impact to come: when the economy falters, when millions of people will need that "safety net," when more and more poor women will have passed their "five-year limit," and when criminal and calculated heartlessness of this system will produce an even larger wave of suffering, desperation and anger within most oppressed sections of the working class.


"An Overview of Research Related to Wisconsin Works (W2)," The Urban Institute, March 2000

Welfare Reform and its Impact in the Nation and in New York, Timothy J. Casey, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies

"The Folly of Looking to Wisconsin as a Model for Welfare Reform," Phil Wilayto, Star Tribune, Minneapolis, June 4, 2000

"What Welfare to Work Really Means," Jason DeParle, New York Times Magazine, Dec. 20, 1998

Class Action Complaint, Lakisha Reynolds et. al. Against Rudolph Giuliani et al--United States District Court Southern District of New York, filed Dec. 16, 1998.

"Billions in Aid for Poor Sit Idle Study Says," L.A. Times, Feb. 25, 2000

"Welfare Time Limit Boost Hunger and Homelessness," L.A. Times April 28, 1999

"Bold Effort Leaves Much Unchanged for the Poor," New York Times, Dec. 30, 1999

"The Not-so Unintended Consequences of Welfare Reform," Z Magazine, Sept. 2000

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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