A few weeks ago your child told you that their friend next door would be moving soon. Today, you watched as the young couple with their two children moved out of the house they had called a home for the last three years, not thinking much about it. Your children had been friends, but you had never had the opportunity to get close to them. You knew that the father worked two jobs and the mother was recovering from cancer, but she had started working evenings since her cancer was in remission so you only saw them in passing. What you did not know about this family was the financial hardships they had been enduring since being diagnosed with cancer. Last year, when the mother was unable to work due to her illness, they had started receiving public assistance benefits, which were helping them to feed their family, make their house payments, and pay for their medical bills. Unfortunately, those same benefits had been cut in the last few months and they were no longer able to make ends meet. Their house payments had been behind ever since she had first gotten sick and they had been unable to catch them up. The house that you thought was up for sale had actually been foreclosed on months ago, and now they were being forced to leave the property. Your neighbors had nowhere to go and would be living out of their car because the nearest homeless shelter was overcrowded. To make matters worse, they were unable to receive any other benefits because the father’s income put them above the maximum limit for emergency aid. With all of the money that they had to spend on medication since the reduction of their assistance benefits, they did not even know how they were going to have money to feed their children. The sad reality to this desperate story is that it is not unrealistic. This scenario is happening all across the United States daily. Too many families have become homeless as a result of having their welfare benefits taken away or reduced before they are capable of becoming independent.
Homelessness in American is much more prevalent than any of us would like to admit. What is most alarming is the fact that there has been a five hundred percent increase in homelessness in the last twenty years, with these numbers not diminishing in light of the new welfare laws. More than one million children sleep on the streets every night, with 16,000 men, women, and children in New York City alone spending their nights in a shelter on a regular basis (Nunez, 2001).
Homelessness starts within the family unit and not with the welfare system itself. In 2001 Dr. Ralph Nunez, CEO of Homes for the Homeless and the Institute for Children and Poverty, published a case study completed on family Homelessness in New York City. This case study surveyed three hundred and fifty homeless families, including over six hundred children living in New York after the reauthorization of the welfare reform act. His results show that most homeless families are comprised of single mothers who are on average twenty-eight years old, and do not receive support from the father. In conflict with common opinion, approximately half of these women are employed. Eighty-four percent of homeless single mothers have relied on their welfare benefits as a primary source of income for at least a year, whether they are working or not. The common denominator between all of these women seems to be the fact that they have lost one or more of their benefits in the last year. In Nunez’s article (2001), Family Homelessness in New York City: A Case Study, he stated, “52 percent have had their welfare benefits reduced or cut, 42 percent have had their food stamps reduced or cut, and 27 percent have had their Medicaid benefits reduced or cut in the last year. ” However, not all homeless families are comprised of single mothers. Fifteen percent of the families surveyed were those where one or both parents worked. The majority of these families dramatically and swiftly moved into the welfare system for reasons beyond their control, such as a life threatening illness and/or an eviction due to their low wages and subsequent inability to pay their bills. What is sad is that forty-four percent of these families who were employed lost their benefits because they were employed. Unfortunately, public welfare is set up to remove those families who are able to work, whether they are capable of self-sufficiency or not. The problem is that most of these families do not make enough money to support their families and when they stop receiving benefits these families become homeless. Young mothers have an even harder time adjusting to the new welfare laws. In October of 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children also known as AFDC was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Since then several provisions have been made regarding young mothers (Collins, Steven & Lane, 2000). It has been proven that people who are twenty-one years of age or younger are three times more likely to become homeless (The Institute of Children & Poverty, 2001). The majority of the population in this segment has been identified as being in the system since childhood. These include those who were foster children, victims of abuse, and whose parents had been on public assistance or homeless at one point in time (Nunez, 2001). Because of this, the legislation specifically targeted teenage parents making it more difficult for them to receive public assistance (Collins, Stevens & Lane). The current welfare system no longer supports the young mother or even those whose predecessors had been receiving any sort of public assistance. Thus, creating a damaging cycle of homelessness.
Public assistance programs have been a hot topic on political agendas ever since welfare’s inception in the early 1970’s. Since then, there have been many arguments over the efficiency of public assistance programs such as Medicaid, Women’s Infant & Children (WIC), Welfare, and TANF. These programs are under constant scrutiny because of the fear that people will take advantage of a system that was originally designed to prevent homelessness by offering health care, housing assistance, and assistance finding jobs. Because of this scrutiny, the welfare system has repeatedly been reformed. In 1995, President Clinton addressed the nation on welfare reform. He stated that his primary goals were to make sure that people who were able to work did not stay on welfare indefinitely, to make work possible for single mothers by providing them with childcare, ensuring that child support was received by all parents, and making sure that the recipients of welfare had to work in return for the assistance that they received. The changes that President Clinton made to the welfare system made a significant impact on the number of working welfare recipients, while allowing them to continue striving to achieve financial independence. However, the laws that President Clinton set up to encourage growth and development from the poorest segments of our population have been hindered by the changes made by President Bush. In 2002, President Bush was able to change welfare laws to suit the goals of his administration. It was his belief that there were too many people on welfare that were not employed and that the number of welfare cases could be reduced by providing abstinence and drug rehabilitation programs and encouraging the work of faith-based groups and charities. President Bush mandated that seventy percent of welfare recipients must spend at least forty hours a week working with a maximum of two days a week on education or job training. The current laws limit the provision of cash assistance to families with dependent care or pregnant women, impose a sixty month lifetime limit on the receipt of benefits, require that a family’s benefit be reduced if parents do not cooperate with child support officials, deny assistance to individuals convicted of a drug felony, and deny assistance to teen parents not living in an adult-supervised setting. This plan has instituted some radical changes to what Bush considered an out-dated system that was not working. Yet, the facts show that these changes are actually hurting a segment of the population that is already in need instead of helping them. Welfare cases have reduced in number by fifty-four percent since the changes in welfare laws have been made, but at what expense? The current administration would like for you to believe that all fifty-four percent have obtained jobs and are living prosperously, but in all actuality the statistics show that the majority of them are now living homeless because we, as a nation, have let them slip off the radar.
In New York City the President’s welfare reform plan is said to be enjoying enormous success. Upon examination of this segment of our population we can find out what impact the changes in welfare have had on the public. In 2005, it was noted that food stamp participation had decreased by twenty-six percent. The current administration would consider this a significant triumph. However, it has also been recorded that the requests for emergency food aid have increased by thirty-six percent. During this same time, 73,832 people have been turned away from emergency food aid, with 43,766 of them being children. This means, an estimated 1,400 children were left hungry every night because of the changes that have been to the system. If our only concern is reducing the number of welfare cases and we are able to ignore those people who are left to sleep on the streets, we could then consider welfare reform a success. However, the shocking truth is that homeless shelters in the area are exceeding their maximum occupancy, sheltering over 6,000 families with 15,000 children a night. Numbers like these have not been seen since the great depression (Quindlen, 2001). It is the opinion of Dr. Ralph Nunez that most of these cases are the result of families having their welfare benefits taken away or reduced before they are capable of becoming independent. Nunez states, “Without building individual responsibility and independent living skills, shelters will indeed become permanent warehouse for the poor”. He believes the key to moving people out of public assistance programs and homelessness, is education. Reducing or taking away public assistance benefits before a person is able to be self- sufficient does nothing but degrade the lives of children and subsequent generations. If the primary goal of welfare and public assistance programs is to reduce the number of people that are homeless, the number of independent families should be increasing while simultaneously reducing the number of homeless families, not vice versa. After looking at the statistics on homelessness, one certainly might question how this is happening when our economy has been flourishing and prosperous over the course of the last ten years. Nancy Berlin, the executive director of the Welfare Reform Advocacy group may have the best explanation. Shortly after the 1996 federal welfare-overhaul legislation was passed, she was quoted saying, “We're hearing that this work isn't a priority. Foundations are telling us that they've shifted to other issues: employment, economic development, and job creation. All of these are very important, but the cutoff of welfare aid here is going to have a huge impact" (Berkshire, 2003). Seven million people were taken off welfare after the President made his changes to the welfare laws. We need to be asking if these people are capable of being self-sufficient or were they taken off of welfare because the amount of money needed to cover public assistance programs was used in other areas?
