Pain For The Poor, A Play For The Middle Class

After she pays her $650 rent, Catherine Flatow can count in pennies the money left over from her $663 monthly welfare check. Such simple things as paper towels are luxuries she must forgo. The 33-year-old San Mateo County (Calif.) mother of two says she wants to work, but can't afford child care. And if life is a grind now, it's only going to get tougher. Republican Governor Pete Wilson has proposed cutting welfare payments by up to 25%. Frets Flatow: "If they cut me, I'll be out on the street."

For thousands of welfare recipients across the U.S., the government's helping hand is turning thumbs down. Both Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and state-funded general assistance programs have become budget-cutting targets. The latest slashes come in Ohio, which on Apr. 1 severed 90,000 from its already reduced relief rolls of 166,000. Beyond those reductions are nationwide cutbacks in AFDC funding: In the past year, some 40 states lowered or froze AFDC payments to single mothers and children, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget & Policy Priorities.

The nation's governors say the reductions are the unhappy result of a lingering recession. But with AFDC accounting for just 3.5% of state expenditures, and general assistance funding representing even less, budget deficits are only part of the reason lawmakers are so willing to cut welfare, social policy experts suggest. What's at work, they say, is the politics of welfare: Politicians are playing on the fears and resentment of middle-class voters worried about their jobs as they see other ones go. "The recession makes people less patient with spending on the poor," says Lawrence M. Mead, associate professor of politics at New York University and author of The New Politics of Poverty.

OPEN SEASON. The rhetoric can only heat up as the nation speeds toward the November elections. Last month, in a speech to the Economic Club of New York, Vice-President Dan Quayle blamed the city's high taxes and school dropout rate on the failed "liberal vision" of a "content welfare state." In 1991's governors' races, attacks on welfare helped Republican David Duke win a white majority in Louisiana and helped elect Republican Kirk Fordice in Mississippi. "The welfare mother has replaced Willie Horton as the code word in racial politics," says Mimi Abramovitz, professor of social policy at Hunter College.

Whatever the motive, the cuts could hardly come at a worse time. The recession is driving AFDC and food-stamps caseloads to all-time highs. Even applications for Social Security disability benefits have soared 43% since 1989 as cash-short individuals scramble for available funds.

On a state-by-state basis, the picture is even worse. In Ohio, after the governor and legislature began cutting general assistance rather than raise taxes or pare funds for education, shelters overflowed. One program, which gives the homeless shelter in office buildings and warehouses when regular centers are full, reports that it now serves 255 people a night, up from 160 last year. In neighboring Michigan, which ended general assistance altogether to 83,000 recipients in October, homelessness is rising. "At this point, I feel helpless," says Donnie A. Ferrill, 36, an ex-carpenter who has lived in a homeless shelter or a tent since Michigan stopped his benefits.

Many states hope to change welfare recipients' behavior by getting stingier. Mississippi, which already has the lowest AFDC payments in the country, is considering dropping recipients who fail random drug tests. California, Virginia, and Maine want to refuse to pay extra for additional kids. Maryland proposes requiring parents to provide youngsters with preventive medical care. And Connecticut may penalize parents if their children skip school or are not immunized. Behind these schemes is "a gnawing feeling among people that welfare isn't working and we've got to do something to turn the system around," says Michael B. Levin, vice-president of the Connecticut Policy & Economic Council.

A backlash against reform has already begun. Starting July 1, New Jersey plans to cut off AFDC payments of an additional $64 a month for every new child born to a family. That has spawned an unusual coalition to fight the rule--from advocates for women to the Catholic Conference, which fears a rise in abortion. "What the state is now saying is: 'If you're an unfortunate kid who's born while you're mother is on welfare, that's too bad,' " says Lisa Glick Zucker, acting legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey. The state sees the issue differently: "Middle-class families can't demand a pay increase because a new baby is coming," says Democratic Governor James J. Florio. "Our new law allows welfare recipients to live under those same values."

FUTILE SEARCH. But critics of the reforms believe that some of the punitive measures are based on myths about the poor--that welfare encourages childbearing or that ending benefits will force recipients to work. Studies show that the average AFDC family has fewer than two kids--below the national average--and that birth rates to unmarried mothers are no higher in generous states than in stingy ones. Moreover, in Michigan, a state study found that only a handful of the 83,000 cut from the rolls found jobs because they lacked skills. And preliminary studies from a program in Wisconsin that penalizes parents whose kids are truant indicate that the threat of sanctions hasn't improved school attendance.

Studies also show that it takes substantial investment to make even marginal improvements in a welfare mom's job prospects. So it's no wonder that even the federal government's large-scale effort to reform welfare, the 1988 Family Support Act, has proved disappointing. In fiscal 1991, Congress provided $1 billion in matching grants for state job programs aimed at welfare recipients. But many states haven't been able to come up with their share, so only 53% of the federal funds has been used. "Any governor who is not spending this money can't be sincere when he says he wants people to work," says Sheldon H. Danziger, a University of Michigan social work professor. "They just want to cut their budgets."

With the most promising programs failing to produce much success, the smaller punitive measures aren't likely to do more than assuage middle-class resentment. But to many recipients, welfare often means the difference between a modicum of security and life on the streets.

      Here are some of the ways states are slashing the welfare rolls:
      State                        Change
      CALIFORNIA         Proposes cuts of up to 25% in AFDC
                         Teen recipients must live with parents and attend
                         school regularly
      CONNECTICUT        Proposes limiting general assistance payments to
                         those who have recently worked
                         Freezing AFDC payments
                         Requiring recipients to immunize children, attend
                         school regularly
      MARYLAND           Reduced AFDC payments to 1989 levels
      MASSACHUSETTS      Cut general assistance rolls by 38%
      MICHIGAN           Terminated general assistance
      OHIO               Cut general assistance benefit to $100 per month
                         Limited participation to 6 months per year,
                         effectively cutting 90,000 from the rolls
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