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The End Of Welfare?

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Ihese stories are not unusual. They are stories that describe the dally struggles of women and their klds who are living in poverty and are on the edge of homelessness. Every woman that I interviewed for my book, "Uves on the Edge," was from Michigan and was working part time or had been working full time and was forced to give up her job because of a housing, or child care, or The stereotype of a welfare recipiënt is a woman who has no connection whatsoever to the labor market. The reality is that over 40% of women who are on welfare work 900 hours a year, which is exactly the same number of hours that all mothers in the labor forcé work. Over 70% of women on welfare are what we cali cyclical workers. They move in and out of welfare, or receive part-time welfare assistance while they have young children because they cannot cope with the enormous child care needs that conflict with the ability to maintain oneself in an employable position. So as we look at daily life, when you're poor, when you're female, when you're a mother, one begins to see that you are confronted with a literal assault on your daily viability as a family. While the Republlcans have talked about restoring family values in their ContractOn America, what we actually see in that Contract - which has passed in the House and will be debated on the Senate floor in June - is one of the most dangerous and destruc - Uve anti-family policies that would essentially dismantle the minimum welfare state that currently exists in the United States. Valerie Polakow is the author of "Uves on the Edge: Single Mothers and Their Children in the Other America" (Chicago).' Her article, "On a Tightrope Without a Net, " was recently publishedin The Nation (May 1, 1995). This article is an adaptation of a talk Ms. Polakow gave at Guild House in April. At the present time the United States is one of the richest and most powerful coun tries in the world - yet we have 15.7 milllon children living below the poverty line. The poverty line calculated in the United States is also artifically low and was set at $1 1 ,800 a year for a family of three in 1994. We do not use the same formula as other Western industrialized democracies. If we did, we would literally see millions more children living in poverty. Right now the average monthly AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) payment for a family of three in Michigan is $435. That $435 has to cover essentially all living expenses except food and includes housing, Utilities, personal needsallowances, transportaron, clothing. Food stamps come to $69 a month per family member, which the Michigan League for Human Services recently calculated comes to 77 a meal, or $2.30 in food stamps a day per family member. Food stamps, as they exist currently, are not sufficient to feed a family, which is why in the last week of the month, many recipiente report how they have to skimp: how they go without food so their children can eat Now what helps children deal with the food stamp deflciency that currently exists? School lunches. Ifyourchild is in school, your child gets free school lunch and perhaps free breakfasL Yet the current Republican proposals lnclude consolidating all food assistance programs into state block grants, which means that the federal entitlement that poor people currently have to food stamps, schoolchildren to school lunches, pregnant women and infants to the W1C {Women, Infant Care) program wlll be Consolidated into one block grant and the money will go to the states. The states can then decide essentially how to use that money. Ifthey decide, as Englermightwell do, that he wants to take part of that money to make su re that food stamp fraud doesn"t occur and develop a system offingerprinting welfare recipients (which is now being proposed in several states), some of that money could be used for that! So what we're looking at is eliminating a legal entitlement from the federal govemment, which even as it exlsts now is insufficient to meet a family's needs. But if these proposals go through and a recession hits, there is no automatic expansión of that block grant. So if we have doublé the number of people in the state living in poverty, tough! The state block grant wil! serve a limited number of recipients and the rest wlll be left to forage for food or go hungry. The second measure that I want to talk about deals with cuts to AFDC , the main federal welfare program. AFDC is also a federal entitlement program. It tees that if you are living below the poverty Une, you and your children are entitled to receive cash assistance. However, the states have the right to set the maximum benefit levéis, which, of course, has been a disaster because in some states, like Mlssissippi, the assistance levéis for a family of three are as low as $ 1 20 a month. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, if these welfare cuts were in effect today 2.5 million families and more than 5 million children currently receiving assistance would lose their benefits. In addition, the following provisions are built in to the "Personal Resposibility Act" of the Contract. Ifyou are ayounggirl who gets pregnant and you're under 18 years old, you will have no entitlement whatsoever to cash assistance, for you or your baby. Now what does that mean? It means that young mothers who become pregnant are going to be put into a situation of lmmediate homelessness if they have no family support. If they are put into a situation of homelessness, what's going to happen to their babies? Well, the initial proposal was to put them in orphanages. Orphanages cost $39,000 a year to opérate per child. Most women who receive AFDC receive about $5, 000 a year. But an orphanage costs $39,000! The second provisión targets any mother who has received welfare at any time and restricts her to a llfetime limit of 60 months. The minute she reaches 60 months she's terminated for life and so are her children. It doesn't matter what her work history has been. it doesn't matter what the situation has been, ifs a drop-dead time limit of five years. Another provisión stipulates that any woman who becomes pregnant with a second child while receiving welfare will be denied aid permanently for the subsequent child. Even if she concetves the child while married, is abandoned by her husband, and then has to go onto welfare, the new baby is permanently barred from any aid. (SEE NEXT PAGE) "I feel so much better about myself when l'm working, but I can't do it without the child care. All this time I 'm trying to better myself. l'm not one of those statistics that the govemment says just gets on ADC and sits there. That's how they thinkyou are anyway, having baby after baby. As ifyou want to sit allyourlife on ADC Whenyou go to the supermarket, I get that different treatment. When I pull out the foodstamps, people look atyou and they say 'You're on ADC You're not trying to better yourself. ' I feel so bad there, I just want to cry. I want to teil them: 'Don 't look at me like that. You don 't know what's going on in ourlives. ' Those people who look atyou in the line and say: 'She's one of them. ' I want to teil them, 'You just don 't know. Ifyou had a kid and you got no way out, you'd see whatyou'dgo through. '" -Anna "We were only on a month-to-month lease. Thejudge gave us 30 days to move out. We had no place to go. It was summer. School was out. DSS, Department of Social Services, gave us this voucher fora motel. You're only meant to stay there for 30 days, but there was no housing for us so they extended it. So we lived for 69 days in this motel. DSS put us there. They said there was nothing ese. There were rats and maches. I called the Health Department and told them but they never carne. Outside they were dealing drugs. There were prostitutes walking up and down. My childrenjust lost the ir personal ities. My eightyear old stopped eating. All this time, I tried to search for an apartment with a $310 limit f rom DSS. I could find a two bedroom, but not a three bedroom. And with three kids they said I couldn't live there. They said, 'Well, ifyou could do something about one ofyour kids. ' Well, what do you want me todo? Get rid of one my kids? And the wait for public housing is three or fouryears in some cases. " -Christy , The end of Welfare? (FROM PREVIOUS PAGE) In additlon, If a woman does not name ! the father of her child, she is denied aid j permanently for unacknowledged patemity . Many women wlll not name the father of their child. Why? Because they're ened wlth kidnapping and with violence. Michigan now has that requirement - Engler instituted it to demónstrate how he is eflectively reducing welfare "dependency." And there are many women that I know in this area who right now are unable to receive cash assis tance or Medicaid for their bables bepause they won't name i(he father and cannot prove their safety is threatened. Yet they fled abusive relationships or the father has threatened to harm them or their children. None of these welfare provlsions protect the large number of women who become destltute and homeless because of domestic vlolence. Nationally, it is estimated that 50% of women wlth children who become homeless do so because of domestic vtolence. It is a very, very significant factor in the lives of women and children. One of the stated goals of the Personal Responsibility Act is to "reduce illegitimacy and restore the American family" - henee teen single mothers have become a specific target. From the media and from legislators one gets the impression that we have swarms of pregnant teenagers who are becoming pregnant at the drop of the hat and in fact are draining the taxpayers budget. That's the myth. The reality is that 1.2% of AFDC recipiente are teen mothers under 1 8. These are the swarms of pregnant teens draining the taxpayers budgetl Also significant is the startling statlstic that 67% of teens who become pregnant are impregnated by adult men between the ages of 20 years and 50 years. Do we hear about adult men and their responsibilities