Q&A: Social Work’s Sanford Schram on Welfare and the Economic Crisis

Posted February 6th, 2009 at 10:43 am.

schram-1The New York Times recently reported that “despite soaring unemployment and the worst economic crisis in decades, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year, and nationally the number of people receiving cash assistance remained at or near the lowest in more than 40 years.”

We asked the Graduate School of Social Work’s Sanford Schram, co-author of the upcoming book Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, about welfare and the economic crisis.

Given the current economic crisis, how is it that so many states are cutting their welfare rolls?

Most states have not seen increases in their welfare rolls due to the way welfare has been reformed to limit access to assistance. Some states that have had dramatic declines until recently are now seeing increases due to the economic downturn. Florida is a good example where they have had a 17 percent increase in the last year.

What were the biggest changes made to the federal welfare rules under the 1996 Welfare Reform Law? When those changes were made, was there any thought to this sort of economic crisis?

When welfare was reformed in 1996, some thought was given at the last minute to create a rainy-day fund for economic downturns, but it didn’t happen. Instead, states started to develop their own backup programs for recipients who maxed out their time on federally funded welfare. These programs are now strained by the economic slowdown. The new recovery bill is focused on helping states pay for their increased expenditures in such areas, including public assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment compensation. Without the federal aid, I am not sure what the states would do at this point.

Are there any plans to change the current program? What about the stimulus bill—anything related to welfare there?

For now, there are no plans to change welfare, since the reforms have been largely touted as a success because so many people left welfare. Yet the decline in the welfare rolls has not been matched by declines in poverty. The disjuncture between the two is now starting to blow back, and policy makers will need eventually to confront this, I suspect.

One of the main stated goals of the 1996 changes was to get welfare recipients looking for work. Has the program been successful in that respect?

The rolls have been cut by more than 60 percent since welfare got reformed. Many leavers, as they are called, have been working. But not everyone. Many also do not work full-time; most tend to work at jobs that do not lift their families out of poverty, and these jobs tend not to offer benefits like health insurance or pensions. We have basically switched from the welfare poor to the working poor. Plus, a growing number of the single mothers cut off from aid are now what researchers are calling the “disconnected poor,” who are neither receiving welfare nor working and are surviving from charity and support from family and friends.

Tell us about your current research.

Most of my understanding of what is happening under welfare reform comes from my research with Joe Soss of the University of Minnesota, and Richard Fording, of the University of Kentucky, on how Florida has reformed its system.

Florida is a widely recognized leader in implementing the new welfare system. It features devolution, privatization, performance management, and heavy use of sanctions, or penalties for recipients who fail to comply with welfare-to-work contracts.

Florida has basically abolished welfare, converted it into welfare-to-work, and turned it over to the 24 regional workforce boards in the state, where private contractors are hired to move welfare recipients into jobs.

These contract agencies are most often for-profit and they adopt a bottom-line approach they call the “business model.” Their performance is tracked by a performance-management system that creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere, and it affects how case managers treat clients.

Many of the case managers are former recipients themselves, who are not paid very much and feel torn about punishing their clients for not fulfilling their work-participation requirements.

The system is vulnerable to local political influences, and in more conservative areas there are higher sanctioning rates and greater racial disparities in sanctioning. The system is more of a people-processing system, highly computerized, tracking the performance of the case managers and clients alike, and putting the pressure on moving recipients into jobs. Most of the jobs are pretty low paying, and many clients cycle back on welfare, though time limits prevent them from being on for very long. So the rolls go down and the poverty levels remain high.

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