The Spectre of Poverty

Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we knew it” in 1996. He did this by signing into law a program that replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

According to Friday’s article in The Nation, under TANF:

“States were given wide discretion to determine eligibility, benefit levels and time limits, and the TANF block grant was also frozen at the 1996 level without being indexed to inflation so those dollars don’t go as far now. A majority of states now provide benefits at less than 30 percent of the poverty line (about $5,200 annually for a family of three), and benefits are below half the poverty line in every state.”

The thinking was that by throwing people off the welfare rolls and sending them out into the work force, they would be required to sink or swim. Those that stayed on the welfare rolls would have to do some sort of work to earn their benefits for the limited time the new law allowed them to collect. This was touted as a way to train people on welfare for the world of work.

It is tough to see how mopping hallways and cleaning streets prepares anyone for the world of work. It is symbolic of the twisted way we view poverty. We just assume that people in need are immoral drug addicts with bad values. Putting mops in their hands would show them what an honest day’s work would look like.

Having people do menial work in return for less than the bare necessities of life and human dignity is tantamount to slavery. The whole working for welfare to train people for the real world idea sounds an awful like what planters in the American south said about slavery. In this view, Africans and their descendants would learn civilization under the slave system. The slave owners were benevolent patriarchs, teaching their charges about how to live in white society.

Since welfare reform, life for the poor, especially poor women and children, has taken a turn for the worse. We refuse to revisit our decision because both parties have touted welfare reform as a success. They were touting it as a success even before the law was enacted. Clinton had vetoed similar versions of welfare reform twice before signing it the third time on the eve of his reelection bid. The economy was doing well, Republicans controlled Congress and welfare reform had become a timely and popular measure. Much like everything Clinton did, it was a political calculation.

So we signed the law, patted ourselves on the back and have lived in the delusion that welfare reform was a success ever since. It has been a success, if the goal was to merely kick people off of welfare:

“Prior to welfare reform, 68 of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance through AFDC. By 2010, just 27 of every 100 poor families received TANF assistance.”

What about how welfare reform “improved” poverty:

“A stunning report released by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center reveals that the number of US households living on less than $2 per person per day—a standard used by the World Bank to measure poverty in developing nations—rose by 130 percent between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. The number of children living in these extreme conditions also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

The reason? In short: welfare reform, 1996—still touted by both parties as a smashing success.

The report concludes that the growth in extreme poverty “has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.” The law created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had guaranteed cash assistance to eligible families since 1935.”

And it has not been as if Congress could not have reversed its decision on welfare reform:

There was an opportunity recently in Congress to address, or partially address—or at the very least debate—the TANF debacle of sub-poverty benefits and declining caseloads. It wasn’t widely reported, but along with the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extensions, TANF was also up for reauthorization.

Congress not only took a pass on any serious debate, it threw a little gasoline on the fire.

It extended the TANF block grant through September 2012 but denied funding for the Supplemental Grants which go to seventeen mostly poor states. Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support division at CBPP, notes that these supplements were created in 1996 because welfare reform resulted in poor states receiving “less than half as much federal funding per poor child as other states.”

“This wasn’t about money,” Pavetti told me. “The money’s already there in the TANF Contingency Fund. Congress could have done the exact same thing it did last year and redirected funds from the Contingency Fund to the Supplemental Grants. Total federal funding for TANF wouldn’t have changed a bit.”

We see the same thing happening with education reform. Both parties are on board behind a Democratic president who has promised to shake up the education system. There is no evidence that the standardized testing and chartering of our public schools has done anything to improve education. Yet, the reformers sit confident in smug satisfaction it all works. The mantra of “no excuses” abounds, whether in pushing people into the work force or judging students by test scores. When all is said and done, both parties will claim success in “reforming” schools.

What will this look like for the children of America? Perhaps similar to what welfare reform looks like for them now:

Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, where he has been doing this work since 1973, told me that the state has cracked down on people who fail to meet their thirty-hour weekly work requirement “and in the last six months or so they’ve driven at least 30,000 people off of assistance. The welfare caseload in Ohio is dropping rapidly. ”

He’s traveled throughout the county of late to see how conditions are changing.

