Safety Net Sinking

Race & Recession

By Gordon Hurd Jun 15, 2002

Welfare reform during recession: Discrimination and poor access to education and job training make the hard times harder

Even now, as economists and media spokespeople begin to rejoice for the rise of recovery, it’s clear the recession isn’t over for everybody. Across the board, people of color living at or under poverty levels, working or not, have borne the brunt of hard times: industry layoffs, hiring freezes, the ramifications of September 11. The macroeconomic phenomenon has come home to roost in the micromanaged existence of America’s poor people.

Over two million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2001, many of them concentrated in industries most affected by the events on September 11, namely service, hospitality, and transportation. The so-called safety net of welfare and its myriad reforms abandoned people of color during this recession, and did so with extreme prejudice.

People of color not only found themselves being punitively sanctioned off the welfare rolls, but also were subjected to rampant discrimination within welfare offices and workplaces—workplaces that were on average low-wage, dead-end jobs, that could not help people get themselves out of poverty. And, ultimately, this safety net continues to catapult recipients away from proven methods of economic improvement: higher education and training.

“Every year I have to go to an interview to get re-certified,” says In Hui Lee, a Korean immigrant who has been a welfare recipient in Northern California since 1995. “The same social worker has seen me for four years, since I’ve lived in Marin City. I’ve shown her the same ID card all four years. My social worker asks me every time, ‘Is this really you?’ Maybe because I’m Asian, and we all look alike to her, I don’t know.”

It’s one thing to be demeaned because you’re a person of color, as Lee describes, but systemic racism is denying essential services and benefits to an inordinate amount of welfare recipients. For people whose every effort is about escaping poverty, these discriminatory measures are deeply damaging. People on welfare rolls often need childcare or transportation assistance to comply with work requirements or pursue education. Denial of these services is common practice at many welfare offices, especially those that serve mostly people of color.

Leilani Luia of San Leandro, California, was fired from her job because she was unable to arrive to work on time because of time conflicts with her childcare facilities. “My job started at 7 a.m. and my daughter’s childcare started at 7 a.m.… It was impossible for me to cover the 35 blocks between childcare and work quickly enough.”

Luia was unable to find a job that paid enough to support herself and her child, so she sought help from welfare. She decided her best option would be to complete her degree in social work at California State University, Hayward. “The whole time I was going to school, they were never giving me the transportation and childcare services that I need,” said Luia. “Every three months, they threatened to cut off my childcare because my class schedule would change.”

A report by Professor Susan T. Gooden, published in the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, substantiates experiences like Leilani Luia’s. The study revealed that African American welfare recipients received far less discretionary support, e.g., transportation and childcare assistance, than white recipients. Research also found that, in the Atlanta metro area, childcare spending per TANF recipient in counties with high proportions of white recipients was significantly higher than in counties with larger percentages of African Americans or Latinos. Gooden’s study discovered that predominantly African American localities received only 33 percent of the amount of childcare support that predominantly white counties received. This stark difference in access to childcare and transportation erects a major barrier to employment or education.

Even if they do gain access to transportation or childcare, people of color on the welfare rolls still find their efforts to attain adequate employment and beneficial training met with endemic resistance. Imani Walker, an African American woman from Washington, D.C., describes her experiences: “I already had some computer and office skills, and I made it clear that what I really wanted was some additional training courses.” After filling out piles of so-called assessment forms to specify the types of training she was interested in, Walker received no follow-up to her requests, merely vague explanations that her requested courses would not start for several weeks. She was informed that she would be required to show up to the offices on a daily basis to conduct a job search. “First they sent me to a dress for success program, and then I kept being referred to job interviews for things like hotel domestic work and zoo maintenance.” After some weeks, Walker inquired about her training requests and was informed that the courses had already begun and that she was too late. “They had a custodial mentality,” says Walker, “and [they] were receiving a $7,500 tax credit for each placement that they made.” It seems the only lucrative arrangement Walker’s welfare office wanted to foster was the one between themselves and their preferred vendors.

As cases like Imani Walker’s bear witness, welfare’s success over the past few years has amounted to recipients being pushed off benefits into low-wage work that rarely leads out of poverty. The median wage of former welfare recipients with jobs is $7.15 an hour. Most of these low-wage jobs offer no benefits: no paid sick leave, health insurance, or other crucial avenues for employee subsistence. Studies have shown that even with some post-secondary education and more than five years of work experience, most women who leave welfare for employment earn wages below the federal poverty line. Even during the good times of the mid-to-late ’90s, most people of color were trapped in sub-par employment. According to the National Survey of American Families, the employment rate of African American families rose, but there was no corresponding decrease in poverty rates, and the number of food and housing hardship cases actually increased.

