Welfare ‘Reforms’ Threaten Children

Struggles Shift to Local Level as Washington Ducks Responsibility

By Leon Lynn

When President Clinton signed a welfare “reform” plan last summer that slashed $54 billion from government spending for the poor, Peter Edelman resigned his position as an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Quitting was partly an act of protest, he said recently. But it was also part pragmatism. Because the federal government is largely relinquishing control over welfare to the states, Edelman said, “I really felt as though there wasn’t much I could do if I stayed. The struggles. . . are going to be taking place at the state and local levels.”

Educators, researchers, and political activists across the nation are coming to understand the prophetic nature of Edelman’s words. They are preparing themselves, their schools, and their political organizations for the impact of a welfare “reform” program that will push millions more people into poverty and which will place greater emphasis on local-level policy and action.

Educators, in particular, face an uphill battle. Welfare “reform” will deny education and training opportunities to millions of poor people, making it harder for them to land decent jobs. Meanwhile, their children will be dumped from the rolls of programs that now provide them with critical health care, nutritional aid, and financial support. That means more children will show up for school sick, hungry, and suffering from the stress that comes with being poor.

What’s more, the government’s efforts to move great numbers of mothers off welfare and into the work force could push many more children into substandard child care, which could have devastating and lasting effects on their intellectual and social development.


The legislation Clinton signed into law last August 22 is formally titled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. It cuts $54 billion in federal funding during the next six years from a broad array of social safety-net programs, including food stamps, child care, nutrition aid, and programs that aid disabled children. The new law also eliminates Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which was the federal government’s primary cash-aid program, and the work and training program known as JOBS.

The Urban Institute, a non-partisan research center, has estimated that the welfare “reform” package will push 2.6 million more people into poverty, including 1.1 million children. “And that,” warned Peter Edelman, “is an estimate based on some very conservative numbers.”

Among the major changes under the new law:

  • An End to Entitlement. The new law eliminates the guaranteed right of poor families to receive assistance under federal law. Previously, the federal government calculated the amount of money it spent on welfare programs by how many people needed aid. Now, federal spending will be capped at $16.4 billion a year, regardless of the amount of need that exists. States will divide this money based on the amounts they received in previous years. The new law also establishes a five-year lifetime limit on receiving aid for most families.
  • Power to the States. The federal government will give states much greater leeway to design their own welfare programs. States could use this freedom, for example, to completely eliminate cash aid, to deny aid to teen parents or to children born of parents receiving aid, or to turn over their entire welfare programs to charitable organizations or private companies. Some conservatives say deregulation will enable states to respond more effectively to their citizens’ needs. But other observers fear deregulation will merely free states to cut spending on basic subsistence help to children and families. The Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, estimates that states could cut spending on welfare and work programs by $38 billion during the next six years. That’s in addition to the $54 billion in federal spending cuts.
  • New Work Requirements. The new law dramatically increases work requirements for aid recipients. People must take part in some kind of work, be it private-sector or community service employment, within two years of receiving aid. Welfare “reform” also narrows the scope of what counts as “work,” and sharply diminishes the emphasis on training and education. There is no entitlement to job training or education: Only 20% of welfare recipients in a state, at most, can count vocational education toward their work requirements, and each recipient can only count education toward their requirements for a maximum of 12 months. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that those placed in some kind of work will receive the minimum wage. In Wisconsin, for example, an estimated 20,600 people will be pushed into “community service” jobs paying less than minimum wage. Nor will such workers be eligible for earned income tax credits.
  • Cuts in Immigrant Aid. The new law cuts more than $22 billion in aid for legal immigrants, including children, during the next six years. Non-citizens can no longer receive food stamps or SSI disability aid, for example, and states will have the option to deny them all welfare benefits, social services, and nonemergency Medicaid beginning in 1997.
  • Child-Care Cuts.The new legislation eliminates the guarantee that families receiving aid, or making the transition from welfare to the work force, will receive child care in order to participate in work or training. Many welfare recipients will, for the first time, be expected to pay part of the cost of their own child care. Working-class families above the poverty line who receive child-care assistance will see dramatic increases in the copayments they must make. For example, a parent in Milwaukee with a gross income of $1,000 per month and one child in licensed day care would see his or her copayment jump from $35 per month to $256. For a parent with a gross income of $1,200 a month, the copayment would jump from $46 to $446. Even so, the federal Office of Management and Budget estimates that funding for child care will fall short by up to $2.4 billion.


Changes in child care provide a particularly dramatic example of how welfare “reform” could wreak havoc on poor families.

Many states are responding to the limits on federal child-care dollars by considering deregulation of child care. Wisconsin, for example, plans to authorize reimbursement to unlicensed, uncertified “provisional” child-care providers, who will receive half the government funding per child that licensed child-care providers receive. Many poor families, facing those staggering increases in their copayments, undoubtedly will be forced to seek this unregulated care.

The Employment Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which studied child-care availability in several Wisconsin counties, raised serious doubts that enough child care will be available to meet the needs of all the families pushed into the work force by welfare legislation. The state’s plan does not budget nearly enough money to pay for all the care that will be needed, the institute concludes, and overestimates the number of “provisional” child-care providers who will be available.

“We worry that older siblings, even 7 and 8, will be asked [to stay home from school] to take care of their younger brothers and sisters,” said Mary Bills of the Milwaukee school board.

Many recent studies have reinforced the importance of high-quality child care in helping children develop intellectually and socially. But under the welfare legislation, “states will be seeking child care based on the lowest cost,” said J. Ronald Lally, director of the Center for Child and Family Studies at WestEd/Far West Laboratory in San Francisco. Too many childcare providers already do a less-than-adequate job of nurturing children, Lally said, “and welfare reform will make that even worse.”

The result of the welfare “reform” is likely to be “a huge negative impact on the school readiness of these children,” said Gina Adams, a child-care specialist with the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. There seems to be little public recognition “that when we talk about trying to boost the school readiness of at-risk children, and when we talk about welfare reform, that these are the exact same children,” she said.

Proponents claim the new welfare legislation is rooted in a desire to help the poor improve their lives by “ending welfare as a way of life.” Many critics of the legislation, however, say that the real motivation for overhauling the system is somewhat less noble. “The state is interested in reducing the cost of the system, not placing workers in jobs or increasing family earnings from other sources,” said Lois Quinn, a senior researcher with the Employment Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“The community’s interest has to be much broader,” she said. “We have to focus on the health of people, the education they get, and maintaining a safety net [for poor families]. And we have to pay attention to the social consequences [of the new welfare law].”

Many observers underscore that documenting the effects of welfare “reform” will be critical to any effort to improve conditions. “We are going to have to do what we can to show our fellow citizens what is happening, to understand that these are real people,” Edelman said.

Leon Lynn (LeonLynn@aol.com) is an education writer based in Milwaukee.