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Posted at 9:07 PM ET, 11/24/2010

A distraction of the road to a better welfare system

By Monica C. Bell and Jennifer Mezey, Washington

Over the past two weeks, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) has received a great deal of attention for co-sponsoring a bill that would toss more than 7,000 families off the welfare (or “TANF”) rolls because they have been on the program for more than five years. As the bill is drafted, this time limit would go into effect without provisions for training or transitional assistance and regardless of whether the head of household is disabled, a survivor of domestic violence, over 60 or simply a casualty of the District’s abominable employment and training services. The harshness of this cutoff, and the fame of the person who proposed it, has sparked the interest of national media outlets.

What reporters and editorial writers have generally overlooked, however, is that not even Barry seems to support the legislation.

In his Nov. 21 commentary in The Post, “A needed conversation on welfare in D.C.,” Barry called his bill “imperfect and incomplete,” adding, “It is wrong to suggest, as some have, that I would be so callous as to advocate the immediate removal of thousands of TANF recipients.” After advocates testified at a Nov. 15 hearing about the harm the legislation would exact on children, families and survivors of domestic violence, Barry chastised them for focusing on the implications of the bill. “Why would you spend all your time talking about something we’re not going to do?” he asked. Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), the bill’s co-sponsor, has likewise clarified that she does not want to cut families off welfare.

Given that neither of the bill’s co-sponsors wants the bill to pass, what has this legislation, and the conversation and coverage surrounding it, achieved?

On Nov. 15, the Washington Times quoted Barry’s disparagement of an alleged neighbor in Southeast who gets “$400 or $500 worth of food stamps but won’t get up in the morning and fix breakfast” — bringing to mind the racially charged 1980s and 1990s image of the “welfare queen.”

On Nov. 17, Barry appeared on a Fox News program whose host applauded him for “seeing the light” and encouraged him to give a new message to Democratic leaders: “I am anti-welfare. I don’t like this. I want it cut off.

On Nov. 18, The Post published an editorial suggesting that the Barry-Alexander bill would bring the District’s welfare program in line with other states’ programs. In fact, the bill would give the District one of the harshest time-limit statutes in the nation, with no hardship exemptions, no requirement that families be screened for disabilities, domestic violence or other barriers to employment, and no acknowledgment that families could be doing everything society wants of them and still be unable to find jobs in this economy.

In other words, this media coverage has reinforced prejudices and reignited ideas that make it difficult for families to escape poverty.

None of this coverage has focused on the families who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the barriers they face, measures that would actually move welfare recipients from joblessness and poverty into the workplace, and the challenge of doing so in the midst of an economic crisis that has left many people with more education and job skills out of work.

D.C. Department of Human Services Director Clarence H. Carter, aware of the serious flaws in the District’s welfare-to-work program, has initiated a massive program redesign. Over a month before Barry and Alexander introduced their bill, council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) proposed important legislation that would require the welfare agency to assess recipients’ work skills both at the beginning and throughout the program, and would provide better educational and job training opportunities.

The council held a public hearing on the Brown-Wells bill this month, but it didn’t attract much media attention. That is a shame, but it’s not a surprise. Throwing families and children off TANF is a more provocative idea than helping them find employment and move toward self-sufficiency.

Advocates for families living in poverty have been working with the D.C. Council and the Department of Human Services on these improvements to the program, and we are eager to continue these conversations. None of us wants families to remain tethered to a paltry $370 monthly check for generations. None of us wants the welfare program to hinder people from working and elevating themselves and their children out of poverty. But those conversations cannot be based on stereotypes about people who receive welfare, ideological disdain for the very concept of public assistance or legislation so flawed that not even its co-sponsors want it to pass.

Monica C. Bell is a public interest fellow at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. Jennifer Mezey is supervising attorney of the organization’s public benefits unit.

By Monica C. Bell and Jennifer Mezey, Washington  | November 24, 2010; 9:07 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., D.C. politics, HotTopic, Marion Barry  
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While Barry is of course mainly attention-seeking I'll give him credit for bringing this conversation back into the fore in DC.

And I be interested in where the authors live, are they DC residents and do they live in the poorer neighborhoods (as I do)? If so, will they honestly say they never get frustrated at the slave mentality so seemingly pervasive among DC's impoverished? I certainly don't want to see children thrown to the street and go without food, but many of the able bodied adult recipients in DC deserve exactly that. Their sense of entitlement is simply destructive to the city and their progeny. More to the point, they laugh at people like the authors as they take advantage of such services, gleefully avoiding work in the process.

So, do the authors live east of the park in DC, or like so many other so-called poverty pimps do they live in VA or MD?

Posted by: plugugly7 | November 25, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

I'm one of the authors, and while I think this is completely irrelevant to our argument, I live east of the park in the District.

Just to respond to to your point, one of the problems with the current system is that it doesn't distinguish between able-bodied adults and people with disabilities or other barriers to employment. If the District were to cut people off, they'd definitely be cutting off not only those people who may or may not be taking advantage of the system, but also a lot of people who just can't work.

