The vast majority of Americans agree with the statement that anyone willing to work hard should be rewarded with the means to get by. But if they think that’s what’s happening under welfare reform, they are greatly mistaken—and have been misled by those who stand to benefit from the 1996 federal legislation that famously ended “welfare as we [knew] it.”

That was the message delivered by writer and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich in a September talk sponsored by the Judith Berkowitz Endowed Lectureship in Women’s Studies. Though her tone was sometimes wry—of the presumed conservative belief that “the solution to female poverty is marriage,” she noted that a working-class woman would need to marry 2.3 working-class men to get out of poverty, and “besides [that] being illegal, what do you do with the TV remote?”—Ehrenreich offered a sustained and vigorous assault on both the rationale and results of welfare reform.
    Feminist groups originally opposed the legislation on the grounds that it was racist, misogynist and especially prejudiced against mothers at home, Ehrenreich said. Without backing off from those beliefs, she added that sometimes good results can come from bad motives. “This is history,” she said. “The question now is, how has it worked out?”
    While widely touted as a great success, those claims are based almost entirely on the raw statistic that 7 million people are now off welfare and 60 percent of them are employed. But it’s not surprising that welfare rolls have dropped in the greatest economic expansion in history, Ehrenreich charged, and it should not come as a surprise that welfare recipients are holding jobs. “Most [already] were —off the books.”
    Congress has never appropriated any money to study the impact of reform, despite repeated efforts to introduce legislation to do so. (“It’s a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy.”) And private efforts have been hampered by methodological problems, such as the fact that phone surveys, the most common method, eliminate people without phones. Some people may be reluctant to reveal how desperate their circumstances really are, fearing that, for example, their children may be taken away if they admit they have missed a meal.
    There have also been cases of “flagrant deception,” she pointed out. Minnesota’s welfare-reform program received widespread press attention as a “brilliant success,” even though the study that prompted the attention turned out to have tracked a discontinued pilot program—one offering better benefits and less stringent work requirements. Ehrenreich wondered why “no one from Minnesota called Time” to clear up the confusion.
    Frustrated by the lack of information and the general indifference to the subject of poverty in the media, Ehrenreich embarked on her own unscientific survey, seeing if she could make a living working at a series of entry-level jobs. An upcoming book, Nickel and Dimed, will recount her experiences between 1998 and 2000 working as a waitress, hotel housekeeper and Wal-Mart “associate,” among other jobs, in Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis.
    Despite significant advantages—she was white, English-speaking, strong, and not raising children—she earned about $7 an hour and found she “could not make it on one job.” She could barely survive on two jobs —which, except for very brief periods, she found impossible to hold anyway. Besides physical exhaustion, she was stymied by scheduling problems. Many entry-level jobs involve messy work in uniforms, which have to be cleaned every day—though just when, she never figured out.
    While Ehrenreich couldn’t actually interview her fellow workers, she did gain some insight on how they got by. Some did work two jobs. The pooling of wages among parents and grown children in the same household was another “obvious” solution. But the reality, she said, was that many people are not making it. Some of her fellow waitresses were homeless, living in their car or van. Or they went hungry, eating a tiny bag of something from a vending machine for lunch each day. Or they did not have money in their pockets, struggling to find 50 cents for tolls.
    “These were white women in a state thought prosperous [Maine] who would look fine,” she said. “You wouldn’t find them odd.”
    Evidence that runs counter to the prevailing air of congratulation regarding welfare reform is out there, Ehrenreich added, provided you’re willing to look for it. For example, a Nexis search turned up a number of articles about maxed-out food shelters, in which local people blamed welfare reform. Three years ago, infant mortality rose 18 percent overall and 37 percent for African Americans in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has “one of the toughest welfare-reform programs in the country.” Epidemiologists are tracing the cause of death of each child to determine what role the fallout from reform—less food, less health care, more haphazard childcare—may have played, she added.
    It shouldn’t be a surprise that such hardships exist, Ehrenreich said. “Wages are too low.” While there has been a modest increase since 1996, hourly wages are still not up to the levels of 1973. “Do the math. It doesn’t work out. This isn’t ideology; it’s arithmetic.”
    The official poverty level of $13,000 a year, or $6.60 per hour, for a family of three (one adult and two children) is determined “by taking the price of food and multiplying it by three,” Ehrenreich said, which ignores the rapid escalation in rents in recent years. “When they say poverty is over, that’s how they get it.” She quoted figures from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington that put the required income level at $30,000. That’s about $14 an hour, but 60 percent of American workers make less than that, she said.
    Back in the pre-reform days, poor single mothers were “excoriated” for their “terrible dependency” on welfare. Now that most of them are out working, the “dependency has been reversed,” Ehrenreich charged, replaced by society’s “dependency on the low wages of others.” So that we can “eat cheaply or conveniently, [they have] made the gift of health, work, life.” The “great philanthropists of our culture” are now the working poor.
    “‘You give and you give and you give,’” Ehrenreich quoted one of the waitresses she worked with, calling it a “literal statement of her relation to the larger society.” This situation represents a “shameful inversion of the natural dependency” in society, and “we should feel shame.”
    Or, better yet, she concluded: “Become an activist for social and economic justice now.”

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