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E-Letter To The Wall St. Journal Re: Welfare Reform

You began yesterday’s lead editorial with a question: “Notice anything missing in the recent celebrations marking the five-year anniversary of the 1996 welfare reform?” Our answer to that question is, Yes - we notice that statistics verifying that former welfare recipients have in fact been moved off welfare and into jobs that provide them with income, sufficient to meet the cost of living, is what’s missing from the recent celebrations praising “welfare reform”.

It is obvious that you did not do what we asked you to do several months ago when we wrote, E-Letter To The Wall St. Journal: Are You Sure About Tommy Thompson And Welfare Reform?

In that letter we questioned your use of a dubious criteria for welfare-to-work success that included such ridiculous standards like a person needing only to have earned only $1 in a 90-day period, in order to be considered gainfully employed, or that a person who has held a job a day over 6 months has demonstrated stability in employment.

If simply dumping individuals off of welfare is the measure of success, than we heartily agree that welfare reform has been a top-notch program and an undisputed success story. But if the measure of success is moving these citizens into gainful employment as your editorial and the arguments of others implies, then we think that the celebratory spirit being displayed by you, Republicans and a few Democrats alike is inappropriate.

When the evidence is viewed, with employment measures at the forefront, “welfare reform” reads more like a political hoax than a model program. For the better part of this year we have asked for clear evidence and proof that shows that welfare recipients are moving into halfway decent jobs. All that we have received in return is very tenuous and weak anecdotal evidence from an amorphous group of business leaders and a few welfare reform graduates, mixed with data from informal surveys. And instead of demonstrating with clarity that welfare reform has resulted in credible jobs for former welfare recipients, we all too frequently, are forced to hear the non-monetary benefits of the program, articulated in a patronizing tone to boot, with White male conservatives waxing poetic about how downtrodden individuals - Black and Latino former welfare recipients - are gaining self-esteem and re-claiming their human dignity as they shuttle into their first jobs. To us, the welfare reform advocates sound just like the same bleeding-heart liberals -long on emotion and short on empirical data - that conservatives are so fond of railing against.

We listen to the like, but when we push a little harder for something more concrete, we get nothing else - certainly nothing that we can share with our viewers as irrefutable evidence that supports the supposed merits and results of the welfare reform law - passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Clinton with great fanfare.

A portion of your editorial demonstrates this problem perfectly. You wrote:

But Charles Murray, a social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, says we've had many expansions before with no drop in dependency. "During the one in the 60s, welfare roles went through the roof," says Mr Murray. "Any discussion of the role of the economy has to start from that fundamental truth--expanding economies have not reduced welfare roles in the past."

And Mr. Murray's point is borne out by the Welfare to WorkPartnership, a network of more than 20,000 businessesthat since 1996 have hired an estimated 1.1 million former welfare recipients. Contrary to the received wisdom that they are but a job cut away from their old dependency, eight out of 10 business executives say their welfare hires make "good, productive" employees. And even if some do end up getting cut in a layoff, their culture has changed: When it comes to future prospects, there's a world of difference between a welfare dependent and a laid-off employee.

Sounds good, except for that word estimated. And even if that 1.1 million referred to were gainfully employed,and we have no reason to believe that they are, what about the employment status of the millions of other former welfare recipients?

And most importantly the mere mention of “hiring” former welfare recipients is not enough, for us. Why doesn’t the Wall St. Journal use its considerable influence and resources to determine how long these 1.1 million were employed and for how much pay. Instead, you focus on a quote that says that the workers were “good” and “productive”, but that tells us nothing about their pay, length of employment or standard of living. If you dig a little deeper, we are confident that you would find that the majority of the 1.1 million were employed at wages below what is necessary to meet the cost of living, held their jobs less than 6 months, and were still below the poverty level.

But you are not alone, in the area of intellectual laziness and bias. Virtually the entire mainstream press are like a chorus singing the praises of welfare reform but showing no proof that real jobs are being filled by welfare recipients. The arguments in support of welfare reform are very deceptive, often using circumstantial evidence and making reference to larger and tangentially-related macroeconomic data about poverty, and single-parent homes and income levels among the poor and Blacks. But in all that we have read, in praise of welfare reform, not once have we been provided with or referred to any official or credible evidence of the program’s employment results. All we read and hear of are broad generalizations and percentages - nothing concrete and little verifiable. The only firm statistics that the media choir rest their hat on are the number of people cut from welfare. But the arguments continue to be made that welfare reform is a success not just because of the number of those removed from the dole, but also because of the mass employment of former welfare recipients said to be a direct result of the program.

The Houston Chronicle, in a recent article praising welfare reform wrote:

On the plus side, 50 percent to 60 percent of former welfare recipients found some form of work. Welfare rolls are down 58 percent, a 30-year low from their highest level. Poverty is down, too, by 17 percent.

In a recent article calling welfare reform a success The Chicago Tribune wrote

As America marks the fifth anniversary of welfare reform, the welfare caseload nationally has fallen from 12 million recipients to 5.8 million. In Illinois, some 169,600 former recipients now have jobs. But the benefits from the Republican-engineered plan signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 are not completely measured in raw numbers but in changes in attitudes about work by many of those who were forced to find jobs. In fact, self-reliance has brought self-esteem.

And USA Today, in its bow to welfare reform wrote:

First the awe. Welfare caseloads plummeted from 5 million families in 1994 to 2.2 million in June 2000. Of those leaving welfare, roughly 60% are now working. While the economic boom accounts for some of the success, even the doubters now agree that the reform accounts for most jobs.

These mixtures of truth and unverifiable statements raise more questions about the “success” of welfare reform than they answer.

In addition, there is absolutely no mention, in the media rush to coronate the program, of the absolutely pathetic criteria that the Clinton administration used to measure the employment status of welfare recipients. We were very suprised to learn of how many conservatives, libertarians and Republicans were relying on the Clinton administration’s formula for welfare success, in their arguments praising the program.

Of course, you will remember that we chastised you for being foremost in his area.

Many of us agree with you about some of the deleterious effects of the old welfare program but that recognition is not enough to cause us to see victory today, where there is none.

Claiming that welfare reform is an economic success is one thing. Providing the facts that support that claim is another.

We have been waiting for you to do so for almost a year now...

Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, August 30, 2001

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