Rampant Discrimination

Other forms of discrimination also have become entrenched into the welfare system since 1996. As Ramon Zapata of Brooklyn can affirm: “I had to leave my job because I didn’t understand what they were saying to me.” When he sought assistance through the welfare system, he was required to attend workshops about work requirements and benefits, where his language frustrations only intensified. “There were several of us there who didn’t speak English. One of the ladies asked for an interpreter and they told her there wasn’t anyone who could interpret, so we had to sit there for four hours listening to this presentation and we didn’t understand any of it.” Zapata lost benefits because he failed to meet requirements that were not communicated to him. In response he sought legal assistance and has gone to court over his benefits. “In court they treated me better than they did at social services.… I felt like, when the welfare workers realized I was Latino and didn’t speak English, all the doors closed.”

The extent to which language discrimination permeates the welfare system has led many people like Zapata to take action. Welfare recipients in New York have filed suit against the city, and in 2001 courts ruled that New York must fulfill its obligations to provide bilingual staff or interpreters in addition to translated materials. Studies and surveys of welfare recipients around the country have uncovered a common ordeal of language, gender, race, and national origin discrimination.

Exacerbated by the transfer of authority to local offices, discretionary punishment of people of color has increased greatly. In Wisconsin, for example, African American and Latino welfare recipients bear the majority of sanctions: African Americans account for 50 percent of welfare recipients, but 60 percent of sanctions; whites account for 26 percent of welfare recipients, but only 15 percent of sanctions.

Wanda Sayers, a Native American woman located in Duluth, Minnesota, has witnessed as much racially derived punishment as any one person can in her local welfare office. “When I was 17 years old, I was raped, became pregnant, and was kicked out of my home. I went for assistance and the screener told me, ‘You Indian women always have babies just for the welfare money.’” Sayers was denied assistance and was told that, since she wasn’t 18 or emancipated, she had to go back to the baby’s father or to her mother’s home. “I was only able to get the benefits that my baby and I were entitled to after Legal Aid intervened on my behalf.” Sayers’ benefits were cut off for five months when the welfare office decided that she wasn’t using her “best efforts” to serve child support legal papers to her child’s father. She recounts, “They wanted me to file a paternity suit, but the baby’s father was living on the Chippewa Reservation in Minnesota and the tribe refused to intervene and have my husband accept the legal papers necessary for the lawsuit to proceed.” Sayers is enrolled in a Sioux tribe in South Dakota that has no influence with the Minnesota tribe. Apparently, her welfare agency couldn’t have cared less. “This time Indian Legal Aid took my case and forced the welfare department to reinstate my benefits.”

In addition to benefits suspension, the time limits on cash benefits brought about by the reforms of 1996 hit people of color harder. What happens when you combine discriminatory practices like denying basic services and benefits, more frequent sanctions, and shorter time limits? In cases, like Lynette Moore-Booker’s, you keep on struggling even after you are kicked off the welfare rolls. “We lost our benefits and we’re barely making it,” says the New Haven, Connecticut, resident. What’s her life like as one of the “successes” in the nation’s reduced welfare rolls? “They cut off my gas and electricity. If I didn’t get rental assistance, I would be homeless.”

As a result of her inefficient training through her welfare agency, Moore-Booker is no better prepared for full-time, stable employment than when she first applied for assistance. “As far as the welfare to work program goes, to me it was ‘get a job.’ My worker never mentioned training programs at all. She didn’t say, ‘Lynette, what kind of education do you have? What kind of training do you have, because, you know, the time limit is coming up.’”

What kind of training did Moore-Booker receive? “I had to go to a six-week ‘job readiness’ program, which was learning how to present yourself, to brush your teeth, things like that. I have a high school diploma, and I already had a resume, so this was a complete waste of time.”

She was able to find employment in October 2001, but only at 28 hours a week. “They should be preparing me to find a living-wage job, not a McDonald’s job,” says Moore-Booker. “At our welfare office in New Haven, it was all people of color. Most people were pushed to take whatever job they could get and ended up back on welfare because they couldn’t support themselves or their families on those types of jobs.” Going back on welfare is not an option for Moore-Booker. Her time limit has expired.

Under the 1996 law, states have the option to enforce time limits of their choosing. Because of this flexibility, states are left open to discriminate freely. Across the board, race was the determining factor affecting time limits lengths and their application. Observation of the enforcement of time limits shows that states with a higher proportion of African Americans or Latinos possess shorter time limits than the five-year guideline of the law. Over 20 states have opted to not allow exemptions to these time limits. Over 50 percent of African American families under welfare are subject to time limits shorter than the federal cutoff, as opposed to 39 percent of whites under welfare. Thus far, these disparities continue unchecked and unanswered by state and federal welfare authorities.

