A distraction of the road to a better welfare system
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.
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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