The End of Welfare as we Know it

The outlook for Minnesota

The board of commissioners of each county (shall) MAY annually levy taxes and fix a rate sufficient to produce (the full) AN amount (required) for poor relief, general assistance, aid to dependent children, (sufficient to produce the full amount necessary for each such item) for the ensuing year (and any commissioner who shall fail to comply herewith shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor and shall be immediately removed from office by the governor).

You wouldn't have heard about this in the news, but on April 9 the Minnesota Legislature did something extraordinary. In a vote that took all of two minutes, with no debate to speak of, it abolished a legal tradition going back some 500 years: the requirement, known as the Poor Law, that government make sure that people survive.

Of course, you could argue that the change amounts to little more than legislative housecleaning. It was only one of a series of steps that soon will affect one in every eight American families. And then, the fallout will get to the rest.

Welfare reform won't hit all at once--in fact, as far as most of us will be able to tell, it won't "hit" in any noticeable way at all. The bill Congress passed and President Clinton signed last year was carefully crafted that way. No two of its changes would take effect at the same time; no one would hit huge numbers of people in the same way; and everything has to make its way through layers of bureaucratic implementation and individual adaptation, ensuring that by the time the effects are felt, any backlash will be muted and partial. It's no easy task to put your arms around what has already happened, or what's to come.

"Marv" is in his 40s, kind of frail-looking and quick with a joke. It isn't until you've been around him for a while that you realize that something is not quite right about his internal wiring. He was never diagnosed with brain damage, though he had been beaten up a lot and ended up in the hospital a few times. All he really had was an official piece of paper showing he was addicted to alcohol. That got him federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly benefit of $470. The checks would be sent to the Alliance of the Streets, a church-basement agency in downtown Minneapolis. Caseworker Tom Logeland then would pay Marv's rent and utilities, and hand him whatever cash was left.

In November, Marv and the other 1,500 or so people in Hennepin County who received SSI because of a drug or alcohol addiction got a letter informing them that the next check would be their last. Jan. 1 was the date on which Congress had decreed all benefits to people like them would cease. After that, they were on their own.

Marv was lucky: He was diagnosed with cancer recently, and that has prevented the elimination of his benefits. A few weeks ago, though, Logeland checked on the fate of the 100-or-so other people whose benefits he used to administer. Only about 40 are still coming to see him every month; like Marv, they have been diagnosed with another disability and have kept their benefits. Some of the remainder got on their feet economically. Others ended up in Hennepin County's "warm waiting space," where, says Logeland, "It looks like Calcutta these days." (The warm waiting space is what Hennepin County came up with after it stopped its guarantee of emergency shelter for everyone who needed it. Some 300 people now line up every night at a building on Currie Avenue to reserve a 30-by-80 inch piece of floor space to sleep on.)

Folks like Marv were the first group to see the results of the new welfare law--perhaps not coincidentally. Next on the list was another "undeserving" group, people considered able-bodied who don't have a job and get food stamps. Starting Jan. 1, they can only get the grocery subsidy--an average of $65 a month--for three months every three years unless they participate in a work program. Most places don't have such a program and those that do, like Hennepin County, aren't equipped to handle large caseloads.

The next target of welfare reform is disabled seniors and children. By August 1, many elderly immigrants, mostly the parents and grandparents of U.S. citizens, will be cut off from SSI or food stamps, usually their only source of income. Statewide, some 5,400 people are affected, most living in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

In addition, SSI benefits will stop to all children--citizens or not--whose disabilities Congress has deemed not appropriately severe. Mostly, that means kids who have not one disastrous condition, but several milder ones; for example, a child with an IQ of 75, moderate cerebral palsy, and speech difficulties no longer qualifies. Nationally, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, some 300,000 children will be cut off this way. In Hennepin County, almost 1,500 cases are being reviewed, and at least half are expected to lose their benefits. All the children live in families with incomes under $30,000.

And finally, there are the reform's subtlest and hardest cuts--across-the-board reductions in programs like food stamps, child nutrition, and the so-called Social Services Block Grant. (In a rather Machiavellian move, the block grant--which funds a lot of popular programs serving low-to-middle-income families--was cut by 10 percent, but states were given the option of transferring some of their welfare money back into it.) There is no more money, for example, to serve a snack to low-income kids who spend eight hours or more in child care. And food stamps--used by one in 10 American households, the majority of them headed by workers who can't make ends meet--are cut 20 percent, or an average of $355 per family per year. Most of these reductions have barely registered in the headlines, failing as they do to produce any immediate, dramatic changes. All they do is make life a bit more miserable.

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