Navigating Welfare Reform, Poverty is Tricky Business

Welfare reform, perhaps the signature legislation of Bill Clinton's presidency, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The use of the word "celebrated" would depend greatly on who was asked.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act transformed an open-ended cash assistance program to a finite program that attached benefits to those in need to work, subsidized by federal grants applied to the state. Along with assistance contributed by the states, it was designed to change welfare as we know it.

Some 7,300 days have passed since welfare reform was enacted, and this hallmark legislation of the Clinton administration may be just as controversial today as when it became law.

According to the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), by 2001, employment among never-married mothers had jumped 15 percentage points, welfare caseloads had dropped by almost half, and poverty among African Americans was reduced to its lowest level in history.

But the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities believes that welfare reform is badly in need of an overhaul. Ladonna Pavetti and Liz Scott recently penned an article on the Center's website stating:

"The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, established 20 years ago, is overdue for reform. TANF's combination of nearly unfettered state flexibility, fixed block grant funding, narrowly defined work requirements, and time limits has created a system that provides a safety net to very few families in need and does little to prepare low-income parents for success in today's labor market."

When AEI cited welfare reform's success, the economy was roaring. It was an economic time when one could indeed lift himself or herself out of poverty. But it's a very different economy today.

Even working multiple jobs is not an antiseptic from needing benefits to makes ends meet. Moreover, several Fortune 500 companies have been permitted to game the system by not providing enough work hours in order to avoid qualifying for benefits, thereby, in effect, forcing, at times actively encouraging, workers to accept the government dole.

Yet our collective condemnation seems to lean heavier on the individuals who need the benefits than the companies that improve their bottom line at the public's expense.

As with most other issues within the public discourse, holding simultaneously all the complexities of welfare reform is a gargantuan task to which we've proven unable, perhaps more to the point, unwilling, to hold.

I don't believe a $15-per-hour minimum wage will be any type of panacea. As much as Sen. Bernie Sanders championed this idea on the campaign trail, if brought to fruition it would be an unprecedented shock to an economy with anemic growth.

The reflexive response becomes blaming the poor, seeing them as a one-dimensional straw persons whose collective plight can be reduced to the sin of indolence. It is easy to offer that the best poverty program is a job, while ignoring the numbers of people who have multiple jobs but still languish in poverty.

The challenges presented by poverty in 21st century America are simply not the same as yesteryear.

The blue-collar manufacturing jobs that once paid a decent wage that held communities together are a thing of the past. And in spite of the political cacophony to the contrary, they are not coming back.

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, manufacturing production wages now rank in the bottom half of all jobs in the United States. In decades past, production workers employed in manufacturing earned wages significantly higher than the U.S. average, but by 2013 the typical manufacturing production worker made 7.7 percent below the median wage for all occupations.

Technology and globalization are major factors in earning potential that have placed an additional premium on education. But we also know that college is not for everyone, nor should it be. Perhaps our K-12 education in its current form could use some revamping so that it adequately prepares students who are college-bound as well as those who are not.
Lest we forget, it only takes a single catastrophic medical bill to hurl a family into the unforgiving clutches of poverty.

Blaming the poor as a shiftless lot assuages the fears of a growing segment within the middle class whose economic trajectory moves them closer to the poor they have been conditioned to despise and further from the artisans of that hyperbolic yarn about the poor.

Marking welfare reform's birthday may not be as important as understanding and addressing the myriad ways poverty can invade the tentacles of a tenuous economy in the 21st century.

The Rev. Byron Williams, is a writer and the host of the "The Public Morality".