Last year President Bush awarded 27,457 million dollars on foreign aid programs while another 60 million went towards corporate welfare. Another program that President Bush endorses gives companies like General Electric, General Motors, 3M and Motorola 150 million dollars per year (Feulner, 2006). At the same time, public assistance programs have had their budgets cut tremendously and grants for these programs have shown a significant decrease. “The collapse in foundation support for the Welfare Reform Advocacy Project has resulted in swift and drastic measures: The group has seen its annual budget drop from approximately $100,000 to a fraction of that, ” (Berkshire 2003). To make matters worse, unemployment rates have increased, housing expenses have increased, but minimum wage continues to stay the same. Six years ago the National Low Income Housing Coalition determined that for a person to afford a two-bedroom apartment they would have to make at least twelve dollars an hour (Quindlen, 2001). Even though a person may have a full-time job paying above the minimum wage, they still may not be making enough to lift them above the poverty level, but making enough for them to be rejected from receiving any sort of public assistance (Still Hungry, 2001). The source of blame on this bleak scenario is welfare reform. With this being said, why is so much being spent to enrich the lives of other countries and successful corporations when our own people are suffering? Why are we being told that the current administration’s plan for welfare reform is working when so many families are left hungry and homeless? These are hard questions that must ask our State Senators and politicians. The current welfare system is less efficient than the one previous. Welfare laws must change in order to help the people, instead of hurt them.
References Berkshire, J. (2003). Nonprofit Popularity Contests. Chronicle of Philanthropy, 15 (10), 8. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from EBSCOHost Database.
Bush, G. , & States, P. (n. d. ). George W Bush Delivers Weekly Radio Address. FDCH Political Transcripts. Retrieved June 19, 2006 from the MasterFILE Premier Database.
Collins, M. , Stevens, J. , & Lane, T. (2000). Teenage Parents and Welfare Reform: Findings from a Survey of Teenagers Affected by Living Requirements. Social Work, 45 (4), 327-338. Retrieved June 7, 2006 from EBSCOHost Database.
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Nunez, R. (2001). Family Homelessness in New York City: A Case Study. Political Science Quarterly, 116 (3), 367. Retrieved June 10, 2006 from MasterFILE Premier Database.
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The Institute for Children and Poverty. (2001). Deja Vu: Family Homelessness in New York City [Electronic Version] Retrieved June 2, 2006, from: http://www.homesforthehomeless.com/index.asp?CID=3&PID=18
The White House. (2003, January). President Calls for Action on Welfare Reform. Retrieved June 3, 2006 from: http://www.whitehouse. gov/news/releases/2003/01/print/20030114.html
I am originally from Phoenix, Arizona. I come from Native American Heritage and was raised by a single father, who died when I was only twelve years old. I was later adopted, and our family moved to Indiana. I currently am 26 years old and am a single mother myself. I own and operate a small cleaning company, sell commercial insurance, and am attending Indiana University to complete a Bachelor Degree in Communications/Journalism. Once this is completed I plan on pursuing a career in Journalism or photography or both, while continuing to work on a Master Degree. Eventually, I would like to earn a P. H. D. In the past, I have worked with groups such as the Johnson County Child Care Initiative, Step-Ahead Committe, United Way, and the YMCA. I have also worked on political campaigns and organized events for political groups in Indianapolis.