The Misogyny of Welfare "Reform"

— Stephanie Luce interviews Randy Albelda


Randy Albelda teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and is active in several welfare rights organizations.  She is co-author of Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Women's Work, Women's Poverty (South End Press, 1997) and author of "What Welfare Reform Has Wrought," Dollars and Sense, January/February 1998.  She was interviewed by Stephanie Luce from the ATC editorial board.


Against the Current: To start with, can you tell me how you got involved in studying welfare issues?

Randy Albelda: My research has always been on women and the economy.  I first started studying women and the labor market, and I was working in the Massachusetts State Legislature in the 1980s on tax issues.

Tax and budget issues always tend to converge around welfare issues, so that is one way I got involved.  But recently, the debate around welfare reform was so clearly misogynist, and so clearly missing what feminists had been talking about for years-any idea of the role of child care in society, of societal obligations around raising children-that it was hard not to jump in.

Politicians and pundits were essentially calling women animals-basically referring to welfare recipients as animals, and completely forgetting about the role of child care. There were all kinds of misconceptions around the idea of the social safety net historically, and what that means for all people.

One thing about welfare is that the concepts behind it really apply to everyone-to all workers.  If it works for a single mother it will work for any worker.  The fact that single mothers need housing, need to pay for utilities-these are issues that all workers deal with.

ATC: Can you tell me a bit about the Boston Area Academics Working Group on Poverty?

R.A.: I am involved in several groups, but one of them is The Academics Working Group.  It is a group that I started with a colleague, Ann Withorn.  We formed the group in 1995, as Massachusetts was passing very draconian welfare reform measures.

There are a lot of academics in the Boston area who do work on poverty, both as researchers and activists.  It seems that the welfare reform debates almost completely disregarded all existing research on poverty and welfare, and we wanted to form a group that could be active and vocal on welfare issues.

We wanted to work hand-in-hand with activists, both to provide them with research they could use in their work, and to learn more about what was going on. We meet once a month.  We have produced a pamphlet and are about to produce another one and we have helped organize conferences.

People come to us, both asking questions about the research that is available, and offering topics that need to be studied.  So, it is a back-and-forth process.

The Academic Working Group is also very active in a coalition called Working Massachusetts.  It is mostly Boston-based: academics, the State AFL-CIO, religious groups, low-income people.  We have a variety of activities-for example, we recently sponsored sit-ins at the State House regarding the issue of time limits.

ATC: Could you say a little more about the welfare recipients themselves-to what degree are they organized?

R.A.: The groups of welfare recipients in Massachusetts are few and have suffered an incredible beating over the last decade.  Further, one objective of welfare reform is to keep women at "work"-in paid labor or in workfare.  Coupled with the work of raising children, these are not ideal conditions to get people involved.  Historically it is a low point in welfare rights organizing.

There are two groups which have survived and a couple of coalitions.  The two groups in Massachusetts are ARISE (in Springfield) and Women's Alliance (in Framingham).  There is also a group called Survivors Inc., which publishes its own paper.  Also there is a branch of the National Welfare Rights Union.  Working Massachusetts includes members from those groups.

ATC: Can you summarize what the welfare reforms in Massachusetts did?

R.A.: Welfare reform legislation was enacted in Massachusetts in 1995.  I always think that what they did was to find all of the legislation from other states and take what was most punitive and apply it here. The basic components are first, to promote the idea of people earning their incomes, instead of receiving cash assistance; second, to punish behaviors perceived to be characteristics of low-income people, whether they are or not.

For example, Massachusetts has "shotfare," where women will lose their benefits if they fail to get the necessary immunization shots for their children.  They are required to do full disclosure on paternity.  There is "learnfare," where they will lose benefits if their child is absent from school too much.

The third component is to get money from fathers-this is a spotty effort.  And fourth, there are time limits.  One way to assure that women "work" for their money is to set strict time limits that will just cut off their benefits after a certain time.

We have a twenty-four-month limit in Massachusetts, which is shorter than thirty other states.  This part of the law wasn't passed until November 1996 because, although it was part of the 1995 welfare reform package, it was not approved by the Clinton Administration.

Before the federal reform, states who wanted to reform welfare had to get approval from the federal government.  The Clinton Administration was approving almost everything, and they approved all the other parts of the Massachusetts reform except for the time limit.  Even the Clinton Administration saw this as too much-the idea that you would be totally cut off after twenty-four months, without any back-up at all.

However, the federal reforms in 1996 opened up the chance for states to do what they wanted, and time limits kicked in then. The first families hit their time limits on December 1, 1998.

