With so much focus on the recession right now, and foreclosures and the unemployment rate making news, it can be easy to forget that for some people times have always been tough. For people collecting welfare, the barriers to getting off welfare are high, and women are especially hard hit.
This article from the Journal of the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work is poorly written, but presents some fascinating facts about the enormous obstacles placed on people trying to get off welfare rolls. One researcher calls the supports necessary for any family a four-legged stool, and if any of those legs are missing just getting through the day gets a whole lot harder:
“Family stability rests on a four-legged stool: one leg is a living wage job; a second, affordable child care for families with children; a third is health care coverage;
and the fourth is affordable housing,” says Laura Lein in the article. Lein is the dean of Michigan’s School of Social Work. “Families who have left the welfare rolls without long-term supports in these areas experience marginally increased income but are likely to remain in poverty.”
My husband used to work in welfare reform, and it’s true. The 1996 welfare reform bills signed into law by President Bill Clinton required people to get off welfare within five years, but allowed states to decide what if any supports would be in place for doing so. Michigan was one of the leaders in welfare reform, at the time. But once someone started earning a little more than minimum wage, they lost the assistance that allowed them to earn that little and still make their bills.
I’ve always felt it was a serious disincentive to people to only have certain benefits available to them while they were looking for a job or working less than full time, but as soon as they moved a little bit up the ladder everything was taken away. Unless you live with about seventeen other people, $6 an hour will barely pay for a roof over your head, much less health insurance, food or child care.
Now that all of us have experienced at least a little bit of what it’s like to live on the edge in this recession, maybe it’s time for a more compassionate look at welfare reform. Finding a way to reward people for work, not punish them by removing benefits as soon as they start to do well, could actually make a difference at pulling families out of poverty.