The Welfare "Train Wreck"

Capitalism's intensified war on the poor

Revolutionary Worker #1152, May 26, 2002, posted at

It's been five years since "the end of welfare as we know it." Five years ago, the ruling class, led by Bill Clinton, pulled the rug out from under the poorest of the poor. They were determined to transform millions of the "non-working poor" into the working poor--to find ways to profitably exploit millions more, or use them to lower the wages of those they can exploit. It was a program of intentional desperation--its core was the denial of even the most basic help to those who have nothing. Sink or swim--with the cold-hearted willingness to allow millions to sink.

They set the year 2002 as a big trigger point. Poor women on welfare were given a lifetime maximum of five years benefits--and that starts to run out this year for women who have not been able to find work. And the ruling class decided that, after five years, they would "reevaluate" their welfare plans. So in the coming months we will see two things:

First, in our communities, thousands of people woke up January 1, 2002 without any safety net at all- -facing a world of suffering alone--and with each passing week, more people (especially women with children) are going to be plunged into that circle of capitalist hell.

And, second, meanwhile, there is a big "policy debate" unfolding in Washington, DC, as the ruling class decides how, exactly, to finish off what they started.

And now at the five-year mark, the analysts talk about a "two train collision" about to happen.

One "train" is the recession. For the first years of welfare reform, millions of people found minimum wage jobs because the economy expanded. But that has been over. For over a year, unemployment has been rising. About a million people a year are losing their jobs. The poorest sections of the working class are among the hardest hit--for example in the hotel and tourism industries where many people found low wage jobs. No one knows how many more people will be forced out of their jobs in the months ahead.

The other "train" is the fact that the "safety net" that people are looking for is now shredded. In the last year, the number of people on welfare in many states has started to rise again - but now there is a lifetime limit to benefits and sharply reduced help. The weak protections that people once relied on in hard times are now being pulled away.

In the middle of this train wreck are millions of people who are barely making it. People will find themselves without jobs, without unemployment insurance, without money for day care, without medical care. People who, in the past, would turn to welfare off and on for rock-bottom survival.

Cruel Reform

This spring, as the ruling class debate starts in Washington, DC, an ocean of statistics has been gathered. What those hard, hard numbers show is what the cost of this so-called "success" has been.

Even before the recession hit, the "welfare reforms" meant intense hardship for millions of people. Here are some the most basic facts being publicized:

Welfare rolls have dropped sharply over the last eight years. In seven "heartland" Midwestern states, for example, the welfare rolls are two-thirds smaller than they were in the mid- 1990s.

At the same time, a recent report on welfare by the Joyce Foundation documents that poverty has remained and deepened for many millions--both those who stayed on welfare, and for many of those who were forced off.

For those who left welfare, their conditions of life and their standard of living have often worsened. For many, this has been a trip from welfare poverty with a regular check to working poverty with no security at all. In the Joyce study of Midwestern states, one-quarter of those who left welfare for work had more than five employers, and many worked part-time. On average, former recipients held jobs two-thirds of the time over the previous three years. Nearly half of people who left welfare reported being unable to pay bills, rent, buy clothes or purchase enough food, the report said. Barely half (57 percent) still have a job two years later. Of those who have jobs, only one-third got health care benefits with the job. In other words, women who could care for their kids while on welfare now bounce from one underpaid, temporary job to another--still not making ends meet, but now unable to make sure their kids are cared for.

Many of the people still on welfare are working part-time--32 percent in 1999. Their wages are criminally low, averaging a median hourly wage of $6.65. For those off welfare it is even worse--their median wage is $7.15, but because they often have fewer supplemental benefits (no insurance, no food stamps) their poverty is even more harsh, and their lives are even more insecure. There are now as many as 8.5 million children in the United States without health care coverage, and over 80 percent of these children have parents who hold jobs.

Women moving from welfare to work showed twice the rate of clinical depression, two in every five, compared to the general population.

Many who left welfare for jobs have been forced back onto welfare--simply because they often had no way to pay for child care, or because their wages simply could not cover food and shelter. By one estimate, only 30 to 40 percent of former welfare recipients who become unemployed will qualify for Unemployment Insurance.

Among those who left welfare between 1997 and 1999, 22 percent were back on the rolls when they were interviewed in 1999. Those numbers are now rising in the current recession. It is estimated that the number of people needing welfare goes up 5 to 10 percent for every percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate.

"Extreme poverty" has increased through this whole period. One in seven who left welfare now have no known income at all--they are often trapped in dire situations--homelessness, prostitution, and other desperate hustles within the illegal economy. Hundreds of thousands of children live in households that now have no visible income at all.

Success? Different Classes, Different Standards

Welfare reform is officially declared a success. The headlines said (over these last five years), "Welfare Caseloads Drop Sharply in Many States."

Millions lost their checks, millions "went to work."

The plans being debated in the ruling class starting in May are overwhelmingly "more of the same." The Bush administration, for example, has four key proposals for the next stage of "welfare reform":

When people point out that "welfare reform" has left millions poor and poorer, there is a revealing answer heard over and over in the now-ongoing ruling class welfare discussions. "The point of welfare reform," the bourgeois representatives say, over and over, "was to eliminate welfare, not to eliminate poverty."

By that standard, their class standard, "welfare reform" has been a success. And they want to "deepen" the process.

But by our standards, for those who want a better life and a world, all of this is intolerable.

Hard questions are sharply posed, as the oppressors' welfare policy approaches its "train wreck": How will our sisters and brothers make it? What will be forced upon them? What bitterness, suffering will the system now force upon them? How long will we allow these monsters to rule over us?

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