The state postponed cutting off families a bit, since they didn't have their bureaucratic act together, but by the end of December they were stopping checks.  We don't have all the numbers, but maybe 1,000 families had their checks stopped-these are people with no other means of support.

ATC: Do you know what the impact has been?

R.A.: Well, here we are in Massachusetts-the bastion of higher education, the bastion of research, the supposed bastion of reason and learning, and we have yet to produce one official study on the impact.  There is a lot of crowing about the success of the program because the welfare rolls have been reduced, but we do not have any comprehensive study on the impact.

There is some evidence-gathering by local groups-for example, I am on a task force in Cambridge.  We talked to about sixty women who are recipients or former recipients about how they are doing, and there have been some other task force findings which are the same as what they are finding in other states, which is that the majority of women are not finding jobs, not because they don't want to work but rather they are staying on because they have more complex issues which keep them from being able to work, such as child care needs.

So, we don't "officially" know if it is working.  But clearly, it is not working for everyone.  And, it's the best it will get: right now, Massachusetts has a four percent unemployment rate, so if these women aren't finding jobs now they aren't likely to find them at another time.

And for those who are finding employment, it is still not clear if they can make it on the kinds of jobs they find. We don't know if the wages are enough to sustain them, to pay for child care and their other costs.

We already knew that women don't tend to stay on welfare continuously: on average, 70% of women would leave welfare within two years.  However, 50% of them would come back on, in part because the wages are not sustaining.

I like to say that the welfare reform is a one-third solution.  Approximately one-third of recipients find themselves better off financially.  Welfare pays so little that it doesn't take a very high wage to be better off financially.  So, if they can get support in other areas-if they have family members who can take care of their children when they work-then they can negotiate the labor market.

One third are probably not better or worse off than before welfare reform, and another third are worse off-have less income and are in more precarious living situations than they did before.

But one-third is not enough, because we are talking about women who are raising children.  Women make less money than men when they do work, and child raising takes a tremendous amount of work. Welfare reform doesn't address any of these issues.

For example, in Massachusetts there is a 17,000-person waiting list for child care assistance among low-income families.  The state has put a little more money in for informal child care, but they pushing women to use informal arrangements which are only paying $2 an hour. Clearly there are some quality of care questions to be raised when the providers are being paid so little.  But clearly, legislators think this is good enough for poor children.

Already, we are finding that the health outcomes are not good. We are beginning to hear from a lot of doctors and public health officials.  Many women are going to doctors to be qualified as disabled so that they can go on SSI instead of welfare.

We can't have a one-third solution and call it a success.  It is sort of amazing that people will call it a success just because there are fewer people getting welfare checks.

The poverty rates in Massachusetts actually went up last year. The 1995/96 rate was 10.5%, and the 1996/97 rate was 11.2%; not a huge increase, but it is going up. And there is just very little concern in the state about it. A Legislative Commission was given $100,000 to study the actual impact of the reforms but they haven't done it yet.

ATC: Do you feel that activists have had any success in fighting against the reforms?

R.A.: It is hard to call it success.  This is an issue where there are a lot of myths that are very deeply ingrained, especially racial ones. This has been the case since the Reagan years.

I feel that we are raising the right issues, and it is good that we are being a thorn in the side of the legislature.  The best success we have had I think is in education-talking to organized labor, religious leaders and their congregations, and other concerned citizens about what is going on.

After the sit-ins we did at the state house in December, a lot of people were calling in, wanting to know more, and wanting to sit in. We did a signature ad that we just put out on the internet, and within two weeks we got more than 200 signatures from people calling for an end to time limits.  And we are trying to work with the popular press, and I think they are beginning to ask the right questions.

So, in these ways I think we are successful in getting the word out, in educating people about what is going on. Obviously we have not been successful in getting the laws changed.

ATC: What is it that Working Massachusetts is educating about?  What is it that you are demanding, other than a repeal of the time limits?

R.A.: We aren't even asking for that. We are only asking for the time limits to be changed to five years-what Newt Gingrich thought was a good idea. So we are taking a fairly liberal, if not conservative, perspective on time limits.

But we also have a six- or seven-point legislative agenda, including a piece on anti-privatization, something on workfare that staves it off a bit and requires minimum wage, child care expansion, and paid medical and family leave, funded through unemployment insurance.

We are also doing direct action: We have had several rallies in front of the State House, including the sit-ins when the time limits went into effect, where thirty people were arrested.  We are organizing a rally, and working on a speak-out of former welfare recipients who are now working in other places.

