The Price of Welfare Reform

In 1994, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, ignited a firestorm when he suggested that welfare reform might require a good dose of Father Flanagan's Boys Town--in other words, institutional homes, orphanages!--to deal with the children of the poor.

Gingrich's solution was not politically adept, but it was an attempt to answer the real fears of social workers and children's advocates, fears inspired by the Contract With America and nationwide calls for welfare reform.

As America tries to kick its dependence upon federal handouts, children of the poor will suffer. Families will disintegrate. The need for foster care will escalate dramatically. This trend was well under way before President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in August. Reductions in government assistance will only accelerate it.

From 1981 to 1995, federal expenditures on benefits and administration for the main welfare program reaching American children--Aid to Families With Dependent Children--increased 100 percent. Foster-care expenditures in the same period shot up 1,300 percent, according to Mark Courtney of the Institute for Research on Poverty and School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Now that the welfare budget has been slashed by $55 billion over six years, experts are alarmed. They say limits on the amount of time the poor are allowed to receive government assistance will inevitably raise the numbers of American children in poverty.

"The scenario that is most likely to result . . . is one in which welfare reform leads to a large increase in the number of impoverished families," Courtney told the Conference on Child Welfare in the Context of Welfare Reform on October 11.

How large?
The answer depends upon whom you ask.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that somewhere between 2.5 million and 3.5 million children "could be affected by the five-year limit on assistance when the law is fully implemented."

This past summer, the Urban Institute, at the behest of the president, studied the problem and projected that 1.1 million kids would be thrust into poverty as a result of welfare reform. Clinton's own Department of Health and Human Services also found that more than a million children would end up destitute.

And poverty, not physical abuse or sexual molestation, is the single greatest factor in the demand for foster care.

In Arizona, not a single study has been done to estimate the new demands upon foster care that will result from welfare reform.

In part, that is because Governor Fife Symington claims that fully 95 percent of everyone who applies for welfare benefits in the coming year will become gainfully employed. It is a remarkably optimistic position on transition from welfare to work. Almost 160,000 residents now receive AFDC in Arizona, and 410,000 take food stamps.

Asked for an estimate of how many new foster parents he will need to address the fallout from welfare reform, Eric Bost, deputy director of the state Department of Economic Security, is unsure.

"I don't know the answer to that," said Bost. "My need is increasing without welfare reform."

In fact, in 1994, DES used hospitals to dump children who should have been in foster care. Social workers resorted to this tactic because foster-care parents weren't available. The practice led to a public outcry from the doctors and hospitals involved.

With increased funding and effort, over the past two years DES has moved to close the gap. But at any given moment, more than 300 children in Arizona are awaiting foster-care placement. There still are not enough adults willing to commit to the rigorous demands of foster care.

Local children's advocates anticipate a crisis in the need for foster parents.

"I am really, deeply concerned," said Carol Kamin, executive director of the Children's Action Alliance in Arizona.

"The message is getting out that we have an increased need for foster parents," said Bost. "But it is a major sacrifice when you take on the responsibility of someone else's child."

Both Gingrich's Contract With America and Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village envision that local volunteers will take up the slack when welfare reform reduces the federal government's role in the lives of the poor.

It is a noble sentiment.
But as the story of Esther Gould and Richie Blandon illustrates, taking personal responsibility for even one poor family is an enormously complex undertaking that can have astonishing, and unanticipated, side effects.

I have known Esther Gould for 20 years. In the mid-'70s, she freelanced movie reviews for this newspaper, and her oldest daughter interned one summer in the editorial department. While Esther had served for years on numerous community boards, that activity generally involved fund raising.

I'd never known her to take a hands-on approach to poverty issues.
But in March 1994, Esther approached me and asked if there might be work at this newspaper for an unskilled laborer, Barbara Blandon. While there wasn't a job, there was interest in what Esther was doing.

In the spring of '94, conversations with Esther quickly changed to formal interviews.

For two and one-half years, I followed Esther's evolution from mentor to foster mother, the heartbreaking disintegration of the Blandon family and the repercussions of Esther's attempted philanthropy upon all of those involved.

All of the names in this article were changed to protect the identities of the children.

There are enormous emotional rewards for foster parents, but providing children with a home--even a temporary home--is not as simple as the holiday canned-food drive at the neighborhood church. Officials say half of all applicants drop out of Arizona's training program once they learn details of the demands prospective foster parents are required to shoulder.

Only the stout of heart need apply.

--Michael Lacey

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey