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Poor Are Poorer, Rich Are Richer
Too Soon To Call Welfare Reform A Success, Wilson Warns

By Rich McManus

When Harvard sociologist Dr. William Julius Wilson came to Masur Auditorium to give the NIH Director's Lecture on May 16, he was unsparing in his portrayal of how badly those earning the lowest wages have fared during the past quarter century. With reauthorization by Congress of the welfare reform bill that was enacted in 1996 coming up soon, he warned of pitfalls in interpreting the so-called "success" of reform. But he was not so stern that he could not joke. Challenged by an audience member to delineate what exactly the people at NIH could do to influence meaningful reform, Wilson quipped, "Action? At NIH? I thought you were a science agency."

Harvard's Dr. William Julius Wilson accepts commemorative plaque from NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.

Drollery was in short supply, though, for most of his talk. Using data drawn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and from his own research, Wilson painted a grim picture of the country's poorest citizens losing ground — despite an overall economic boom — while the wealthiest quintile of the population gets even richer.

At the outset, he declared his case against "faulty assumptions" made by those who think the 1996 reform was unerringly beneficial; he decried a tendency "to ignore competing explanations of why the welfare rolls have plummeted since reform." He sees his role as "using empirical evidence to examine assumptions about welfare reform...I hold to the view that we cannot make wise policy decisions without adequate information." That loosened the spigot.

Unlike most people surveyed in 12 European countries, Americans have negative feelings about impoverished people, he related. Whereas in Europe, poverty is infrequently attributed to personal shortcomings (structural problems such as a bad economy, social injustice or plain bad luck are more often blamed), more than 9 out of 10 Americans think lack of effort is somewhat or very important as a cause of poverty. "In the U.S., there is widespread support for the notion that most welfare recipients don't value hard work," Wilson stated. "Americans are especially critical of welfare recipients. There is a popular sentiment that these people are not pulling their weight."

Two themes characterize the "welfare ethos" in this country, he argued: While we concede that government has an obligation to help its neediest citizens, we tend to require that recipients must, first, behave in socially approved ways, and second, must prepare for work and accept jobs when offered. In other words, they are not free — like you and I are — to turn down work they might find distasteful.

"In the United States, it is the moral fabric of the individual that is seen as the core and root of the problem, and this idea resonates with the general public," Wilson said.

He described the period from the early 1970's through the mid-1990's as one of rising inequality, which contrasts sharply with the years following World War II, when "a rising tide did indeed lift all boats."

From 1947 to 1973, the lowest quintile of wage-earners experienced the highest average income growth, he reported. But that pattern changed in the early 1970's, when growth slowed. After this point, the higher quintiles grew continually, with the top 5 percent exceeding gains made during the previous period. However, the two lowest quintiles experienced annual stagnation or declines in income. During 1974-1996, real wages of those at the top climbed while the lowest-paid workers saw steady declines.

"AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) recipients were far worse off in 1995 than 1975," Wilson reported; there was a 37 percent drop in benefits during this period. AFDC and food stamp benefits declined an average of 26 percent during 1972-1992. "The erosion of AFDC benefits became a landslide after 1991," he continued. "Nine states cut benefits one or more times during that period."

Using the Department of Housing and Urban Development's standards for "decent, safe, sanitary housing of a modest nature" as a benchmark, Wilson said an AFDC-recipient family of three could not afford even such meager accommodations by the early nineties.

Peering into AFDC recipients' lives, he found that only a minority of them were black in 1995, and that they constitute "a very dynamic population, subject to frequent change." For example, three-quarters of those on AFDC rolls depart within 2 years, he found. "Permanent receipt of welfare is seen as anathema by many recipients." Only 15 percent of welfare recipients remain on welfare for 5 years or more. But welfare is more economically beneficial than keeping a job at the lowest end of the wage spectrum, he discovered, for many reasons including the cost of a work wardrobe, obtaining child care, commuting long distances to jobs, etc.

Yet work provides more than income; it also offers an "anchor in time and space" for people, a place to report to, a structure to which to belong. "In its absence, life is less coherent," he observed.

Wilson says that when President Clinton first introduced his proposal for welfare reform in 1993, Clinton argued that welfare reform "should not be undertaken in isolation, but joined with universal health insurance, job-creation efforts that pay decent wages, and programs that attend to child care and support issues."

Wilson called the Republican-crafted 1996 reform "the greatest shift in social policy concerning the poor since the Social Security Act of 1935" but admitted that dire predictions for its impact on the welfare poor have not materialized. "Caseloads have dropped from 12 million in August 1996 to 6 million now," he reported, and state budget surpluses have benefited child poverty in dozens of other ways. "But it is sensible to ask whether this success is related to the incredible economic boom in this country during which we have experienced strong growth, a decline in unemployment (long-term unemployment dropped from 2 million in January 1993 to 640,000 in 2001, and black unemployment, at 7 percent, is the lowest since BLS began keeping such statistics in 1972) and a rise in the minimum wage," Wilson said. "Now there are signs that the economy is slowing down, and this is unfortunate...if the good times could last just a few more years, there would be a significant positive impact."

Some groups, he said, are worse off since 1996; the bottom 20 percent of female-headed households has realized a decrease in disposable income. The number of children in poverty declined "only slightly" in the late nineties.

In a three-city study funded in part by NICHD, Wilson and colleagues have found there are "a significant number of women who have not fared well after leaving welfare, even in a booming economy...What will happen to these women when the economy turns down?"

Wilson says it's premature to declare welfare reform a successful experiment, and that "we must wait until the economy returns to normal or suffers stagnation" to get a reliable report card. Meanwhile, the media are ignoring a significant correlation his team has found: in the poorest neighborhoods, the children are constantly sick, largely due to unsanitary environments, poor access to health care, poor diets and other causes. Further, inadequate child care is the biggest stress on poor working women. "They have to worry about getting to work on time, or at all, versus caring for their sick children...Many employers are quick to attribute moms' tardiness or absence at work to lack of a work ethic."

He concluded, "It's important to realize that welfare reform has only been in place for a short period of time, and in a period of unprecedented economic good times. There's been lots of information on the good news of reform, but now it's time to increase the awareness of Americans to the bad news, especially if the economy does indeed turn sour."

During the question period, Wilson emphasized the powerful social and cultural effects of the environment in poverty, a topic that intrigues him. He also has recently published a new book, one that actually offers solutions rather than analysis, he joked; it's called The Bridge Over the Racial Divide, and "it aims to generate a sense of interdependence in addressing the concerns of ordinary families." Wilson also explained the rise in incarceration at the same time crime rates are dropping as evidence of national mean-spiritedness, and said he "doesn't expect major, significant changes" when welfare laws are reauthorized. "But I'm a perennial optimist." He wants some assurance that "every single leaver of welfare" is fully informed about access to other forms of government assistance outside of welfare when he or she officially leaves the rolls.


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