in terms of teenagers? We don't. We've heard about so-called "deadbeat dads," but in terms of looking at who's making teen girls pregnant, we're not looking at teen boys. We're looking at the majority of pregnancies being caused by adult men between 20 and 50 years old - responsible for over 202,000 teen births a year! And the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that 74% of girls under 1 4 who have had sex were actually rape victims. So when you look at the statistics in terms of teenagers under the age of 1 8, you're looking at the targeting of a population of very vulnerable children who are being sexually coerced or raped - the majority of them by adult men. That is the concealed reality behind the vindicüve discourse which essentially says: "If you get pregnant and you don't say 'no,' we're going to essentially toss you into the streets and take your children into orphanages." The Personal Responsibility Act will also force people tnto indentured servitude. Mothers on welfare are going to have to work, paid or unpaid, 35 hours a week in so-called "workslots." Ifthey can't find their ownjobs, they have to volunteer their labor in order to get their benefits. U's a modern form of indentured servitude as women will be forced into work slots as a way of paying off their beneflts and will actually, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, be receiving about $2.42 an hour (in the dian state) , a rate far below minimum wage. This particular work requirement has its parallel with our own govemor. Governor Engler instituted what is called the Social Contract and Work First. The Social Contract mandates that every poor mother who is receivlng beneflts has to work for her benefits by essentially putting in 20 hours of paid or unpaid labor a week. So if you can't find a job, you have to volunteer. When you volunteer, neither child care nor transportation are guaranteed. In the Personal Responsibllty Act, 35 hours of work are requlred and there are no chlld care provisions whatsoever. It's an amazing and outrageous situation - there are no exemptlons for chlldblrth, for infancy, or for disabled chlldren at home where a mother mlgh t be requlred full time to care for a disabled child . So what we're looking at is a brutal assault on poor families where there is no way to survive anymore. Previously we had a deficiënt and minimal safety net Many people feil through the gaping holes of that safety net. If this bill passes the Senate , we can Imagine that the 1 5. 7 million children who are living in poverty - over half of them in utter destitution , according to the Children's Defense Fund - will increase In alarming numbers. Whatwe have to recognize is, firstofall, we're not looking at anything called "welfare reform." We're looking at an unconscionable and vlcious attack against poor single mothers that is going to have devastating consequences for children. We're also looking at a set of policies that are going to fall under the whims of a state governor and a state legislature and we shouldn't kid ourselves that those bodies are going to look ou L for and try to protect vulnerable citizens. If we look at our own state, Michigan, how did Governor Engler reduce the welfare rolls? Well, in 1991 he threw 83,000 "ablebodied" recipients off General Assistance. He got rid of 83 ,000 recipients (single people) that way and cut benefits to women and children by 11%. If you think about the child care crisis that confronts all working mothers, we're looking at a situation in Michigan where at the present time the average child care costs for full-time preschool care are $4,400 per year. Ifyouwork fulltime at minimum wage, you make $8,800 ayear. With one child, half of your salary will go to child care if you get no other assistance. U's also important to recognize that over half of low-income families nationally pay up to 70% of their inconie on housing in the private market. If you don't manage to get public housingor Section 8subsidized housing, you're essentially left to forage in the private market And if you're poor and receiving $435 a month, how are you going to pay rent and child care and take care of all the other expenses from transportation to personal needs? The wait for subsidized housing in our area - Washtenaw, Wayne, and Genesee Counties - is between two and five years. So we're looking at a situation where, as one woman told me: "We live our lives on the edge." If these Contract proposals pass the Senate and are not vetoed by Clinton - their impact will be devastating and will plunge millions more families into destitution. It is clear that at the present time, the United States has become the most dangerous "democracy" for poor women and their children to live in. Their fundamental rights to survival are under brutal assault. Ifthis bill passes the Senate, we can imagine that the 15.7 million children who are living in poverty- over half of them in utter destitution, according to the Children's Defense Fund- will increase in alarming numbers.


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