The Poor Better Off 15 Years After Welfare Reform?

President Bill Clinton signed a historic overhaul of the nation's welfare system into law on Aug. 22, 1996. Now, some states are seeing drops in welfare cases even as the the U.S.' unemployment rate spiked. That's according to a new Urban Institute report. Host Michel Martin explores the past and present state of welfare with activist Barbara Ehrenreich and former RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I just want to offer my thanks to Allison Keyes and Tony Cox for sitting in while I was away these past two weeks.

Coming up, being awarded a coveted NIH research grant is not easy. But according to a recent study, black scientists are significantly less likely to be awarded NIH grants compared to their white counterpart. We'll talk about what might be behind this gap in just a few minutes.

But first, 15 years ago today, a bill was signed into law that brought about big changes to the countries welfare system. The bill was pushed through by Republicans in Congress and signed by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

President BILL CLINTON: Today we are ending welfare as we know it, but I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended but for what it began.

MARTIN: That, of course, was former president Bill Clinton speaking on August 22nd of 1996. The reforms included new work requirements for welfare recipients and states became responsible for providing public assistance. Today, a new report by The Urban Institute looks at the current state of welfare during what is arguably its greatest test, the current economic downturn the country is experiencing. The report found that in some states welfare cases actually declined even as the states' unemployment rate sharply rose.

We wanted to talk more about the past and present of welfare, so we've called upon author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich. A 10-year anniversary edition of her book "Nickel and Dimed," was released earlier this month. Also with us is former Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele. Thank you both so much for joining us.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, glad to be here.

MARTIN: As we said, it's been 15 years since welfare was overhauled in this country and I wanted to start by asking you the question that President Clinton raised in the bite that we just played. He says that I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began. So, Barbara, I'll start with you and ask you is it true, what did it begin and is that what we think about?

EHRENREICH: What did it begin? All right, I would say it began an era of the government washing its hands and to say the poorest of the poor. You know, that welfare, which was then called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, you really had to pretty much hit bottom to get that. And then you got - a single parent got some help for herself and her children.

Now, that responsibility was ended and there was a strange assumption at the time in 1996 that the economy would always be fine. That there would always be plenty and plenty of jobs, you know, for these women to go into in the workforce. Of course, now, we don't have that, but we still have welfare, quote, "reform."

MARTIN: Michael Steele, what do you think about that? When we think about welfare reform now, what did that era ushered in?

MICHAEL STEELE: Well, I think Barbara raises a very important point is how the government tends to look at everything rather statically. It does not take into account that everything is cyclical, that there's and ebb and flow on the business cycle and every other part of our lives. And so, the initial planning, as the president noted, you know, let's note what we're starting here. The idea was to put people on a pathway towards work presuming that there are jobs there.

When you get into a bump like we are in now, which is more than a bump, where not only are the job markets tightening but the jobs that a lot of these individuals who are generally poorly educated, poorly skilled labor, have to go for just don't exist. So, the question that becomes one of the shift of burden from a federal system to a state system.

And this is something we had to deal with when I was lieutenant governor of Maryland of having to address that gap. And a lot of states can't afford to fill that gap either with qualifying jobs or with the resources meaning, you know, skilled training or other things that they can use to help people get back to work.

So, the system, while nobly put in place has to adjust and adapt to these times and allow for individuals to land on their feet to get the skills necessary to go into a new job market. Otherwise, it becomes a repeat of the old system, where you kind of get stuck in a rut or just outright forgot and that's a real problem.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about the 15th anniversary of welfare reform. That bill was signed on August 22nd, 1996. Our guests are former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. He's also a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, and author Barbara Ehrenreich. She's the author of "Nickel and Dimed."

Barbara, your book was first published 10 years ago and you were working on it during a time when the economy was still relatively strong. In the new edition, you spent some time looking at the lives of poor and low-income people over the past several years when the economy has been in decline. What did you find that was different in our lives today from what you saw 10 years ago when people were struggling - some people were having a hard time even then?

EHRENREICH: Well, just fewer jobs, that's it. It's just fewer jobs, as Michael said. These - and I want to emphasize though that a lot of the jobs available to women coming off of welfare were entry-level jobs and just like the jobs I took when I was doing research for "Nickel and Dimed." Things like a hotel housekeeper, for example, or nursing home aid or something.

Those jobs don't pay enough to live on. They didn't pay enough to live on in 1996 or 1997 either. And that was another part of the whole plan, the whole vision of welfare reform that was so - pardon the expression - screwed up, you know, that you really could not support yourself on that.

MARTIN: That even then there was a gap between what was possible in terms of earnings and what's actually a decent standard of living (unintelligible) there was always a gap.