This is one of the main reasons CM Barry and CM Alexander have said they don't want this legislation to pass; they know the current system is broken. If you were to ask the welfare office why people have been on for more than 5 years, they wouldn't be able to tell you.

A conversation about time limits, with nothing more, just makes the situation worse. Time limits don't do anything to get people working. They are a distraction from the urgently important work of trying proven policies that move people who can work into employment.

Posted by: mnccbll | November 26, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Fair enough, thank you for the reply. Perhaps we're neighbors! From my perspective I see a lot of people who are on some form of permanent welfare and who can work, but the benefits they get from the city are generous enough that there's no real reason for them to work unless they find a rather well-paying job. Further, they are generally unwilling to look more than a few miles for work given that they want to stay in DC and the city will subsidize this rather luxurious wish. This in an age of globalization where millions of people traverse the globe to get a job, any job. In short, while I am sure there are many folks who simply cannot work they are joined by thousands who can but literally choose not to. Separating these groups of people seems to be the real challenge, and establishing time limits is one way to do that. For example, since the rest of the US uses time limits, do you think they have had positive impacts elsewhere? I do.

While I can't quite defend Barry as he instituted much of the welfare policies that enslaved "his" people (the bama!), I will give him credit for briefly reintroducing us to this debate in DC. We wouldn't be having this exchange otherwise. Best of luck to you in your work, be safe.

Posted by: plugugly7 | November 28, 2010 4:51 AM | Report abuse

I have to call shenanigans on the basic premise here.

That there are no jobs in the DC area.

First, there's always the military. They'll take pretty much anybody these days. They'll feed you, house you and your family, train you, etc.

Are these welfare recipients too good to serve their country?

If they are, they can alway go to any of the hundreds of DC restaurants and bars that are desperate for people to work in the kitchen, as busboys, as waiters. Waiters in DC can make terrific money.

I can't count the number of times I've talked to restaurant owners and managers and DC and they say they are begging for workers. And they'd much prefer to hire DC residents that speak English.

If that isn't to their liking, they can go into the construction or landscaping trades. These industries are begging for workers of all skill levels.

Again, I've heard countless construction foremen of jobs big and small begging for everything from day laborers to skilled carpenters. Many of these positions can lead to a real skilled work career.

I also have to question why the authors and others in their industry (and it is an industry) don't ever suggest that welfare recipients move to other localities or areas where there are jobs. Back in the booming years in DC we still had these welfare cases for generations, and no one ever suggested they move to areas where jobs were even more plentiful.

Why not?

I'd suggest because poverty is a political issue for many in DC. Rather than solve the problems they'd rather it remain as a potent and visible issue.

As for 'barriers to employment', absolutely real disabilities should be treated as such, and those folks should be provided for. Tweaking the endless welfare program to provide for that should be quite simple (and it's already that way at the federal level).

But as we know 'disability' is the new welfare for many (but of course not all). They've learned to game the system.

As for the other 'barriers', I'm sorry but not being willing to show up on time and sober and not curse at your boss and customers are not 'barriers to employment'.

Having said that, I fully support full daycare options so welfare recipients can get jobs even if they have kids. Even though it's worth pointing out that in years past neighbors banded together and watched each others children so working moms could work.

I speak from experience here. I've got two brothers that are homeless and/or sponging off of welfare systems whenever possible.

Both will tell you that the system and it's advocates enabled their behavior for years. It was only when their access to unlimited and unquestioned benefits dried up that they were forced to clean up their acts (and their drug habits) and become productive members of society.

Forgive my cynicism, but I've lived with this system for too long to accept the mischaracterizations in this article.

Particularly the part about there being no work, and the 'barriers to employment'.

Posted by: TheHillman | November 28, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I'd also point out that in the 15 years I've lived in DC I've seen absolutely no effort to move DC's welfare population to suburban locations where housing would be cheaper, their kids would be in FAR better schools, and the street drug corner thug culture wouldn't be the huge hazard that it is in most DC welfare enclaves.

To the contrary. Those in the welfare industry in DC have actively fought that.

Even though even basic common sense would indicate that any decent parent would much prefer their kids be in a good school and away from the drug and crime culture.

Why is that?

It's not that I don't value a safety net for the poor. I fully support a TEMPORARY safety net, drug and alcohol rehab, daycare, etc.

What I don't support is the counterproductive joke that is welfare in DC.

It's just that the entire idea has been turned on it's head for political visibility purposes.

And who ends up being hurt? The very people the poverty industry is supposed to be helping.

Believe me, I know poor. I grew up in abject rural poverty in the US. We had no heat in the winters other than one wood stove to heat our entire trailer. We literally rationed toilet paper (four squares a day.... anything beyond that we had to find old newspapers or whatever else we could find).

We had no electricity in my bedroom.

We walked almost two miles to the closest school bus stop.

We grew our own vegetables and canned them for winter consumption.

Both of my parents, with advanced degrees, worked menial labor jobs when necessary.

All of us kids worked. From raking neighbors lawns to baling hay to delivering newspapers.

And we took food stamps for nearly two years.

And if my parents couldn't find work, they moved to somewhere where they could find work.

