Toward the end of 2002’s provocative Bowling for Columbine, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore highlighted a tragic story from his hometown of Flint, Michigan. In February of 2000, six-year-old Dedric Owens brought a gun to Buell Elementary School where he shot and killed classmate Kayla Rolland, also six years of age. Dedric had found the gun in his uncle’s house, where he was now living after his mother, Tamarla Owens, and his siblings had been evicted from their home.
At the time, Tamarla was part of Michigan’s “Welfare to Work” program. She was bussed approximately one hour from home each way to a suburban Detroit shopping mall where she worked two jobs in an attempt to makes ends meet after losing both her welfare and food support benefits.
The featured premise of Moore’s film was to address gun violence in America, which remains one of the most highly politicized issues in our culture today. However, the heartbreaking narrative from Flint also shines an intense light on the subject of welfare reform.
In August of 1996, the controversial Welfare Reform Act was passed, effectively reversing more than half a century of American social policy that began with the New Deal. While some viewed the new law as a success that swiftly and decisively reduced the number of Americans receiving cash benefits, others have called it “callous” as well as a catastrophic failure.
In The Washington Post, anti-poverty activists Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote that welfare reform “just didn’t end welfare as we knew it… It brought an end to cash help of any kind for families with children in much of the country.”
Several studies have demonstrated that while the number of people receiving welfare has diminished by nearly two-thirds since 1996, the need for such assistance has increased. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., notes that prior to the onset of welfare reform more than 70 percent of American families living in poverty received public assistance. By contrast, only a decade and a half later, approximately one-quarter of poor families in need of assistance were receiving cash benefits.
Furthermore, not only has the number of people receiving benefits shrunken immensely, so has the size of the benefits paid out to those households that still receive welfare. The majority of states allocate a maximum benefit that is below 30 percent of the U.S. federal poverty guidelines, with some states paying out as little as 10 percent to families in need. According to the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, the number of American households now living on “less than $2 per person per day” has more than doubled since 1996.
Another disturbing aspect of welfare reform was chronicled in a 2011 text co-authored by Joe Soss, Cowles Chair for the Study of Public Service at the University of Minnesota. Written with Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram, the book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, reveals how racial bias plays a significant role in the way many states administer their own welfare programs today.
In explaining how some programs are considerably more stringent than others, the authors note that African Americans are much more likely to be placed in such “restrictive” welfare programs that dispense harsh penalties to families for the slightest noncompliance with program regulations. In fact, their research shows that African Americans were more than twice as likely to be enrolled in these programs, while Whites were nearly six times as likely to be enrolled in the “least stringent programs.”
In considering all of this data, I would like to speak to the matter of self-sufficiency. I have the honor and the privilege to lead a nonprofit agency where the mission is to reduce poverty and one of the primary goals is to help low-income families chart a course toward financial independence. Who among us wouldn’t aspire to such a goal?
Nevertheless, we are now living in an era when nearly 50 million Americans live in poverty, and some estimates suggest another 100 million straddle the line of economic insecurity. How can we expect to achieve economic security for all Americans if living-wage jobs continue to disappear as they have for decades, only to be replaced by minimum wage positions?
Consider the case of Flint, Michigan, which was once a booming center of auto manufacturing with General Motors providing more than 80,000 jobs in the late 1970s. Today less than 10 percent of those jobs remain in a city where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty, including nearly 60 percent of all children.
This is why Michael Moore used his film on violence in America to also address the detrimental effects of welfare reform. In essence, he is asking what possible good it does anyone to bus the single mother of three small children more than 100 miles away round-trip to work two low-paying jobs in a posh and tony suburb. What happened to all the jobs in Flint?
Although self-sufficiency is a virtuous goal, should there not be a safety net for those who have been cast to the margins of society? Are we not responsible for the welfare of our fellow citizens including our children and seniors?
There is a notion that I am fond of that has been stated and restated in countless variations over the years by leaders such as Lord John Acton, Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hubert H. Humphrey. In brief, this notion proposes that the true measure of any civilization is how it treats its most vulnerable members.
By this yardstick, how will the United States of America measure up in the 21st century?
Clarence Hightower, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.