Give poor a say in welfare debate

WELFARE "REFORM" is on the congressional agenda again, with the Senate poised to vote on proposed legislation reauthorizing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). First enacted in 1996, TANF in its second version has already passed the House.

Although this round of welfare legislation has generated far less attention than the 1996 reform effort, there is at least one disturbing similarity: The voices of low-income Americans are once again missing from public deliberations about welfare.


Instead of seeking input from poor citizens about their experiences and what they need to move out of poverty, legislators have too often relied on racist and sexist stereotypes of the poor that make it nearly impossible for low-income Americans to play an authoritative role in any dialogue over welfare. Such stereotyping means that the citizens with the most at stake in these policy discussions are the least likely to have meaningful influence.

Consider the experience of welfare recipients in 1995 and 1996 when Congress passed TANF. The view that dominated those discussions was that welfare recipients were poor because of individual laziness and irresponsibility, not because of a lack of child care options, job shortages, racism or other forms of discrimination.


Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that welfare recipients - especially welfare mothers - needed discipline, or what some lawmakers preferred to characterize as "tough love." Left to their own devices, these legislators argued, welfare mothers would refuse to work, continue to bear children without regard to their ability to support them, and continue letting the fathers of their children off the financial hook.

This view vilified all welfare recipients, but depended on racist views of people of color as unmotivated shirkers, drug addicts and irresponsible parents. Too many legislators invoked stereotypes of black (or occasionally Hispanic) "welfare queens" out to cheat taxpayers and inner-city teen-age girls bearing children out of wedlock as the prime justifications for punitive welfare "reform."

Even though Department of Health and Human Services figures show, for example, that the average welfare mother has only two children, and that whites are responsible for the vast majority of teen births (though the birth rate is higher for blacks), these stereotypes allowed legislators to fuse poverty with illegitimacy, child neglect, drug addiction and idleness when advocating strict time limits and other new rules.

These stereotypes played an important role in undercutting the influence of welfare recipients in Washington. Congress held dozens of hearings about how welfare should be structured. Of the nearly 600 witnesses, however, only 17 were welfare recipients, and just four of the 17 were actually still receiving welfare at the time of their testimony.

Some of these women were praised by legislators for being "model mothers" who escaped the "welfare trap," but none was treated as a citizen who might have important insights into public policy.

Even though former recipient Tandi Graff challenged the legislators to "listen to people like me," welfare recipients ultimately had little effect on the final legislation in spite of their firsthand experience with welfare and their immediate interest in the outcome of reform.

The dismissal of poor people from the debate on welfare reform raises distressing questions for a society that claims to be democratic. We should not accept the argument that poor people lack the moral standing or competence to take part in political life, nor should we allow the joys and burdens of democratic participation to become the exclusive privilege of the wealthy. If legislators had actually listened to welfare recipients in the 1990s, they might have focused more clearly on reducing the need for assistance, not the availability of assistance.

The current congressional proposals for TANF reauthorization still turn a deaf ear to the voices of poor citizens, and continue to caricature welfare recipients as lazy, immoral adults who must be forced to work more hours per week and strong-armed into responsible parenting. Instead of censuring those who require the welfare safety net, Congress should instead take this opportunity to help poor Americans balance their work and family obligations.


Significantly increasing funding for child care, addressing domestic violence and other employment barriers, providing better education and training opportunities so parents can earn a living wage, and ensuring equal access for legal immigrants to welfare protections would be a few steps in the right direction.

In the present economic climate of steadily rising unemployment rates, it should be abundantly clear that falling on hard times and needing a little help to make ends meet is not a rare experience. Scapegoating the 32 million Americans living in poverty helps no one.

Holloway Sparks is a professor at Penn State University and the author of "Queens, Teens and Model Mothers: Race, Gender and the Discourse of Welfare Reform," a chapter in the recently published Race, Welfare and the Politics of Reform (University of Michigan Press). She can be reached at