Off the Front Page: Welfare reform and poverty

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(May 19, 2006) On page 19 of the May 17 New York Times (All The News That’s Fit To Print!) there was a story headlined “For the Neediest of the Needy, Welfare Reforms Still Fall Short, Study Says.” The study comes from the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, and is entitled “Findings from the Milwaukee TANF Applicant Study.” (TANF stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is what most people call “welfare.”)

The Chapin Center introduces its study with these words: “A study of Wisconsin welfare applicants shows that welfare reform efforts did little to improve the economic well-being of families seeking government assistance. Many continued to face multiple barriers to employment and remained poor long after they sought help.” The Times’ report is fairly faithful to the tone of the Chapin study.

Good for the Times for giving coverage to this report, even though they stuck it on page 19. My local paper had nothing. In fact, my local paper, the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) has run a grand total of one staff-generated story on welfare reform and poverty over the past year. In contrast, the Star Trib has run no fewer than 379 stories featuring a new sports stadium for Minnesota. Hmmm….

Not to pick on the Star Tribune. A national database search looking for the words “welfare reform” and “poverty” for the past year yields a mere 14 stories. A search for the words “tax cuts” doesn’t work, as the database will not display searches that turn up more than 1,000 articles. You get the idea.

Since it was so far off the front pages, here are just a few of the more important points from the Times’ story:

* “The overhaul [of the welfare system in the 1990s], in Wisconsin and other states, helped place more single parents in jobs. But the new study points to another national legacy: the often critical needs of those still seeking aid, who may encounter profound barriers to work that include disabilities or problems with mental health or substance abuse.”

* “Wisconsin ha[s] improved its social services for recipients but said many other states had not done nearly as much.

* “Most of these TANF applicants were no better off, and in many cases they were worse off than when they sought assistance,” Dr. [Mark E.] Courtney wrote with his co-author.

* Studies that followed [the 1996 welfare “reform” act] found that large numbers of single mothers around the country did enter the work force, though few escaped poverty. One of the most visible changes was a huge drop in the number of welfare recipients, by more than half nationally…”

How federal welfare policy affects poor people should not only be an issue for the front pages, but it should be an ongoing issue at the top of the nation’s news agenda. Apparently, it’s not.

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