Why Not a New War on Poverty?

The debate in Washington over welfare policy has taken an unfortunate turn: Republicans and many Democrats seem to be in a battle over who can be tougher on poor people rather than who can be tougher on poverty. It's too bad, because in the early days of the Bush administration there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that the president might follow up on the lofty words in his inaugural address. "In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise," Bush said then. And in fact, to the surprise of those who expected little from a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, some significant steps were taken in the fight against poverty.

As a silver lining in the otherwise indefensible tax bill passed by Congress last year, there was the enactment of a new refundable tax credit for low-income parents, who will receive $8 billion in income support each year. This is the largest antipoverty program created in nearly a decade, and it promises to lift half a million children out of poverty. As well, the farm bill passed by Congress and signed by the president in May, which is mostly devoted to welfare for agribusiness, also includes the largest expansion of the Food Stamp Program in years. It raises benefits and allows legal immigrants once again to be eligible for the program.

There have been victories, too, on a range of issues at the state level, thanks to energetic grass-roots organizing in poor communities and new sophistication in methods. Activists have pressed for wider access to Medicaid and food stamps, for living wages, for expanded education and training for low-income parents, and for new ways to give paid leave to low-wage workers. Locally and nationally, the very terms of debate have shifted: There is less discussion in the media of the supposedly lazy and shiftless poor and more focus on how hard it can be to raise a family and earn a decent living in today's economy.

And yet, as the president and Congress turned their attention to rewriting the 1996 welfare law, the emphasis suddenly was on how to toughen work requirements for welfare recipients. While the president has used his bully pulpit to emphasize conservatism more than compassion, most mainstream Democrats have acted as if the party has nothing to say about the problem of poverty. Given massive caseload declines and increases in work participation among poor mothers, this is a bizarre turn of events.

By acting as if the politics of poverty haven't changed since the Reagan era, Republicans -- and many Democrats -- are terribly out of touch. A recent poll by Peter Hart and Associates finds that public hostility toward the welfare system has declined substantially, and that Americans overwhelmingly reject stricter work requirements in favor of policies to support work and protect vulnerable families who are making an effort. Broader trends suggest a potential new resonant politics of economic security that connects the breakdown of the safety net for poor families with anxieties about health care, pensions, and the economy, and with the struggles most parents have in balancing their jobs and family obligations. Even the nation's governors, a conservative bunch who were the driving force behind the 1996 reform, have outlined a series of proposals to expand access to education and training, stop the clock on time limits for welfare parents who are employed, and restore benefits for immigrants.

And perhaps most important, the realities at ground level have changed dramatically. Welfare rolls have declined by about half (though in the current downturn they are predictably creeping back up), and millions of poor women did what the country asked (as many would have done anyway in the strong economy) and got a job. Some fundamentals of economic life for these families are what they have always been -- poverty wages, no paid sick days or vacation benefits or parental leave, no health insurance, no unemployment insurance to fall back on, and uncertain child-care arrangements. Consequently, the right way to describe what's happened since 1996 is not "welfare to work" but "welfare-to-work-to-welfare-to-work."

The new work requirements and time limits, as well as shabby treatment at the welfare office (and, everyone should remember, the miserly benefits averaging $300 a month), do move people to seek jobs. A sick child, a transportation breakdown, inability to pay the rent, job loss, or inadequate child care move people back to welfare. The big change since 1996 is that it is harder for families who lose low-wage jobs to get assistance when they fall on hard times. The line between the "working poor" and the "dependent poor" has become a fiction -- most low-income parents are cycling in and out of low-wage jobs and on and off welfare.

The proposals shaping the debate in Congress don't propose to lift a finger to help these families -- the vast "working poor" that everyone claims to care about. Indeed, the worst thing about these welfare plans is not what they contain -- though the plans to institute unpaid workfare on a massive scale are appalling -- but rather the way in which they have pushed aside all discussion about the things that really matter.

If leaders in Washington were serious about improving the economic lives of poor people, they would have more to offer than "Get a job." Most of the discussion about reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law has focused on the nature of work requirements imposed on states and welfare parents. But a crucial question that has gotten less attention is how best to support and reward work for parents who leave welfare for low-wage jobs and for those low-wage parents who haven't been receiving welfare. This question is important because we know that increasing incomes -- rather than simply increasing labor-market participation -- is the key to the economic well-being of children.

State studies of those who leave welfare have consistently found that families are ending up with annual earnings that leave them below the poverty line. Wages range between the minimum of $5.15 per hour and $8 per hour. And, of course, increases in income due to employment are often offset by decreases in welfare and food stamps. The poverty rate for working single mothers has actually increased slightly in real terms since the 1996 law was passed, a remarkable result in a booming economy.

The next step in welfare reform should therefore be to increase family incomes. Such an approach will require a combination of policies, including minimum-wage and living-wage policies to "raise the floor" in the low-wage labor market. We need to expand real education and training opportunities to increase mobility for low-income parents. And a broad range of income and related supports -- including such supplements as food stamps, health insurance, and child care -- need to be made more easily and broadly available.

One important thing Congress can do this year is to make it easier for low-wage parents to get income supplements. States have found ways to do that, through "earnings disregards" or other means. These supplements, though frequently small, often provide the cushion necessary to get a car fixed or to meet work expenses. However, under federal law, any family that receives even one dollar of federally funded income support loses time off the 60-month lifetime limit for welfare -- even if that family is working. This policy sends mixed messages to families. On the one hand, we reward work by providing additional income to supplement low wages. On the other hand, we run time limits on working families so that assistance may be unavailable to them later if they need help because of job loss or personal crisis.

There are other means by which to support work: by increasing funding for child care and transportation, by extending health insurance coverage to working poor parents, by creating wage-paying transitional jobs with real education and training for the hardest to employ, by increasing access to education and training so that welfare parents can move up in the job market, by expanding unemployment insurance, and by stopping time limits for those who are "playing by the rules."

There are also ways to show that "family values" are important: by creating paid-leave programs and good-cause exceptions to welfare rules so that poor mothers never have to choose between their jobs and their kids; by ensuring fair treatment and state accountability to guarantee that no family in crisis is ever told, as one tip sheet in a required class for welfare clients put it, that dumpster-diving is an option for those having trouble buying food; and by supporting inclusion so that immigrants who work hard and pay taxes have equal access to benefits.

The emerging grass-roots antipoverty movement in communities around the country has no shortage of humane and workable ideas. It also is gaining power, with impressive victories at the local, state, and national level. The public is ready for a serious effort to tackle poverty in this country. Whatever the outcome of the welfare wars this year, we are surely witnessing the death throes of an old order of politics. What we need above all is leadership in the political class to catalyze a new, progressive approach to poverty reduction. At the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1948, Hubert Humphrey jolted the party out of its malign slumber on civil rights by challenging it to "get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." Who today will take on the challenge at hand: to fashion a winning politics against poverty and for economic security that will once again inspire the country?