Welfare for Communities

-- Eileen

One of the byproducts of capitalism's mechanics is that some people will be unemployed and some will live in poverty. A community that embraces capitalism must, therefore, acknowledge that at any point in time some of its members, perhaps through no fault of their own, will lack the personal wherewithal to adequately care for themselves and their families. To maintain its overall health, this community must make some provision -from capital's excesses- for those members who are in need. More than that, the community must create a welfare system that can guarantee each member a quality of life that would be acceptable to all members. In exchange for providing its members with this guarantee, the community can then hold each individual accountable for their contribution. The issue of accountability hinges on the acceptance of a universally acceptable standard of living.

That's not how we think in America. In America, unemployment and poverty are not things that happen to members of our community as a natural consequence of capitalism. Unemployment and poverty are things that happen to people who deserve it; people who don't have the smarts or the will or the genes to get ahead. Wealth and power, on the other hand, are things that come to people who deserve them; people who have the will and the smarts and the right genes. And these are the people who create the welfare system. While they concede that there should be some provisions for the poor, by no means should the wealthy (and deserving) members of the community be made to unduly subsidize the poor and (undeserving) members of the community. In America, the quality of life that we provide for the unemployed and poor members of the community is not an acceptable standard of living for all members of the community: people live in substandard unsafe housing, where children battle asthma and rats; kids leave school unable to read; and families cannot receive the health care they need.

Last year there was an orgy of rejoicing as republicans and democrats, governors and congressmen, (some) whites and (some) people of color all agreed that our welfare system had gone astray: rather than relieving poverty, they lamented, the welfare program was instead creating long term financial dependence. But instead of reexamining our community's commitment to guarantee a certain standard of living, policy makers tended to create a blaming atmosphere: people are taking advantage, people aren't making their contribution, people need a shove. As a consequence, they fundamentally altered the program by significantly upping the ante on what would be expected of welfare recipients: all but a small percentage of people receiving assistance must be working, looking for work, or in work activities or risk losing their grant. Moreover, people will only be able to receive their grant for a total of sixty months in their lifetime. In Illinois, they have made the provision slightly more manageable; people who are in at least twenty hours of work activity per week can still receive assistance without the time being counted against their sixty-month total.

Some thoughtful people argued that it is reasonable to ask people to work and contribute in exchange for the community's support; others argued that people will feel better and they'll be able to care for their kids if they're engaged and productive. And while I agree to a point, the system can not succeed unless accountability is mutual. No matter how reasonable its requests, the community cannot hold members accountable, unless it provides them with the guarantee that they will be appropriately and adequately supported. The community cannot ask (require) a mother to work, unless she has some reasonable expectation that someone will care for her child; the community cannot ask people to leave assistance and work if their wages cannot cover the basic costs of housing and food; the community cannot ask a mother to give up her children's medical card if she cannot expect to be able to get them adequate health care. And, unfortunately, although there is a lot of new money being thrown at the problem, the guarantee of an acceptable standard of living is not in place; accountability is still one-sided.

In Illinois there are more than a few of these paradoxes:
Each welfare recipient is now expected to complete a nine page "assessment" with their caseworker and to sign a six month Responsibility and Services Plan that charts their "employability" goals. IDHS readily admits that their workers have no experience with assessments, case management or planning. With the problems that come with each caseworker having a caseload of 300+, volumes of paperwork, inconsistent and changing regulations/directives, and the salary of a budget manager, it is unreasonable to expect the welfare recipient to dutifully fulfill a plan the department is only nominally committed to.

The system has promised to contract with experienced community-based organizations (CBOs) to provide employment training and placement; they are paid on a "per unit" basis for each person that is placed in a job and stays there for three months. CBOs are effective because they treat people like individuals not units; they take the time to build relationships; they understand that it might take three jobs before one sticks; they offer assistance with issues like housing, child care or domestic violence that eventually may affect a person's ability to stay on the job. But if a CBO must scramble to make their numbers, they will not be able to spend that kind of time and energy on each individual. By concentrating more on the bottom line than on good practice, the system will ultimately compromise the CBOs ability to help.

The governor of Illinois has made it a priority that families who receive welfare and low income working families all have access to adequate child care. Recent regulations changed the fee structure so that many families can afford day care for the first time. Unfortunately, many many families suddenly found care unaffordable and were forced to pull their kids out. The new regulations also require centers to take responsibility for collecting fees; if they do not collect, the state will no longer make up the difference. This has taken staff away from children and made centers more reluctant to take subsidized families. In addition, centers (both public and private) must sometimes wait two or three months for the state to send their payment; naturally many centers choose not to accept subsidized families. The result of this halfhearted commitment is that parents will be held accountable for working but the system will not be held accountable for helping them find adequate care for their children.

There is an illusion that work is the ticket off welfare. In fact, one of the recent discoveries of the new system has been that lots of people who get assistance are actually working and not reporting the income. Not because they're jetting off to Barbados, but because the costs of food, shelter, clothes, and medicine far exceed the typical welfare benefit (an average of $377 a month). Rather that concentrating on kicking people off the roles, energy should be spent determining what an acceptable standard of living would be. It would be reasonable to expect people to contribute to their own well being if they were guaranteed that through a combination of wages and welfare subsidies their families' needs would be met.

In the end it's not about knee jerk liberalism, it's about basic fairness. We can't expect people to do what they are not equipped to do. If the government wishes to improve its system of welfare it must do so from the perspective of community. It must:
1) actively involve and engage people who receive assistance in the process of fixing the system;
2) concretely and consistently partner with community based organizations with decades of experience in providing support to families; and
3) guarantee a standard of living for each member that would be acceptable to all members.

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