Gaining Ground A Chance to Move Ahead With Welfare Reform BY BRETT CAMPBELL THE FEDERAL government is making inroads in the battle against poverty, but on the Texas front much now depends on the state legislature. Last fall, Congress passed the Family Support Act, the culmination of two decades of effort to find a compromise on the ideologically charged issue of welfare reform. The bill’s enactment owed as much to luck as to the spirit of bipartisan cooperation. President Reagan, Senate Finance Committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen, and both Presidential candidates had, for various reasons, a big stake in the passage of a welfare reform bill. Despite the partisan wrangling needed to tie it all together, what emerged was a strong bill that radically alters the nation’s approach to welfare and makes possible the institution of ptograms that have proven to actually help people get jobs and keep them. But Congress left the degree of progress that will actually be made to the wisdom of the respective states. In the coming weeks, crucial decisions about welfare reform will confront the Texas legislature. POVERTY’S DIMENSIONS THERE IS AN IMMEDIACY to the welfare debate in Texas: a study released late last year found that the number of Texans living below the federal poverty line in 1987 had risen to more than three million 18 percent of the state’s population. Significantly, that number grew by one million during the Reagan years, 1980-1987. Of course, there are people behind these numbers and most are women and children. There are more than one million recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent The typical Texas AFDC family consists of a single mother with two children and no child support. They live on $578 a month \(including Medicaid, food stamps, and for such a family is $803 per month. Benefit levels are determined by the states; Texas ranks 48th in the nation in AFDC benefits. Steeped in its tradition of independence and self-reliance, Texas has never been receptive to the welfare state. Despite the fact that leading economic indicators place the Texas economy only slightly below average compared to the country as a whole, Brett Campbell is a freelance writer living in Austin. “The safety net for poor people in Texas is among the weakest in the nation,” said a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. Since 1970, maximum AFDC benefit rates have declined 57.7 percent in Texas after allowing for inflation. Today, “the state only provides aid to 25 percent of its poverty population,” according to Rosie Torres of the Texas Alliance for Human Needs. Medical coverage is a constant problem for both the unemployed and the “working poor.” Only 30 percent of Texas’s poor children are covered by Medicaid. \(The other 70 percent fall between the AFDC mother with three kids under five, and I work full-time and my husband has a good job, and still, we couldn’t do it without private insurance,” says Karen Langley, the former director of the Alliance for Human Needs. “Texas has one of the poorest records of employer-provided insurance, so Medicaid is the one benefit that really matters the most, because kids need to go to the doctor so much,” she says. Last year Medicaid was expanded to allow coverage of pregnant women and children under age three. But, under the old rules, once a mother found a job, she lost her Medicaid benefits immediately a powerful disincentive to find work, especially at minimum wage. The federal government now permits states to provide Medicaid coverage for up to 18 months after a person finds a job. But that requires the state to ante up its share. Texas has done very little to alleviate one of the other principal problems dogging those who seek work lack of child care. Unlike many other states, Texas provides no state-funded care for children, unless they’ve been abused. “How do you expect women to go to work without day care, especially if they’ve got a minimum-wage job?” Langley asks. “It costs about $250 per month per child for day care. If you have two kids who need day care, that’s 100 percent of your AFDC income right there. Plus there are all sorts of other expenses. Like diapers. ‘Day care requires disposable diapers, and they run about $10 per child per week.” El Paso state Representative Jack Vowell, a Republican, agrees. “Some people have a mistaken idea of the people we’re serving here. They aren’t just deadbeats. They’re mainly women women who have children and haven’t been able to complete their education. They’ve always been poor, and now they have these babies to support. That’s why we have to give them an incentive to work by putting the kids in an effective child care program.” There are other expenses that come with trying to enter the job market. Notes longtime human services activist Lin Team of Texas IMPACT, a public interest group that lobbies for human services spending: “You have to be so dirt poor to be on AFDC no more than $1,000 in assets that you don’t have a car, a checking account, or anything like that. These are people in desperate situations. So to get to work, and get the kids to day care, you have to ride the bus. Many places require women to wear pantyhose, and you have to buy work clothes. You have to have bus fare. That’s why [a recent pilot program] failed in Texas it was designed by men who didn’t realize that you have to have diapers and day care and things like that.” “The best way to describe what [Texas does] is ‘benign neglect,’ ” sums up a legislative aide to Senator Hugh Parmer, one of the few state leaders who has evinced any concern for Texas’s poor. “We support the unemployed only at the bare survival level with food stamps and medical care. We only give enough benefits to support a family at 23.4 percent of the federal poverty level.” But of all the obstacles to employment in Texas, the most imposing is lack of job skills. Sixty percent of AFDC recipients are functionally illiterate; only 27 percent have a high school diploma or GED. Most lack the basic skills typing, coping with moderately complicated instructions that are becoming essential in today’s labor market. “One of our biggest problems is that girls will get pregnant and drop out of high school. We have a very high dropout rate,” says Team. “Compared to other states, Texas has a very high population of non-high school education, low-skill poor people. So we start out with many more illiterate people. But we have no in-school programs for pregnant girls, like day care, and no job training programs.” \(Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos has filed several bills this session intended to address the Such programs are essential, because it’s not enough to help people obtain the jobs at the bottom of the employment ladder, at least not if you want to get them permanently off welfare. A University of Texas Bureau of Business Research study revealed that 8 MARCH 24, 1989
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