“There’s a growing number of families out there—through the combination of time limits and sanctions—who have no cash whatsoever, they’re just surviving on food stamps,” he said. “The housing conditions—people are doubling, tripling up even in little trailers. These kids are hungry, they’re sleeping in chairs, or makeshift beds, crammed together. They can’t afford transportation—they’re stuck out in these communities with no way to go anywhere or do anything.”

Frech used to have funding to help with car repairs and transportation, but that’s mostly been cut. There is some gas money but that doesn’t help with the vehicle or insurance which few clients can afford after covering the basics. But if they can’t make their thirty-hour-a-week job cleaning the dog shelter, or maintaining roads or gravesites, or doing some cleaning for a government agency—“jobs that do very little to prepare them for better jobs out there,” according to Frech—they are cut from TANF.

Here is the problem. America’s economy has been declining overall for over 35 years. Ever since Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech (in which he never said the word “malaise”), Americans have had the sense that the future was not going to be as bright as the past. With the rise of the European Union, China, India and other competitors, it was clear that the United States was not going to enjoy the same unchallenged hegemony that people were used to.

So in the world of shrinking horizons, the corporate have decided to take as much as possible while the taking is good. There is no more sense in sharing the fruits of America’s bounty with workers or poor people. Throwing people off of welfare creates a bigger labor pool and depresses wages. Privatizing the school system opens the door to a boom in a new edu-industry. For the past 35 years, the corporate have literally taken to eating the food from the American peoples’ plate. It is the only thing left to do in an era of shrinking horizons.

I was never a Marxist, but it is clear that Marx was dead on when he saw into the future of capitalism. Fewer and fewer people will expropriate more and more of the wealth. More and more people will be dispossessed and subject to a neo-feudal state of dependency on the owners of capital.

After a while, a point will be reached when there will be too few of the corporate and too many of the dispossessed. In the end, “the expropriators will be expropriated”.

Welfare reform has relegated the children of the United States to the third world. Education reform seeks to disarm people’s ability to criticize their state of serfdom. But there will be a time, perhaps not far off in the future, where conditions will dictate responses. There will be a time when so many people are pushed into the ranks of the third world poor and they will have no choice but to criticize, just to have a hope to survive.

Ignoring poverty will only ensure that it metastasizes and eats the country from the inside out.

8 responses to “The Spectre of Poverty

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Even language has been corrupted by this process, as the term “reform” has been turned inside out to justify socially and economically pernicious policies. The term “welfare reform” was used to mask the destruction of a basic income floor beyond which people could not fall. That income floor was originally created in the ’30’s as a concession to the working class uprisings of the period. See Cloward and Piven’s “Regulating the Poor” for their analysis of how social safety nets wax and wane in response to ruling class fears of disorder and revolt. When the Overclass is confident of its strength and position, it revokes these programs, as we’ve seen happening for the past three decades. Removing that income floor has not only resulted in a catastrophic decline in the living standards of the poor, but has also resulted in falling wages for those who remain employed.

    In an America where politics is a pinball game between neoliberal corporatists (Obama/Romney) and Christian Fascists, there is no longer a limit to low far you can fall economically.

    Just as welfare reform was really an indirect attack on the working class, so too education reform is an attack not just on teachers and their unions, but a takeover of institutions, the public schools, that have served their communities for decades. And, in the same way, language is corrupted and appropriated as a means of achieving the upward redistribution of wealth.

  2. You should really go into politics. We need someone on the inside who thinks this way.

    • Thank you. It has always been in the back of my mind, but it always ends in assassination. 🙂

    • Put in browser Lucky Adrienne. She volunteers in her community church because her parents continue to support her after they paid all her college expenses. Poor student paying off students loans (expenses another sham) has to work part-time because full-time work cannot be found in current economy and pays practically entire paycheck on coverage. This plan is a hand out to the rich.

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