Between The Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media

Welfare Reform: War on the Poor?

In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress and President Clinton enacted legislation dismantling the federal welfare system. Many groups involved in providing social services to the poor were alarmed at the probable effect this policy would have on the nation's impoverished families. Three years later, the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has released the results of a study conducted to determine the actual effects of welfare reform. Despite pronouncements from politicians that changes in the welfare system are an unqualified success, the Center found that the incomes of the poorest 20% of female heads of families with children -- a group that includes six million people nationwide with a disposable household income of between $7,588 and $8,624 annually -- fell an average of $580 per family.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Wendell Primus, director of income security with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Primus resigned from a top post in the Clinton Administration's Department of Health and Human Services to protest the 1996 welfare reform law. He explains the results of the center's recent study.

Wendell Primus: The conventional wisdom here in Washington and perhaps in Connecticut as well, is that welfare reform has been enormously successful. Caseloads in the AFDC -- or the cash assistance program, now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) -- has fallen in half since early 1994. And food stamp caseloads have fallen by a third since early 1994.

And the questions were, with those dramatic caseload declines, are incomes of poor families actually increasing as well? What is happening to the incomes of poor families? Particularly single-mother families, since those are the families that typically get cash assistance under the old AFDC program. And in short, what we found, was that between 1993 and 1995, incomes of the very poorest single-mother families increased dramatically.

But since 1995, the next two-year period, incomes declined throughout this entire period. We've had one of our strongest economies ever, and I think it is disturbing and surprising that we're finding a group of two million mothers that actually have lost income in the last two years. We did this study and we looked at families below 75% of poverty. That's roughly $10,000 for a family of three, roughly $12,000 for a family of four. And we found that for those families, income declined by about $580 during this two-year period. That's about 1.7 million families on average that have one adult, by definition, and about two children on average.

Between the Lines: What does this mean for these families in terms of their ability to purchase food or pay rent? What is the effect here on their daily lives?

WP: They have very low incomes to begin with. So in terms of a percentage, it's a fairly significant decline of about seven percent. For the very poorest of those families, ones in the poorest decile, or about 800,000 poorest families, there was an actual decline of a little over $800 or about 15% of their income. So if I was going to make that meaningful for the reader, it means "What if your income was cut by 15%?" Think of the implications for your own budget, and for these families, it's probably even worse because they have so little income to begin with.

BTL: Does your study tie this decline in income for these poorest families in the country to the welfare reform, the dissolution of welfare?

WP: That's absolutely correct. The income loss of $580, the bulk of that, 85% or so of that was due to the loss of food stamps or TANF cash assistance.

BTL: In general, have states gone out of their way for political reasons to make those welfare rolls disappear at the same time that they put a lot of obstacles in the way of getting the folks that are legitimately entitled to get food stamps or welfare?

WP: There clearly is evidence that that is going on around the country. We've made caseload reductions the prime criteria by which we're judging welfare reform. And I think welfare reform ought not to be judged by how many people are getting off assistance, but on whether children are being made better off as a result of the reform effort.

BTL: Do you foresee a time when we're going to turn a corner on the political expediency of bashing the poor, or scapegoating the poor in attempt to rebuild at some point in the future, our safety net which has been frayed so badly.

WP: I guess I'm an optimist, with budget surpluses both at the federal level and the state level. That we can on a bipartisan basis, get beyond the bashing the poor and try to assist all families in getting the assistance to which they're entitled to, in reducing child poverty.

To find out how you can act locally on this issue, call the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities at 202-408-1095 or via web site at

Scott Harris is WPKN Radio's public affairs director and executive producer of Between the Lines. This interview was featured on WPKN 89.5 FM's Associated Press awardwinning weekly newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending Sept. 10, 1999.

"Between The Lines Q&A" is compiled and edited by Anna Manzo. For a cassette tape of the full half-hour interview with Wendell Primus, send $8 in check or money order to Between The Lines, WPKN Radio, 244 University Ave., Bridgeport, CT 06604.

Copyright 1999 Between the Lines. All rights reserved.

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