2002 Third Annual Public Education Forum

Women on Welfare: Where are they going?

On February 26, 2002 The New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF) held its third annual Public Forum, entitled “Women on Welfare: Where are They Going?” Representatives from NYWF grantees Urban Justice Center, Welfare Rights Initiative, and Make the Road by Walking appeared with Trudi Renwick, an economist with the Fiscal Policy Institute, and Dr. Frances Fox Piven, a nationally renowned social welfare policy scholar.

Dr. Piven opened the evening with a discussion of the ideology and history behind federal welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 and the resulting structure of welfare programs as they affect poor women today. She said that the 1996 welfare reform act was the result of a three-decade-long campaign against Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the welfare system established after the Depression. Proponents of welfare reform advocated that welfare had a debilitating effect on poor women; welfare restrictions and work mandates were seen as the necessary remedies, Dr. Piven noted.

In Dr. Piven’s view, the effect of welfare reform was four-fold. She observed that the reform’s five-year cap on receipt of benefits limited poor women’s assistance from the government. The new law also imposed work requirements as a condition of receiving benefits, and it eliminated decades of reforms and case law designed to make the welfare system accountable to the public. Dr. Piven noted that perhaps most significantly, the law’s allocation to states of a set amount of welfare funds, the unspent balance of which could be used for other purposes, created financial incentives for states to reduce welfare enrollment.

The direct effect of these policies, Dr. Piven said, is today’s welfare system, in which recipients are at risk of losing benefits for failure to comply with the rules. A leading cause for a welfare recipient’s loss of benefits is a missed appointment; it is nearly impossible to reschedule an appointment at the welfare center, and missing one due to child care problems or language barriers can have devastating consequences, Dr. Piven noted.

Further, Dr. Piven added, families seeking assistance are actively diverted from
receiving that help. Welfare recipients are routinely referred to food pantries when they are eligible for food stamps, said Dr. Piven. She noted that caseworkers using deficient computer systems may incorrectly terminate a family’s entire assistance case — food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance — upon employment, rather than discontinuing only the cash assistance.

Dr. Piven reported that while the total number of welfare recipients has dropped over 50% nationwide since 1996, poverty has actually deepened. Most former Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients who find work have jobs that pay between $5.50 and $7.00 per hour and offer no benefits. Median monthly earnings amount to $1,149, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Work is scarce for many former recipients due to their lack of skills and education, and the city’s recession has added to the problem. Dr. Piven observed that in some cases, these former welfare recipients were forced to seek emergency services to provide food, had their utilities cut off, or were evicted and went to homeless shelters. In 1997, among families who had left welfare, only 42% of those eligible for food stamps were receiving them.

Dr. Piven pointed to the federal welfare reform legislation’s reauthorization in September 2002 as an opportunity to create positive welfare policies that would focus on repairing the social “safety net” to assist women in transition from poverty to higher education and/or “living wage” employment. Dr. Piven urged the audience to listen to women who are directly affected by welfare reform for a comprehensive understanding on what it takes to become economically self-sufficient.

After Dr. Piven’s address, panelist Trudi Renwick expanded on Dr. Piven’s critique of the welfare system. Ms. Renwick noted that in New York State, where welfare enrollment has dropped over 50%, 20% of all children and 40% of African-American children live in poverty. She quoted a recent study that revealed that, of total families who had left welfare, two-thirds reported being worse off economically.

The panel focused first on the effects of welfare policies on poor women’s ability to make the transition out of poverty and then discussed immediate and long-term reforms that would make welfare work for the women of New York City. Leslie Monroy, of Make the Road by Walking, an organization that develops leadership skills of low-income immigrant women in Brooklyn, said that without adequate translation services, many non-English speakers are unable to follow the complicated rules governing receipt of welfare. Ms. Monroy urged audience members to support the Equal Access to Health and Human Services Bill that would affect as many as 100,000 people in New York City by ensuring interpreters and translated documents for non-English speaking welfare recipients at welfare centers.

Panelist Sham-e-Ali al-Jamil, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center who represents domestic violence survivors experiencing problems obtaining benefits, described the procedural hurdles faced by her clients in complying with rules that endanger their safety. She noted that women are routinely required, in order to maintain their benefits, to file a child support claim against their batterers, even if doing so would endanger the women and their children by revealing their whereabouts. Failure to comply may result in case closure, thus depriving many women of any economic assistance and chilling their urge to seek protection from abuse.

Roxanna Henry of the Welfare Rights Initiative, a group that trains women on welfare who are enrolled at CUNY to advocate for higher education, described the difficulties welfare recipients face if they want to go to school while receiving public assistance. She noted that since the advent of welfare reform, 27,000 City University of New York students who were on welfare were required to leave school in order to perform “Work Experience Program (WEP)” duties such as cleaning the parks and streets. Ms. Henry asked the audience to support the Access to Training and Education Bill, which would expand the concept of “work” to include education and training that would fulfill WEP requirements. The bill would also help the students who left college to participate in WEP to re-enroll.

Dr. Piven stressed the importance of access to education, training, and childcare, and she urged the reimposition of due process and accountability in the welfare system. Trudi Renwick encouraged audience members to support raising the minimum wage to better meet the actual cost of living. Finally, panelists advocated for a social welfare system that supports financial independence through meaningful education and training and offers genuine access to these and other critical building blocks to economic self-sufficiency.

What You Can Do:

  • LEARN as concerned citizens, informed voters and consumers, and strategic investors about the issues of women and welfare. How should public dollars be spent? How do we ensure a social safety net that provides adequate education and training?
  • ADVOCATE for public policies that effectively address economic and social justice issues for women on welfare.
  • SUPPORT with time, money, and connections to resources the many community-based organizations that are working on welfare issues, including organizations funded by The New York Women’s Foundation

Resources:

Immigrant Women on Welfare:
For more information, contact Make the Road by Walking @ 718.418.7690 or www.maketheroad.org.

Women on Welfare & Access to Education:
For more information, contact Welfare Rights Initiative @ 212.772.4076 or www.wri-nyc.org.

Domestic Violence:
For more information, contact the Urban Justice Center @ 646.602.5600 or www.urbanjustice.org.

TANF Reauthorization: 
For more information, contact NOWLDEF @ 212.925.6635 or www.nowldef.org.

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