The Welfare of Children

Review :

This book is a bit dated and I was little hesitant about that when I picked it up, but it turned out to be a great read! Hays examines the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996 (aka welfare reform) in great detail in this book published in 2003. I (sadly) have the feeling that this book is actually quite relevant and timely given the incoming administration...

Hays hit many of favorites with this book - social issues, women/children, more than data than I could have hoped for, and personal stories of those affected by the issue at hand. I started sticking little post it notes as I read beside facts and figures I wanted to remember but quickly ran out of post its and space before deciding to just read. From the beginning welfare has firmly been connected to American's value surrounding family life. It began in the early 20th century via state laws providing Mother's Pensions specifically aimed at protecting widows so they could continue to care for their children at home. These laws were expanded and made more inclusive when New Deal legislation instituted the program of Aid to Dependent Children in 1935. This federal law stemmed directly from the American family ideal of a breadwinning husband and a domestic wife. If the husband was absent, the state would step in to take his place to financially support the women and children. In practice, many women deemed not virtuous enough were denied aid, but by the late 1960s, increasingly poor single mothers were using welfare for precisely the purpose for which it was originally intended - they were staying at home to care for their young children.

Times changed, as they inevitably do, and the welfare rolls continued to grow alongside the rise in single parenting. Social concern turned away from helping the needy and the tide began to turn. In 1996, welfare was renamed as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) legislation and the Personal Responsibility Act (PRA) established the absolute demand that mothers participate in the labor force, offering no exceptions. All welfare mothers are now required to work, including those with infants; from the moment they enter the welfare office, they must be looking for a job, training for a job, or holding a job. The biggest change was that time limits were enacted - you have 5 years to collect benefits and then you're expected to self-sufficient. You can come and go off welfare, but after you've received 5 years of benefits, that's all you get for the rest of your life. And plus also, after 2 years of benefits there's a 2 year period where you can't receive benefits. Sanctions were also put into place and if you were sanctioned too many times, you were kicked off. You could be sanctioned for things like not showing up to unpaid job training. Having to miss an unpaid workfare placement because you couldn't find childcare (not everyone got childcare subsidies; many can't afford childcare while working an unpaid placement - unpaid placements were used as a way to learn job skills).

There was a provision that allowed temporary subsidies for paid childcare, but this law ended any special protection for women and children by the government. I found this interesting, as I think most would agree that children at least deserve some form of protection. But by tying their well-being to that of a poor parent, most often a woman, doesn't sit well with me. This is a vulnerable population: 60% of welfare mothers have experienced domestic violence. It's estimated that 4 to 56% of welfare recipients suffer from some form of mental illness. 47% don't have a high school diploma. Interestingly, many of the politicians who signed the PRA into effect continued to busily espouse family values, which have historically included women staying at home to raise children.

The PRA has 4 stated goals. Weirdly, only one was directed at paid work. Two are directed at marriage. That is, paid work OR marriage are the viable paths off welfare. Put another way, removing the safety net and forcing welfare mothers to work is a way to reinforce all women's proper commitment to marriage and family. And one more time, for the cheap seats: work requirements are a way to punish mothers for their failure* to get married and stay married. By 2002, the Bush White House was developing initial proposals to further promote marriage to welfare recipients tied to monetary bonuses. The PRA also introduced a family cap that bars from welfare receipt all children born to mothers who are already on welfare. This is arguably unconstitutional in that in systematically operates to penalize women for exercising their right to reproductive choice. And it's just gross and very big brother-ish and had most importantly, had no demonstrable impact on the rate of out-of-wedlock birth rates.
* This brings up a whole host of other social issues. As mentioned above, 60% of welfare mothers have experienced domestic violence. Should these women be forced to stay in abusive and dangerous relationships

I understand the desire to make people "earn" their welfare benefits which are an entitlement program. But, I would wager that you reading this right now currently benefit from entitlement programs as well such as the mortgage interest deduction which provides 5 million households in the US making >$200k/year more housing aid than the 20 million households living on <$20k/year. Retirement plans that the poor - even the WORKING poor - oftentimes don't have access to either because their employer doesn't offer it or whose budgets are so tight that retirement savings is a luxury. Perhaps you feel these don't apply to you for whatever reason. That's fine - people making more than you are taking advantage of entitlement programs, too. See: yacht tax deduction. Second home mortgage interest deduction. Gambling loss deductions. The estate tax where you can transfer assets of up to $5.4 million tax free. And my favorite, the capital gains tax rate, which maxes out at 24% as compared to the top tax rate of 39.6% (aka why Warren Buffett famously has a lower effective tax rate than his secretary). And before you say that some of these deductions are the government letting you keep your own money, in the eyes of the Congressional Budget Office, these are equivalent to the government offering you money aka an entitlement program.

