As a journalist interested in reporting on issues related to poverty, race and gender, I have envied reporters who were covering such topics in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Then the American people were embroiled in a spirited debate about whether the welfare system offered a necessary safety net for the indigent or whether recipients — 90 percent of whom were single women with children and the majority of whom were minorities — were a bunch of "welfare queens" who were happily mooching off the public coffers.
The debate was so hot that Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential platform included the promise to "end welfare as we know it." And by 1996, he’d succeeded. RELATED WEB LINK
Welfare Series: Law Drops Moms in Deeper Poverty
– Women’s eNewsThat year Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, replacing the federal government’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children cash assistance program with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [TANF] program. TANF, a decentralized system of state-run programs, was designed to encourage people to find and hold-down jobs by setting lifetime limits on welfare eligibility and providing supports such as childcare and transportation.
Once TANF was implemented, case-loads did drop and the media’s coverage of welfare pretty much dried up. When stories were done, the thrust of them was that the declining rolls proved that TANF was working. Very few in the news media seemed interested in doing stories that looked behind the numbers.
In 2004, Rita Henley Jensen, editor in chief of Women’s eNews, asked me if I would be interested in exploring the effects of TANF and writing a five-part series on my findings. She was hoping that such a series would open a dialogue about how the repeal of welfare was affecting these women and their children.
Challenges to Telling This Story
I jumped at the opportunity, but the assignment presented many challenges, the first of which was figuring out a way to uncover the story behind the numbers. This was a huge task given the fact that instead of a centralized welfare system there were now 50 state programs, plus programs in the territories and the District of Columbia, each reflecting local political decision-making and economics. This challenge was compounded by limitations of time and money that could be spent on the project. An online Web site with limited resources, Women’s eNews didn’t have the budget to send me to communities across America to see how TANF had changed life for poor single moms. This meant I had to do nearly all of my reporting by phone, which is not a good substitute for speaking with people face-to-face and observing first-hand the circumstances in which they live.
As a freelancer, time was also an issue. While sites like Women’s eNews are able to flourish on the Internet, their limited budgets for reporting prevent them from paying journalists a rate commensurate with the time it takes to do in-depth stories. The fact that freelance rates have not increased much, if at all, during the past decade takes a toll on the types of assignments many of us can afford to take on and the time we can dedicate to them.
I got beyond these obstacles by dedicating two months to researching and reporting this story while I tried to work on some other projects in order to make ends meet. I spoke to numerous current and former TANF recipients, legislators, activists and policy wonks, and spent countless hours reading government records and reports. The final result was a five-part series that took an across-the-board look at various trends that the drop in the welfare rolls reflected. I explored, too, how states were implementing TANF and the programmatic holes that still needed to be filled.
The most important lesson I learned from working on this series was that, as suspected, the more complicated and truer story of how the changes in welfare were affecting poor women and children was different than what much of the news media had been reporting, when they even bothered to do these stories. While the welfare rolls had dropped precipitously, the reason had little to do with former recipients finding steady employment. Instead, in an effort to keep program costs down, many states had created complex rules and diversionary tactics that kept people from applying for benefits. Others had simply timed out of the system.
I also learned that many states were failing to provide the promised supports, such as childcare and transportation, which mothers needed if they were expected to hold jobs. In some cases, the high cost of providing such supports had caused states to reverse their policies, revealing the whimsical nature of the welfare-to-work philosophy. One example of this was found in Tennessee, where all mothers were expected to work. The state had created a system to provide daycare for newborns so that moms with infants could work. But when Tennessee faced budgetary constraints, state officials granted mothers of newborns a one-year exemption from work requirements, saying that infancy was an important bonding time for parents and babies. The truth of the matter was that passing such an exemption saved the state $4.3 million a year.
Being able to report on situations like these was rewarding since this part of the welfare story was largely happening out of public view because of the absence of news coverage. The most salient piece of evidence I came across about the new system’s failings was that the number of people living either in poverty or in deep poverty — defined as 50 percent of the poverty line — had increased. For them, the safety net had simply disappeared.
In the end, I felt these stories uncovered many important issues affecting the lives of poor women and children. But I was disappointed when the stories failed to generate renewed interest among other journalists in the coverage of poverty and gender. While Women’s eNews hoped the series would spark a dialogue about these issues, the package did not garner much feedback. I got the feeling that once welfare had been "reformed," the news story was simply over.
Of course, hurricanes Katrina and Rita reawakened reporters’ and editors’ interest in class, race and gender. As I read articles in the wake of these hurricanes and watched the television reports with their tone of righteous indignation, I wondered whether the news media would continue to stay on this story or if this revitalized interest would recede with the floodwaters. Now, nearly six months later, it looks like journalistic slumber is settling in again.
Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance reporter living in Brooklyn, New York.