Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Student paper reacting to article about welfare reform

Here is a student's reaction essay about welfare reform. My comments are at the end in this purple font.

On www.usatoday.com, I found the article about mothers whose lives were changed since the nation’s welfare system was overhauled to require work and limit benefits. In 1996 the United States government reformed welfare and required many parents on welfare to work. In 1996, Michelle Gordon was 30 years old and a single mother with four children between the ages 5 and 13.  Since then Michelle and her children have struggled with unstable jobs. Michelle has had over 10 jobs in the last 10 years. Working full time and caring for her four children on her own is a daily battle.

Mary Bradford was 45 years old in 1996. Mary had three children between the ages of 11 and 25. She traded welfare and was hired at a local office. Although the office moved locations, Mary is still with the company and has nearly doubled her earnings since 1996. Since Mary was hired at her job, she has successfully supported her three children. Her boss speaks of her reliability and positive attitude. The opposite paths that Bradford and Gordon have traveled illustrate the successes and frustrations that have occurred due to the change in the welfare system. 

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a bill transforming the way the welfare system helps needy families. The bill removed government checks for parents raising children in poverty. There are now over 50 state programs to help those parents acquire jobs. Caseloads peaked at 5.1 million in 1994. Since then millions have left the welfare system for low paying jobs. Today nearly 1.9 million families get cash benefits; in one third of them, only the children qualify for aid. About 38% of those still on welfare are black, 33% white, and 24% Hispanic. 

Three in four families on welfare are headed by unmarried women. As a result of the change, employment rates for all single women rose by 25%. Earnings for the poorest 40% of families headed by women doubled from 1994 to 2000. A change was apparent in 2000 due to the recession. Although there are continuing problems, the change stood out broadly within the decade. 

Yes, on average the wages of people on welfare go up as they leave welfare.  And yes, more people leave welfare more quickly than they did before welfare reform. Clearly when you look at this aspect of welfare reform we have a success. Whether it is fair to characterize the entire welfare reform policy as a success requires looking at more aspects of the reform.  One also has to consider the fact that before welfare reform most people were already leaving welfare after using it temporarily, and former welfare users were already enjoying gains in income and rising job status, at least on average, before welfare reform. 

I think you (and Richard Wolf, the author of the article that sparked your reaction) have the basic story straight here.  Many people benefitted from welfare and the welfare reform has not harmed them. In some cases reform may have benefitted them, perhaps by providing a stricter focus on vocational training or job readiness. Some people were not helped much be welfare, and welfare reform may have harmed some of these people, but it may have helped others.  Some people were helped by welfare before reform, and the reforms have harmed them. Whether you think the improvements enjoyed by a few are worth more to our society than the harm inflicted on a few is really a personal judgment call. For most people, the welfare reform didn’t give them a different experience on welfare than what they would have experienced before reform.  Most welfare users are transitional users, and they were thus before reform and so they are now, after reform.

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