EHRENREICH: Right. And we're also living out here that the build up to welfare reform was a campaign coming from the right to say that people who took welfare were degenerates, that they were promiscuous, that they were lazy, that there was something wrong with them. In fact - and welfare is what perpetuated this pathology. That was, you know, a deeply racist and misogynist campaign. And it was that which brought a lot of people like myself who had never been on welfare into the campaign to stop welfare reform.

MARTIN: Well, but there was also this question this deeper question of individual responsibility.

STEELE: Right.

MARTIN: I think if the issue isn't, I mean, I take your point that you feel there was an effort made to kind of demonize these people. But there are other people saying that, well, if you don't have the ability to take care of your children appropriately, if you don't have the social support, you don't have the family support, why are you having children? Why are you particularly continuing to have children? That's one...

EHRENREICH: That's weird when you're saying that because, you know, the people I knew very well who were on welfare, people, you know, friends, neighbors were people who'd gotten into that situation of great need through something like having to escape from a violent spouse. That's probably the most common. You know, all of the studies I know around this country, so whether it's rural, white women, whoever it is, it was having to get away from an abusive husband.

STEELE: Right.

MARTIN: Michael Steele, what about that?

STEELE: No, I think again, I think Barbara makes a very excellent point. And when, you know, look, I was one of those folks in the day, and I remember it very vividly the discussion on welfare having watched both the benefits and the ravages of welfare in the neighborhood that I grew up in, appreciate very much the point that she just made that a lot of women of all stripes, economic backgrounds and experiences found themselves trapped on two ends.

One, they either have to stay in an abusive relationship with their kids, you know, and that was not good. Or they would, you know, try to get away from that into a more of an independent status. But what was there for them to get into? The jobs weren't available, the welfare system was. They get in that and it almost became a self-perpetuating cycle for them.

So, the question then became one that I know the administration, the Clinton administration, grappled with as well as Republican leadership, like Newt Gingrich at the time, was how do we create this situation where you can get on your feet, get away from a bad situation, if you will, or get into a better one through some types of jobs training?

The problem is that there was no follow through. It's like, you know, welfare to work was a noble concept, but then the actual execution involving the state legislatures and the governors of the country in this process so that there was a seamless transition for these women specially but for families in particular just was not there. So, we find ourselves again in the situation where the economy is on its heels, people have the Hobson's choice of, you know, trying to find a job, going onto welfare when neither one really works for them.

MARTIN: So Barbara Ehrenreich has been clear from the beginning. She thought that this "reform," and I put that in quotes, because that, from her perspective, is not a reform, didn't work. And it sounds to me, Michael Steele, is you're saying it didn't work. You're saying you agree, it didn't work.

STEELE: Yeah. I'd agree that there are some traps. There are some pitfalls in the system because of the way government typically functions. It creates the program and it puts it out there. It sells it to people, but then there is no testing to see if it's actually working and then adapting to the realities as we started the conversation of, you know, the economy is not the same as it was in 1996.

MARTIN: I'm going to give Barbara the first word on this. What's the better idea? Then, Michael, I'll give you the last word on this.

STEELE: Sure.

MARTIN: Barbara Ehrenreich, what's the better idea?

EHRENREICH: Well, I think we'd have to recognize that there are some situations in which a person needs support, can't be told to go get a job and solve all their problems. For example, if the jobs don't pay enough, which is what I'd say is pretty prevalent out there. And secondly, you can't tell a person to go out and get a job if she already has a job and that is caring for children or caring for elderly family members or whatever.

What we lost with welfare reform was the recognition that that is also work, the work that, typically, women do. The work of caring, taking care of the home, sometimes needs some kinds of support. And if that doesn't come from government, then it would need to come from private charity in some form, but there's always been a recognition in almost every society that there are people who aren't in the job market and can't be for very good reason and they need help.

MARTIN: Michael Steele, final thought?

STEELE: I understand and appreciate that, but then that gets us back to the original question surrounding the reform initiative in the first place with those individuals who are in those situations. Is it the proper role for taxpayers to subsidize or provide for them to stay home to care for their parents or to care for, you know, their children?

And the decision was made by the Clinton administration, and I think legitimately so, was that is not a proper role and function for government. There are private agencies and others that can do that.

For those who are on the welfare system with the goal being to get back into the job market in some way, then this should be the launch pad to help them do that. It's one of many launch pads, as a matter of fact, to help them do that. And that's where the system, I think, ought to be in terms of providing welfare.

The goal is not for the government to permanently subsidize your existence and your living, but to provide a pathway for you to get to something better, where you can sustain that living for yourself and your family.

MARTIN: Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman. He's also former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He was with us on the phone from New York. Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of "Nickel and Dimed." The 10 year anniversary edition of that book was published earlier this month and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Steele, thank you both so much for joining us.

STEELE: Thank you.

EHRENREICH: Thank you.

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