Poverty, Hunger, Discrimination and the "Success" of Welfare Reform

Revolutionary Worker #1152, May 26, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

Welfare itself has always been an insult. The welfare benefit in New York City (which is considered a "high benefit" area) is $577 a month for a family of three, and that includes a $286 rent subsidy. Imagine. As if rent in New York is handled with $286!

From 1996 to 1999, there was some decline in the number of people officially considered poor (reduced from 14 to 12 percent of the population). The ruling class says this is part of the "success" of welfare reform - but that is a profound lie. In fact, during those years the economy expanded, and it would have, inevitably, drawn new sections of oppressed people into the workforce--to be exploited there, now that it suited capitalist profit.

Poverty is officially defined as below $14,630 a year for a family of three. In 1998, about 20 million people were trying to make it on income below that poverty line. Even during that "peak of prosperity," 10 million U.S. households did not have enough food to meet their basic needs.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five children (approximately 15 million) live at or below the poverty line. The National Center for Children in Poverty reported that a majority of children living in poverty have at least one employed parent. In 1997, nearly two-thirds of poor young children lived in working families and young child poverty is growing fastest in the suburbs. In total, an alarming 22 percent of young children in America live in poverty.

Since those figures were gathered, the recession has arrived, unemployment is rising, and the number of people forced below that poverty line is almost certainly growing too.

What has rarely been reported is that the number of people living in "extreme poverty" has been growing all along--even during those years of "prosperity." ("Extreme poverty" is defined as those with incomes less than half of the federal poverty level--i.e., under $7,315 for a family of three.)

A report by the Urban Institute writes: "Despite phenomenal growth in the U.S. economy in the late 1990s, more children lived in single-parent, extremely poor families in 1998 than in 1996. This surprisingly negative outcome largely reflects an increase in the number of low-income families that have either left, or chosen not to enroll in, government support programs (including cash welfare and food stamps)." The Urban Institute documented that the 1.3 million single-parent families in the bottom fifth of the population showed an average 8 percent decline in income.

Recently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors put out a survey that showed a 23 percent rise in the number of people who are seeking emergency food help in soup kitchens and a 13 percent rise nationwide in people seeking homeless shelter over last year's figure.

In other words, the hard-hearted rule of "sink or swim" meant that many people were left to sink. As Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC) was cut off, a significant section of children faced increased hunger, homelessness and desperate poverty. In many cases, this meant that people living in official "poverty" on welfare are now living in "extreme poverty" while scrambling to live on part-time jobs that keep disappearing.

Discrimination and the Poverty of Immigrants

The cuts in welfare have fallen hardest on oppressed nationalities, in several ways.

One is raw racist discrimination, in which Black people get special scrutiny and harsher treatment than white people at the hands of the welfare bureaucracy. An Urban Institute report wrote: "A larger share of blacks than whites who have left welfare indicate that they did so for administrative reasons. Fewer blacks than whites report receiving government supports in the few months after leaving welfare. A few small-scale studies have shown disturbing evidence of differential treatment between blacks and whites."

At the same time, "welfare reform" made a special point of cutting off immigrant people from benefits. Before 1996, legal immigrants were eligible for benefits on terms similar to those of native- born citizens. The new law significantly limited the eligibility of legally admitted immigrants for "means-tested federal benefit programs"--including the Food Stamp Program (FSP), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

At the same time, the intensified threat of deportation has made many immigrant families afraid to apply for benefits they are entitled to. Many immigrant families include people who are legal together with others who are undocumented. In many cases, everyone avoided the authorities--to make sure that their families were not torn apart by deportations. The decline in welfare support was sharper among immigrants than any other group during the 1990s. The think tanks call this a "chilling effect."

The Urban Institute report "How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?" (March 4, 2002) documents that immigrants in California and New York state are twice as likely to be poor as non- immigrants.

The threat of homelessness and hunger is acute: Almost one-fifth of low-income immigrant families in Los Angeles and over one quarter in New York reported problems paying their rent, mortgage, or utilities during the prior year. One-third of all immigrant families in Los Angeles and 31 percent in New York are called "food insecure" (meaning they have trouble buying food)--over 10 percent of these families regularly skip meals because they can't afford to eat, experience missed meals--and face what is officially called "moderate hunger."

The welfare cuts were harshest for immigrants entering the United States after the welfare reform law was passed in August 1996. And studies show that the families who speak the least English (who are often the most recent immigrants) face the harshest poverty. The Urban Institute writes "About half of families where adults speak no English at all are food insecure in Los Angeles, and in New York that figure is 57 percent."

"Food Insecurity"

"Food insecurity" is the new term for people who face hunger.

There is a huge gap between the need for food and the access to food stamps. In 1999-2000, only 13 percent of "low-income noncitizen families" in Los Angeles and 22 percent in New York City received food stamps, compared with 34 percent of low-income native citizen families in each state. In other words, immigrants were either denied help or else didn't apply for it. People were forced to go hungry to avoid exposing their family members to the authorities.

In studies of women with children, one woman in eight reported that the family had to skip meals or cut back on portions because they lacked funds to buy more food. And increasingly such women cannot turn to government for help. It is a damning fact when the Urban Institute writes: "About four-fifths of food insecure families (82 percent in Los Angeles and 78 percent in New York) did not receive benefits during the year before the survey."

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