Get a Job

More than thirty years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson helped launch a War on Poverty. A generation later, Texas leads the way again, in what looks more like a war on the poor. We’re Number One — but only if you turn things upside down. Texans should be appalled by our new status as one of the worst states in the union — if not the worst — for people at the bottom.

How bad is it? As of 1996 (the most recent figures available), 17.7 percent of Texas residents earned family incomes below the federal poverty line ($16,240 for a family of four) — fifth worst in the nation, including economically much weaker states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. According to the Houston-based advocacy group Children at Risk, in Harris County alone, 43 percent of the students in public schools are economically disadvantaged: 246,000 out of 579,000 kids. Most of those children are Hispanic and African-American. And the problem is getting worse: those numbers represent a 42 percent increase in the poverty rate since 1990.

What has been the state’s response? Cut social services. In the wake of the 1996 federal welfare “reform” law, authority over a wide range of policies and programs for the poor is now directly in the hands of the states. What used to be called “welfare” — Aid to Families of Dependent Children — has been replaced by block grants, under a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Whereas A.F.D.C. was a federal social support program, T.A.N.F. is primarily a funding stream, presumably to address a wide range of needs. T.A.N.F. effectively delegates as well the authority to attend to the needs of the poor — or to ignore them. Given the current nationwide dominance of conservative ideology — resting on the conviction that all welfare programs are bad — in most states, the poor are doing worse than before.

Both political parties — the reactionaries who dominate the Republican Party and the so-called centrists who hold sway among the Democrats — have embraced the attack on welfare. In Welfare’s End, Gwendolyn Mink argues that such punitive policies are the direct result of the politics of race, gender, and class. Under welfare reform, women and children have indeed taken the primary blows, and the victims are also disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. But beyond explicit sexism or racism, a very conservative vision of global capitalism also drives these policies, because pushing the poor away from public-sector supports also forces them into private labor markets at the cheapest rates, effectively driving down the cost of labor to business.

One conventional principle of this conservative vision is that welfare programs “cause” poverty. Therefore, the only way for people to break the chains of poverty is to “end welfare as we know it”: force welfare recipients into the workforce, thus ending poverty (and cutting taxes in the bargain). The public sector can then do what it does best, help big business. The proper place for the public sector is to underwrite private projects, such as baseball and football stadiums, or to construct infrastructure improvements (streets, sewers, water, public amenities, etc.) for private development projects. The corollary principle is that it is inappropriate and unacceptable to use public sector funds to help the poor. Such programs only siphon cheap labor out of the market, raise the cost of doing business, and cause people to turn to the government for help, when they should be out there in the “free market,” fending for themselves.

Rather than ending poverty, of course, such policies simply help spread it around. With a vast pool of people forced to work for minimum wage (or below, as is common in Texas), overall wages remain low and depressed. The game is an old one. In certain periods, when there is more progressive leadership and more grassroots resistance (as in the thirties and sixties), conditions temporarily improve for the poor and working class (indeed, that resistance was the genesis of the federal anti-poverty programs). In the current era, when corporate conservatism has become the mainstream, and the Right wing is more effective at organizing and education than the Left, the poor get punished. This is one of the main themes of the work of activist intellectuals Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, reflected in their recent The Breaking of the American Social Compact. When working people rebel against oppressive conditions, social programs expand; when they retreat and demands lessen, social programs contract, and the poor are forced into low-paying jobs.

Texas spends as little as possible to help those in need. Ninth in the U.S. in per capita spending for corrections (i.e., prisons), Texas is generally last, or very nearly last, in social welfare expenditures. According to the comptroller’s office (which takes some pride in this data), we’re forty-seventh in the maximum monthly welfare payment for a family of three: $188 per month. (Try sustaining milk and shoes, let alone a welfare Cadillac, on that budget.) We’re also forty-seventh in per capita state funding for public health. Texas ranks fifty-first (below the District of Columbia) in its percentage of children without health insurance. In the percentage of poor working parents without health insurance, Texas ranks fiftieth. It is fiftieth, under the new welfare rules, for the income level at which a working poor family becomes ineligible for T.A.N.F. cash assistance. (Other rankings: state spending for police protection, forty-seventh; percentage of workers covered by unions, forty-seventh; spending for parks and recreation, forty-eighth; spending for the arts, forty-ninth. But I digress; this comptroller’s report is awfully informative.) One half of the children in Texas under the age of eleven who are eligible for Medicaid are not enrolled. Overall, in state government expenditure per capita, we’re a celebratory fiftieth — that is, the Texas public sector spends less per citizen than any other state. Is it any wonder that George W. Bush is the leading Republican candidate for president?

Are Texans better off? Hardly. If the poverty figures in Texas were not so high, if the childrens’ health and poverty conditions were not so dismal, if public school performance were not so poor, if air pollution weren’t so widespread and so serious, if public sector employees (from schoolteachers to police) were not so badly paid — perhaps one might simply climb on the free-market bandwagon, agree that the public sector should be reduced to purely ceremonial functions, and allow unbridled capitalism to run the state. In fact, the state’s common problems are extremely serious, and one of the reasons for these problems is the negative view of the public sector.

Sadly, this mischievous thinking overwhelmingly dominates new policies for the poor. New programs that do exist are designed to make certain that people who need help will get little from the state of Texas. They will be forced to work at low-paying jobs which, in most cases, will not lift them out of poverty, will not pay for health insurance, will not address their most basic economic needs. This neo-conservative program is not simply campaign rhetoric; it is now the express practice of public welfare agencies in Texas.