The PRA's key failure is that it seems to forget that the target group for welfare is mothers with children. Children are challenging. Most welfare mothers are working in low-skill, low-paying jobs that are not particularly known for their flexibility. Your kid gets sick - what do you do Stay home from work to care for them You don't get paid if you don't work. You could get fired. Leave them home alone No mother wants to do this when her child is sick. CPS could be called if your kid is particularly young. You could lose your kids. Childcare is expensive. Finding safe, affordable childcare that is close to your home and workplace when you make very little money is a monumental task. Menial jobs such as fast food often have changing schedules that don't jive with the hours of childcare centers. The costs involved with forcing welfare mothers to work that the PRA provided includes: childcare subsidies, transportation subsidies, and welfare benefits. However, the costs of subsidizing childcare for the poor far outstrips the state and federal costs of paying a welfare mother to raise her own children. It is cheaper - by far - to give a mother a monthly welfare check than it is to subsidize her childcare at market rates. In the two cities that Hays studied, welfare benefits were $354 and $410 a month for a family of 4. Childcare costs on average are $904/month for 2 kids and $1,356 for 3. Even including the supplementary benefits of food stamps, placing welfare children in subsidized care of 40 hours per week is far more expensive than (inadequately) supporting their mothers to care for them at home. The good news for taxpayers and the bad news for poor single mothers and their children is that the majority of welfare clients never actually receive childcare subsidies. Nationwide, about 1/3 of eligible families receive the subsidies due to long waiting lists for these spots. There was a heartbreaking story of a mom who put her daughter in childcare with the help of her local welfare office. Her daughter was subsequently abused by the daycare provider's husband. When the mother realized this, she immediately pulled her daughter from the facility but was understandably terrified to take her elsewhere. She was forced to do so and go back to work to avoid losing her benefits.

This is great and should help these folks get on their feet to where they can support their families, right The PRA was initially heralded by many as a huge success - the welfare rolls declined from 4.4 million families to 2.1 million from 1996 to 2001. However, many of these women turned to alternate sources of income - relying on relatives, doing hair or nails under the table, selling drugs, or prostitution. Not exactly what I would call a success. Additionally, the drop in the rolls represent women who were sanctioned off of welfare, dropped out as they were unable to comply with all the requirements, or who met the 2 or 5 year limit but still live in poverty as well as those who did move on to support themselves successfully.

There's so much more in this book that I didn't even touch on. A heartbreaking read that gives tons of information but also asks many questions of the system that creates such a need to begin with.

Some of the things I flagged early on in this book:
- At the inception of welfare reform, 1 in 8 kids in the US was supported by a welfare check. Families that qualify for welfare are desperately poor. In 2002, a mother with TWO kids had to make less than $7,510 a YEAR to qualify. Many prospective clients make much less than that, though.
- Over 90% of welfare clients are women. Most of these are single moms - only 7% are two-parent households. Black and Hispanic clients are over-represented, largely because they are more likely to be poor. 38% of recipients are black, 24.5% Hispanic, and 30% white. But children outnumber adults on the welfare rolls by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.
-It's a myth that welfare mothers don't have a work ethic. Half of all mothers entering the welfare office in the early 1990s came off the rolls in 2 years. At least 1/3 worked on the books while they were on welfare. 83% had some work experience, 65% had been recently employed, and 2/3 would leave welfare with jobs. But about 40% would be repeat welfare customers.
- The PRA requires that fathers will be pursued for child support. The mother will receive a max of $50/month with the remainder going to the state to cover the costs of welfare. Some women are scared of this mandate, as their former partners are abusive and fear this will set them off. 10-20% of these fathers are already in jail and many already owe more than they could ever hope to pay (the average child support in arrears is $2k while the average total earnings of these men over the prior 9 months was only $2,800).


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