Access Denied

In both prosperous and troubled times, discrimination within the welfare system has negatively influenced the lives and livelihoods of families. If the goal of the welfare system is to help people rise out of poverty, welfare recipients must receive better support and access to higher education and professional training.

As a result of inefficient training through her welfare agency, Moore-Booker is no more prepared for full-time, stable employment than when she first applied for assistance.

It’s well known that potential income earnings increase with the amount of education one receives. Put simply, people with degrees make more money. According to national data, the median income in 1998 of a person with a bachelor’s degree was $40,100. For those with less than a high school diploma, the median was $19,700. It’s also true that higher education is a proven avenue away from welfare dependency. People who earn degrees while on welfare have a greater ability to earn livable incomes and stay off welfare. The course that is set for most welfare recipients of color, unfortunately, does not allow such goals to be achieved. In addition to simply not informing recipients of their legal options for education and training, the welfare system prevents people from pursuing a competitive education through time limits.

“I realized that even if I worked three eight-hour shifts a day, without sleeping or seeing my kids, I couldn’t break $2,000 a month,” says In Hui Lee. “I couldn’t even get a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Education is the only way I can get off welfare.”

Lee had felt that the welfare system supported her education goals when she first applied for benefits in 1995—contrary to the current environment. “They didn’t push me to quit and go to work, because school is full-time work, especially considering I needed English as a Second Language courses.” After the passage of PRWORA in ’96, however, the priority of Lee’s education goals quickly diminished, as the new work requirements disqualified her study time. “If I took 12 units, I could only count 12 hours,” Lee says. “Then my educational time was up in 1998, so they sanctioned me. Eventually, I met the 32-hour work requirement by working and volunteering, and I had to go to school at night.”

There are no standards to which education is held; each state decides what counts as a work requirement and what does not. ESL courses have wide disparity in eligibility for work requirement between states as well. All of this is compounded by the direct mandate of time limits on states to ignore long-term solutions like education, for quick-fix solutions like tracking people of color into low-wage service positions.

Ask Kim Mazon, a single mother from Knoxville, Tennessee, what educational options she was given through her welfare agency. “They know the time limits are not long enough for people to actually get a degree,” she says. Mazon has attempted to do coursework for working adults with families, but she says “the Department of Human Services won’t count it as school hours, because it’s not one of their approved programs. It would be a great program, because more people would get a real degree. But they’re only for enough education to get you $7 an hour.”

Mazon is not an isolated case. Since the enactment of welfare reform, education has taken a serious backseat to work. Check the trends in enrollment for associate degree by people on welfare. In Illinois, for one example, the numbers dropped from 4,430 in 1995 to 1,831 in 1998. In New York City, the number of people pursuing their degrees at the City University of New York went from 22,000 in 1996 to under 5,000 in the year 2000. What makes this trend even more appalling is the fact that the proportion of people of color on the welfare rolls has increased during this same time period.

Even when increasingly scarce opportunities exist for a person of color to pursue an advanced education, welfare offices across the country make little if any effort to inform their constituents. Laura Jones of Atlanta, Georgia, attempted to arm herself with more than her high school diploma. “I had decided that if I was going to support this family and better myself and my job, I needed more education. Immediately, the answer was ‘no.’” Jones’ welfare caseworkers refused to satisfy her requests for information about education programs. “They said, ‘Why don’t you want to work?’” and repeatedly referred her to employment and childcare caseworkers. “They don’t even mention education to women of color,” says Jones. “My last employment worker was astounded that I even wanted to go on with my education.”

Welfare Spin

The rising proportion of people of color living under welfare during the recession underscores the failure of the system. Welfare reform defines success as reducing caseloads and maintaining a class of service workers by tracking recipients into low-wage jobs with no means of growth or progress.

So, what can be done about all of this? Most importantly, states and welfare agencies must be held accountable for their racial inequities. The federal government’s advocacy of states’ rights to illegally discriminate in the welfare system is equivalent to the century-long laissez-faire attitude Washington, D.C., took to segregation. With proper measures taken against violators of equal opportunity and civil rights laws, welfare recipients may have a better chance at access to benefits, services, and education.

Reauthorization of the current welfare reforms is being debated throughout 2002. As the year progresses, pay careful attention to the spin on welfare reform and its so-called success. The vicious cycle of demonization, discrimination, and veritable indentured servitude cannot continue. Every welfare recipient deserves the right to be treated fairly and equally and given every available opportunity to gain livable employment. Anything less is no success.