We have gone to regional labor councils in the state and asked for a half hour on the agenda to talk about welfare reform.  We start by asking people to give out stereotypes of union members, and then of welfare recipients-it was interesting, because they were almost the same stereotypes.

The leadership of a lot of groups are right there with us. There is no question in the mind of organized labor: If you take away this safety net it doesn't stop there, and the effect on the low-wage labor market is tremendous.

But it takes a lot more to get members involved-as it does with any issue today.  However, the leadership of the Massachusetts AFL wants to be quite active on this issue, and in fact they have gotten in trouble for it at times.

ATC: Can you say more about that?  I don't think that labor leaders have been as helpful fighting workfare and welfare reform in general in other states.

R.A.: The leadership of the state AFL-CIO has been very sympathetic and sees issues of welfare as issues of economic justice.  Some of this is traditional, and some is because welfare advocates in the state have been working on educating the leadership on these issues.

By state law, the AFL-CIO is granted seats on several commissions and boards of public entities.  The President of the AFL-CIO was put on several education, training and workforce committees which included welfare related policies.  The AFL-CIO put on several women leaders, some who had been on welfare, who raised a flag.

The previous organizing by advocates, combined with the firm attention of some women leaders, help to create energy and generate a small amount of resources.  It also helps that the new President of the state AFL-CIO, Bob Haynes, grew up in poverty and sees clearly how the issues of poverty and welfare are directly related to the well being of his membership.  It is also helpful that the newly elected Secretary-Treasurer of the state AFL-CIO is a progressive woman, formerly working with UNITE and a long-time member of a women's leadership labor group.

In his capacity as a member on the Massachusetts Job Council, Bob Haynes helped organize other members to vote against the governor's policy of not allowing women on welfare to count education toward their work requirements.

The people active in this fight have always been there for organized labor, now organized labor is beginning to be there for us. The connections between welfare polices and the well-being of working people is vital.  Some leadership sees this and is willing to talk about welfare reform beyond issues of privatization and worker displacement.  I say it is about time.

ATC: Do you know what the impact has been on those families who had their benefits cut off last month?

R.A.: I think people are doing whatever they can to survive.  Women will make sure their children will survive, so they will do what it takes-if that means soliciting, if that means returning to an abusive partner, if it means moving in with other family members.

We are seeing the number of families in homeless shelters increase quite rapidly, and an increase in food pantry use across the state.  I think we will see the most impact in schools and health centers.  In fact, I am surprised that more hasn't been done yet by the schools, and by school superintendents.

It is amazing, really-this state seems to be so preoccupied with education reform, but everyone knows that poor children have a much harder time learning when they don't have enough to eat. Everyone is in total denial about this.

ATC: Is everyone in denial, or do you have some support in the legislature?

R.A.: Power is very centralized in Massachusetts.  There is a Republican governor who wants to make the welfare reforms even stricter.  The Speaker of the House hates welfare recipients-he has made that clear.  He rules the House with an iron fist.

The Legislature's position seems to be that they already did their work. Some people are interested in changing it, but they haven't provided a road map to do this.

There are some states that are back-pedaling on their time limits-I know that Tennessee has, and Connecticut has. They haven't repealed the time limits, but they have made them less stringent.  But here, there seems to be no concern about what is happening to people.

There was support for a "School Counts" law, a measure that would allow women to count time in school as work. Even the Boston Globe supported that, and in fact it passed here a few years ago but then was vetoed.

So, that is the level of how things are here. And there is nobody in the streets.  The biggest thing that happened was the sit-ins.  That got a lot of press, but it wasn't low-income people who were there getting arrested.

This isn't surprising-if welfare recipients get arrested they jeopardize their benefits and even custody of their children.  But the sit-ins did call attention to the issue, so they were good. But it's an uphill battle.

ATC: Most of what you have talked about is Massachusetts welfare reform.  Are there activist groups fighting the reforms on the federal level?

R.A.: It really is a state-level battle.  There are groups calling for changes of federal laws, but nothing is going to happen any time soon. The Republican Congress certainly won't do anything.  Some of the immigration provisions of the Personal Responsibility Act have been loosened up, but not much else is likely to change.

So the fights are pretty much at the states.  Once the economy goes sour, there will be a lot more people who will need assistance, and maybe then the states will be forced to deal with the fact that the people who could get off welfare quickly already did so. The ones that are left are those with much bigger problems around work, whether that is mental health, depression, child care, etc.

The thing is, it is a remarkably heterogeneous group to begin with, and the idea that one size fits all-and it's a bad dress to begin with-just won't work.

A one-third solution just isn't good enough.  It's about kids, and about women raising kids.


ATC 79, March-April 1999