Many years ago, I was a single parent with three children under five. I worked four part time jobs trying to support them. When I was unable to get child support and my child care fell through, I went on welfare for the better share of a year. Back then, welfare payments were $220 a month and my rent was $175. A friend started sending me $50 a month, and I hid that income from the welfare department. I was constantly frightened that they would find out.
At the same time a woman I knew also cheated welfare by taking a temporary job in a pickle factory and not reporting the income. She was caught and sentenced to a prison term. She was allowed out during the day so she could continue working but had to go back to prison for the weekends and every night. Her children were taken away. All these years later, I still think of her.
I received welfare in 1971, long before the 1996 welfare reform act under President Clinton. Between the years when I had it and the early 1990s, welfare rolls and single parenthood rates expanded. According to Ronald Sider, in Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2007, a poll taken on election night in 1994 revealed that “a majority of those questioned thought either welfare or foreign aid was the biggest item in the federal budget.” (226-227) This misperception fueled an angry movement to end welfare, Aid to Dependent Families.
When campaigning, President Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” He proposed a two- year time limit on receiving payments, but he desired the government to guarantee everyone a job at the end of their eligibility. The Republican majority in Congress accepted time limits but forgot about Clinton’s promise of a job. In the process, it reduced the federal government’s role, turned Aid to Dependent Children into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and threw welfare policy to the states, who had less generous programs. Sider continues, “[W]elfare rolls dropped a stunning 65 % from 1994 to mid-2003,” but the number of people living in desperate poverty only dropped 15%. Then President Bush pushed a plan to increase the work requirement over education and training. Subsequently, poverty levels for people who leave welfare were very high. Food bank programs, homeless shelters, and other charitable institutions reported much despair.
Since then we have had the Great Recession, which has dramatically increased the percentage of people in poverty. Sabrina Tavernise, writing in the New York Times on September 13, 2011, says that the Census Bureau reported that the “number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.” People of color have been hit the hardest. African Americans experience the highest poverty rate at 27 % and Latinos at 26 %. 9.9% of whites live in poverty. One child is five is poor. The current unemployment rate is 8.3%.
The past decade was also marked by a growing gap between the very rich and the poor, and the government responds to the rich but not the poor. A study in the late 1980s and early 1990s (cited in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner Take All) asks if the opinions of richer Americans were more likely to be heard and heeded than those of the poor. Hacker and Pierson say, “It turns out there is pretty high degree of congruence between senators’ positions and the opinions of their constituents–at least when those constituents are in the top third of the income distribution. For constituents in the middle third of the income distribution, the correspondence is much weaker, and for those in the bottom third, it is actually negative. (Yes, when the poorest people in a state support a policy, their senators are less likely to vote for it.) (111)
I find that final sentence to be shocking, almost as shocking as I found my acquaintance’s prison term for having worked in a pickle factory. Not only are the poor not represented, but government goes against their beliefs, no matter how hard the poor try realistically to analyze their situations. How can we call this a democracy or a country with humane policies? A final quote: Hacker and Pierce found that “while senators in both parties were more likely to vote for a policy when it was supported by better-off voters, Republicans were much more responsive to high-income voters than were Democrats.
Governor Mitt Romney said he wasn’t concerned with the very poor, then claimed it was a mistake. The study cited above clearly reveals that the government also does not care about the poor. If it did the Senate would not vote directly against their beliefs and desires.