For a long time nearly everyone has concurred that the U.S. welfare system has some serious deficiencies. We now have several generations of families which have grown up on welfare and have become dependent. For example, a teenage girl has her first baby while she's in high school, drops out of schoo and receives AFDC until that child is five. As that child approaches five, the mother having no job skills, poor education, and probably no access to affordable child care, chooses to have another baby to renew her welfare payments. And before you know it that first baby is twelve years old, having grown up in that situation, ready to repeat the cycle of dependency.
Last summer, the U.S. Congress approved "welfare reform" legislation that represents a massive overhaul of the old welfare system. As President Clinton put it, "an End to Welfare as we know it."
AFDC (Aid to Familes with Dependent Children), which has long been the backbone of the welfare system, is ended. In its place are new programs which will be administered quite differently from state to state and county to county. What used to be federal responsibilities and decision-making will now belong to states and local communities--and may often fall on churches as well.
In place of AFDC is TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) which places a lifetime limit on the length for which any able-bodied person can receive welfare benefits. The maximum limit under federal law is now five years. Pennsylvania has adopted a five year limit (starting this spring); some other states have chosen shorter limits--typically ranging from 21 months to 2 or 3 years. Furthermore, while one is receiving assistance, it is generally expected that that person will be progressing to self-sufficiency through job searching, education, training, or part-time work. Also, eligible applicants will receive medicaid and food stamps, which are not subject to the 5-year limit.
Also beginning this spring, both old and new welfare applicants must sign an Agreement of Mutual Responsibility, and if not working at least 20 hrs/week, must begin an 8-week job search. If still unemployed after 8 weeks, up to 12 months of education or job training can be provided in lieu of work. However, after 12 months, at least 20 hrs/week of some kind of work activity is required to maintain benefits.
In fact, most people on welfare are eager to work, provided they have the necessary supports to make work viable--such as affordable child care, transportation, and medical coverage. Pennsylvania's TANF program is intended to help provide child care and transportation and to continue some welfare benefits as they begin working, until they become self-sufficient. A single mother who refuses to reveal the identity of a child's father may lose some or all of her benefits. Pennsylvania law also provides stiff penalties for anyone who commits welfare fraud; and legal immigrants (like illegal immigrants) will now be denied most welfare benefits.
In principle, many aspects of welfare reform appear to be much superior to the old system. In practice, however, there are many concerns. Many details of the program are still being defined, but as the law now stands, food stamp benefits, which now average about 80 cents per person per meal will be reduced to 66 cents per meal (in 1996 dollars) over the next 5 years. In communities where child care is not available, a welfare mother may continue to receive assistance for 5 years without working, but after 5 years, she and her children will receive no more assistance--which probably means the children will end up in foster care. In some states other than Pennsylvania, the limit is 2 years or less.
A teenage mother under 18 will be required to live with parents, relatives , or a responsible adult and continue her high school education in order to receive assistance. Since most teenage moms become pregnant from older men--often a family member or frequent visitor, putting a teen mother back into that disfunctional family situation is clearly counterproductive. Are there community and church groups--such as First Mennonite--who are willing to adopt and work with teenage moms and displaced foster children?
Much of the concern about the "welfare reform" program is that it appears to be motivated primarily by a drive to cut costs rather than to end poverty. The U.S. currently has about three times the child poverty rate of Western Europe, and because some pieces of the support system are under-funded, it appears that at least in some communities the child poverty rate could increase substantially over the next several years--especially if there is an economic downturn.
Welfare reform also does not address the trend over the last twenty years for a large increase in homeless families and individuals--homeless even though working part-time, full- time, or overtime--because the jobs don't pay enough to make ends meet.
There are many other details, but those details aren't the real issue. As in the days of Isaiah and Daniel, Amos and Hosea, we need a new vision. Instead of being careful to keep our children away from their children, we must see that all of them are our children--in fact all of the world's children are our children. With that vision by God--and through God--we will care for them. Without that vision, we are without hope; because these children are our future and our children's future.