Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Working Out Welfare

By Karen Denton

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  A recent independent documentary, Ending Welfare as We Know It, poignantly demonstrates some of the flaws of the national push for welfare reform.

Narrator Meredith Vierra takes us through several months in the lives of individual women as their lives are changed forever. They range in age from a teenager caught in New Jersey's statute about young mothers (no aid for a second child), to a middle-aged woman in rural Wisconsin who has lived on welfare for 20 years and now must find a job in an economically depressed area. It is a thought provoking film — one worthy of community discussion. Unfortunately, KUED has declined to show it despite requests from members of the Utah Welfare Reform Coalition.

Few people connected with poverty and its support systems disagreed that some changes were essential. The welfare culture split up families, kept people in poverty, and perpetuated itself through generations of both recipients and workers who were either too helpful or punitive. The Utah version of its replacement, with its philosophical emphasis on getting people into any kind of employment rather than genuine movement out of poverty, is still new and setting in, but the first assessments concern advocates.

Many Department of Workforce Services (DWS) workers do not seem to understand the vision of creating an efficient service that supports people in their efforts to achieve self-reliance. For example, one homeless mother was recently told to keep her 14-year-old home from school to watch the younger children, despite the fact that DWS has money available for three months of free child care specifically targeted at homeless families. Other workers are unaware that people can still receive assistance while they go through schooling or job-related training.

As problematic as these examples are, the real issues transcend Utah policies to underpin a national ethic. They involve the continuation of a system that perceives clients as deficits rather than assets to the community, and the almost universal unwillingness of policy makers to address the need for living wages that move people out of poverty. Add to this the assumption that if we just cut people off welfare they will automatically know how to survive without any kind of mentoring, and we have a bureaucracy bound to fail poor people as much as the old one.

The women in the documentary do everything their case workers ask. One, without a high school diploma, makes daily forays into the job market as part of her case plan, with absolutely no success. She eventually finishes high school, but relapses into drug use and loses her children as well as her assistance. Still, she and the other women remain hopeful about their lives, despite battling clinical depression, substance abuse, domestic violence and rejection. They demonstrate remarkable resilience, determination, ingenuity and optimism; yet, they receive very little credit for their innate survival skills.

If we really want to end welfare, then there are a number of steps to take. The first is to begin a living wage campaign that makes sense for Utah. Our average household income is $19,500 per year, ranked 44th in the nation, while the price of our housing has increased 75 percent in the past five years. A living wage is one that provides a good quality of life based on one 40-hour-per-week job. Second, we need to reorganize our social service agencies and neighborhoods so that clients become citizens and contributors to the community. Third, urge KUED to show the film and organize public forums around it to discuss the issues.

Poverty will exist as long as we assume it has to; it isn't necessary to raise another generation of children within its specter.

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