The following is rated R, for reality on welfare reform:
“The place to start is to recognize the considerable work effort demonstrated by women on welfare, even by teenage mothers.”
“Policy makers should not be asking why recipients do not work, but rather they should ask why the work that welfare recipients do does not lift their families out of welfare.”
“The substantial amount of work activity displayed by the welfare mothers in Baltimore demonstrates that they were quite motivated to do so.”
Most mothers who have been on welfare never needed us to push them into jobs, and the kind of welfare reform that has been enacted probably will fail in the end. This is the conclusion one reaches after reading the new book, “Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door,” by sociology professor Kathleen Mullan Harris of the University of North Carolina.
Harris’ work is based on a 20-year study (1968-1988) that followed the lives of 288 teenage mothers in Baltimore. Its findings defy many of the stereotypes that distort the welfare debate. Contrary to notions that inner-city teenage moms run gleefully from the delivery room to the welfare office, 29 percent of the mothers never went on welfare at all, and 51 percent got off welfare in two years or less.
Of women who received welfare, 31 percent relied on it for two years or less, and 50 percent depended on it for five years or less over the two decades. A significant minority, 32 percent, logged 10 or more years on welfare. But 61 percent logged seven years or less.
In any given year of the study, a quarter of the women studied were on welfare. Half were working. One of the biggest ironies is that of the women who had received welfare for nine or more years, 91 percent supplemented welfare with work. Welfare failed to meet basic living needs.
“These data indicate that welfare recipients most at risk to long-term dependency are far from detached from the labor market,” Harris wrote. “Moreover, there does not seem to be much support for the idea that welfare receipt fosters a type of behavioral dependency that rejects the mainstream value placed on work. The more persistent welfare receipt is, the greater the likelihood of labor force participation.”
Harris found that short spells of welfare allowed many women to stay in school and get an education that moved them off welfare for good. “Teenage mothers who rely on welfare while they finish their high school education are choosing a more efficient route to economic independence than teens who drop out of school and enter the labor market prematurely, with few skills and no training,” Harris said.
Similar conclusions are echoed in other recent books, such as “For Crying Out Loud: Women’s Poverty in the United States,” edited by Diane Dujon and Ann Withorn from the College of Public and Community Service at UMass-Boston, and William Julius Wilson’s “When Work Disappears.”
In “Crying,” contributing authors Randy Albelda and Chris Tully wrote that half of mothers who get off welfare eventually return, “usually because their wages in the jobs that got them off welfare just didn’t match the cost of health care and child care needed so they could keep the jobs.”
In “Work,” Wilson quotes researcher Kathryn Edin, who found that women who left welfare for work dropped 33 percent in real income once they had to pay for health care and more for child care, clothing, housing and for transportation to their job. “Working,” Edin said of these women, “means a double tax on earnings.”
The best way to end the tax, according to Harris, is to provide the very education and job training that do not exist in most welfare reforms. Short of that, most women will have to take low-paying jobs. If we force them to do that, the only way they have a chance to make ends meet is if the wages are supplemented by health insurance, child care and housing assistance.
Many of the working poor in America pay half their income in rent alone. In that kind of America, it is unfair to expect welfare mothers to go it alone. “Simply placing welfare mothers in jobs may not do much to improve their economic security or reduce state welfare costs,” Harris wrote. “Without job skills and especially education, work does not equate with self-sufficiency. … The idea that welfare recipients need work requirements in order to get them into the labor market is out of touch with the realities of welfare mothers’ lives.”