Consider, for example, an educational packet from the Department of Human Services, used in training what are now called “Texas Works Advisors.” Among other information, the packet provides sample “scripts” for phone screeners and intake workers, to be employed when talking with those seeking assistance. The scripts are very emphatic about how to treat and steer clients, and the language is both condescending and Orwellian. What was once called “assistance” is now called “Texas Works,” and most scripts begin with the following bromide: “In the state of Texas, an application for assistance is a request for help in finding a job.” Other scripts advise workers to tell clients, “Work comes first; welfare should be a last resort”; “Any job is better than no job. You are expected to use all sources to get and keep a job”; “There’s a limit on how long you can receive cash assistance. The economy is good at this time, and you may want to look for a job now and save your benefits to use later.” The packet does advise workers to “treat each and every person with dignity and respect. Your tone of voice is critical as to how the message will be accepted.” That is, make a kind and attentive impression, while you direct people away from requesting help to which they may be entitled, and into the low-wage job market. (Texas Works Implementation Materials, October 1997. See “Applying for Assistance in Texas,” below.)

More significantly, by using these scripts, Texas Works is misleading potential social services recipients. T.A.N.F. is time-limited, but in order to get Medicaid and Food Stamps, which are not time-limited for people with children, a client must apply through a D.H.S. office. If the applicant wishes simply to apply for Food Stamps, and is in fact eligible for Food Stamps, D.H.S. intake workers are directed to treat her as if she were a T.A.N.F. applicant, and to steer her away from benefits and toward work — even though the programs are distinct, and the Food Stamps program helps directly to feed hungry children. The scripts intentionally confuse Medicaid and Food Stamps with T.A.N.F., and demand that applicants look for work. To the less sophisticated — i.e., those applicants not attuned to fine distinctions between assistance programs — this will often mean not receiving benefits for which they are eligible. According to a report by Robert Greenstein of the public-interest Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the same technique is used for Medicaid applicants — which is why “half of the children in Texas who are eligible for Medicaid and are not on welfare are not enrolled in Medicaid.”

At a recent Houston meeting of the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation, Greenstein described the D.H.S. policy, emphasizing the falsification involved in these scripts, meaning potential clients are being steered away from Medicaid and Food Stamps for which they are eligible. The war on the poor isn’t limited to Texas, Greenstein noted, and this sort of thing goes on in most states. But Texas is the only state he knows of which directs its social services workers to follow written, misleading scripts. Not all intake workers or supervisors at D.H.S. follow these scripts, and experienced social service workers have some latitude in their approach to applicants. But even the best social service workers, burdened by huge caseloads and increased administrative monitoring, find the opportunity shrinking to help Texans in need.

This result is no accident, nor is it the inevitable outcome of the free market in action. It is a direct consequence of political decisions, marketed under names like “compassionate conservativism” or “pragmatic idealism,” and made for the benefit of a wealthy conservative elite at the expense of the rest of us — but always most harshly for the poor.

Robert Fisher’s most recent book, with Howard Karger, is Social Work and Community in a Private World: Getting Out in Public (Longman, 1997). He teaches at the Graduate School of Social Work, University of Houston.

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MAKING ENDS MEET: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.

Applying for Assistance in Texas

(Scripts for “Texas Works” Employees)

Script One: Admission

Receptionist: How may I help you find a job today?

Potential Client: I just want to apply for welfare and food stamps.

In the state of Texas, an application for assistance is a request for help in finding a job….

Script Two: Re-direction (Food Stamp Applicant)

If the potential client refuses to see a Texas Works Advisor:

Receptionist: How may I help you find a job today?

Potential Client: I just want to apply for food stamps.

In the State of Texas, an application for assistance is a request for help in finding a job….

I really didn’t come in here to look for work. I just want food stamps.

I understand that, but our Texas Works Advisor can help you find a job that lets you support your family and reach independence so you don’t need help from our agency.

I already have a job and I don’t have time to talk to anyone. I’m here on my lunch hour. I told you I just want an application for food stamps.

All right sir. I’ll give you an application. When you bring the application back, you can look in our employment resource area and talk to the advisor. There may be a better paying job available for you. (Give client application.)

Script Three: Phone Screening (Assistance Programs)

If he asks for Medical Programs only:

tell him that we have employment resources available to help him find a job. Let him know he can go through these resources when he comes in to the office; andget his name and address and send application.

For Food Stamps/T.A.N.F. or combinations, tell him:

I can mail you an application Mr. Reynolds, but you need to know that in the State of Texas an application for assistance is a request for help in finding a job.

Script Four: Expedited Services

In this scenario, local staff have screened a mailed-in Form 1010, and determined the potential client is eligible for expedited services. The screener, Mrs. Blake, has called the potential client, Mrs. Harris, to set an appointment.

Even after Blake tells Harris she meets the criteria for “expedited services” and should “come in for a food stamp interview,” the script advises the following:

Screener: Mrs. Harris, when you come in this afternoon, we want you to talk to our Texas Works Advisor about finding a job before we interview you for food stamps.

Mrs. Harris: Why do I have to do that?

Because there’s a limit on how long you can receive T.A.N.F. benefits, we want you to become independent and self-sufficient as quickly as you can. Work should come first – not welfare.

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Published at 12:00 am CST