When I see how many of the poor in DC live by comparison, I wish I'd been so 'poor'.

Well-heated homes, now in trendy neighborhoods as the city changes.

Tons of employment opportunities, both on the books and off.

A world class metro system at their disposal.

What is their biggest hurdle? It's a system that encourages them to fail, to be on welfare forever. And a massive network of welfare advocates that enable that failure.

Posted by: TheHillman | November 28, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm one of the authors, and while I think this is completely irrelevant to our argument, I live east of the park in the District.

Just to respond to to your point, one of the problems with the current system is that it doesn't distinguish between able-bodied adults and people with disabilities or other barriers to employment. If the District were to cut people off, they'd definitely be cutting off not only those people who may or may not be taking advantage of the system, but also a lot of people who just can't work.
Posted by: mnccbll |

Unless I'm mistaken, don't those people who are disabled qualify for SSI disability? So, let them go into that program that pays a similar stipend and provides medical insurance with the added benefit of allowing them to move into whichever jurisdiction they choose. I notice, though, that you offer no evidence of how many people are affected under this "unable to work" status. If you don't know of the number, then maybe there are none, and if there are those claiming this status, how do you determine if these are legitimate claims or if they are malingerers.

The problem with the bleeding-heart theories that you propose is that you make the same fallacious conclusions as do those claiming the "welfare queen" cheaters. Your arguments, however, are on the other end of the scale, ie., that everyone on welfare is a legitimate welfare need. That is not the case and you offer nothing to demonstrate how you would change the system.

The fact is, DC is short of money and cuts in services will be made. By arguing to leave untouched those who do not find employment as nearly every other jurisdiction in the country has required, then you are showing a preference for one class over another. And that is not fair.

Posted by: familynet | November 28, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

What is their biggest hurdle? It's a system that encourages them to fail, to be on welfare forever. And a massive network of welfare advocates that enable that failure.

Posted by: TheHillman

The Hillman makes several excellent points and people should read his full comments just above.

Posted by: familynet | November 28, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm wondering if either of the authors of this piece would care to respond to my posts or to others here?

You went to the trouble of presenting your opinions in an Op Ed piece. When presented with critical taxpayers the least you can do is justify why you are advocating spending our hard-earned tax dollars on these endless programs you are suggesting, and to answer some of the very real points raised.

Posted by: TheHillman | November 28, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

The problem with your comments, The Hillman, is that they epitomize the very real racism and stereotyping that is pervasive in the anti-welfare arguement. Yes, there are welfare recipients who are abusing the system. There are also recipients who are beneficiaries of emergency temporary assistance in the true spirit of the program. Your solution to the system-abusers: that we cut the program and leave CHILDREN hungry and without services? What about all of the recipients who are using welfare as it is meant to be used, as emergency resources? The problem with the proposed solution is that it doesn't give parents a kick in the pants/a catalyst for major life restructuring, it takes away necessary resources for children.

Permanent TANF isn't the solution (note how its name is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) but neither is cutting benefits for the children of indigent parents. Setting a definitive, appeal-free 5-year time-limit, then, is NOT a good solution...which is why the attorneys are demanding a more nuanced discussion.

Posted by: vayaalaplaya | November 29, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse


Please explain in detail how my posts were racist.

I don't much like being called a racist. It's a serious charge, so please back it up.

But, then, that's usually the first charge that anyone suggesting real welfare reform gets labeled with.

Again, please provide some sort of detail about how my posts were racist.

Also, I never said there weren't people that were using welfare as intended - a temporary stepping stone. In fact, I pointed to my own parents using food stamps for that very purpose.

As for the children argument, I've got no problem with the state creating orphanages or other systems to take care of the children of people that abuse the welfare system. Far too many welfare cheats use the children to keep getting benefits, and far too many of these kids suffer because of it. In many instances they'd be better off in a state-sponsored program away from the abusive and self-centered parents.

But, again, with the racism thing - I take that charge very seriously. So please explain why you chose to call me a racist.

Posted by: TheHillman | November 29, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

"The problem with your comments, The Hillman, is that they epitomize the very real racism and stereotyping that is pervasive in the anti-welfare arguement."

Also, I never said we should end welfare.

I said we should reform it.

But, then, again, any of us advocating real reform are almost always branded as being 'anti-welfare'.

That's a lot easier to do than actually discussing the merit of our ideas. You aren't the first to do it, and you won't be the last.

As for the authors 'demanding' a discussion - seems to me their idea of a 'discussion' is to ignore constructive criticism like mine. That's not really a productive discussion.

But that's sortof par for the course with this subject. I've been trying to discuss this for years, but to date literally not one welfare status quo advocate has ever been able to tell me why they wouldn't advocate moving welfare recipients out of the ghettos of DC and into more productive urban environments. Or why recipients can't get jobs in the military.

I was saddened by the authors choosing not to comment, but I wasn't surprised.

Last, what do you suggest we do with able-bodied people that refuse to get a job after five years? Just let them keep getting benefits forever if they have kids?

Posted by: TheHillman | November 29, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

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