School bus driver Kathryn Alexander lives in a 25-year-old mobile home. In her back bedroom is a pile of unopened mail, much of it overdue bills. “I just throw them in a pile. The ones I open are the ones I have to pay to keep my home.” Photo by Chris Polydoroff/The St. Paul Pioneer Press.

In 1996, Peter Edelman, who was then a high-ranking official at the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned from the Clinton Administration because the President signed the new welfare law. With its time limits, work requirements, shift of power to states and end of entitlement to cash aid that poor families won in the mid-1930’s, Temporary Aid to Needy Families replaced Aid to Families With Dependent Children. The passage of TANF provoked dire forecasts of families made homeless and desperate, already low wages for low-level jobs tumbling, and mayors left without resources they need to manage.

In his dissent published in The Atlantic Monthly, Edelman mourned that Congress, Clinton and the country “have been reduced to the politics of the waitress mom.” To wit: If most single mothers toil in crummy, poorly paid jobs to support their kids, why shouldn’t the four million moms (welfare dads are far fewer) who relied on welfare be required to do the same? In the first two and a half years since the law took effect, some 1.7 million American families—37 percent of the total—left welfare, a huge, quiet procession driven by welfare’s new rules and the welcoming arms of a robust job market. A map in the April issue of Governing magazine illustrates the trend with cheerful colors: yellow for states where welfare caseloads have fallen by 50 percent or more, orange for declines of 40 to 49 percent, green for 30 to 39 percent, blue for 20 to 29 percent. Only three states—Indiana, Nebraska and my own Minnesota—are purple, signifying that welfare caseloads have fallen by less than 20 percent. Even Edelman has been impressed by how quickly and calmly the change has come.

For those of us who report and write about poverty, welfare and social policy, the diaspora of welfare families presents a more fragmented, shaded story than did the change in law and case studies so many of us wrote during the first year after the new rules took effect. There’s an important second act in the nation’s welfare drama. Covering it will require imagination and commitment in the face of our own weariness and the inevitable newsroom pressures to move on to the next trend, the bigger drama.

In time, sociology professors with regression analyses will tell us in vast detail how this experiment worked. Our opportunity—and our greatest challenge—is to find ways to chronicle it now, as it happens, with stories about affected families, neighborhoods and bureaucracies, as well as about the rigors of low-wage jobs, the gap between pay and housing costs, and links between trade, immigration policy and wages of unskilled American workers.

The most important stories may not be where we expect to find them. In states that have set the shortest time limits, for example, welfare officials are giving out so many exemptions and extensions that relatively few people are being cut off because their time has run out, Governing reports. The more telling stories appear to be about people who leave welfare voluntarily, because they found jobs, or don’t bother to come back to the welfare office once they are told about work mandates, or because they’re sanctioned for noncompliance. Minnesota is tracking a few thousand families to see what happens to their earnings after they leave welfare. Many states track no one once they leave welfare.

The job falls to us, in the media, to keep a watchful eye on what is happening to those whom our social policy decisions are affecting. Where have these people gone? How are they and their children faring? How well do public policy and public agencies help them on their way? What is happening to those people who present more difficult cases, such as a history of drug use, or language difficulties, or disabilities? Are the changes in child care and child support systems actually working to improve children’s well-being? How does life change in neighborhoods that once depended heavily on welfare?

And it is important, too, to follow the federal welfare money as it enters state coffers and again as it’s spent, supposedly to assist families as they make this transition. As caseloads fall, what is happening to the billions of federal dollars sent to states in welfare block grants? Are they used to provide services or direct aid to needy families? Or do they get diverted and diluted into middle class priorities—highways, tax cuts, general education funding? Sometimes this effort to follow the money can become exceedingly difficult as funds are given to private organizations to provide some of these services, making it hard to get records showing how the money was spent.

It is also critical that our reporting of this story not end when these people get jobs. What happens with wages in the industries in which many of them are being employed? How about benefits? Do their employers offer health insurance, and can entry-level workers afford to pay the premiums? Do they remain employed? Is the low end of the job market the first rung of a ladder or the bottom of a pit from which it’s hard to escape? Seeking answers to such questions requires far-ranging curiosity and the ability to move adroitly between welfare offices, legislative chambers, academics’ offices, public housing developments, church basements and day care homes. As someone who reported and wrote a lengthy series our newspaper did on the working poor, I can offer a few suggestions about navigating those paths.

Examine the world of the waitress mom.

Essayist Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the first to venture into this territory. In Harper’s (January 1999), she wrote of a month she spent as a waitress in Key West, trying to make ends meet on one waitressing job, then adding a second job, finally quitting in frustration and exhaustion before the month was out. Her account revealed the petty tyrannies of supervisors and camaraderie among workers—black, white and Hispanic—as well as the stinginess of pay and benefits and the need for coworkers to live in cars, trailers and shared motel rooms because they couldn’t scrape together the two months’ rent needed for an apartment.

Ehrenreich didn’t connect her experience to welfare changes; workers struggling in the poorest jobs are often most resentful of handouts given to someone else. Nor did she take readers to an exotic location. This wasn’t some fenced-in sweatshop of indentured immigrants—it was, in essence, the neighborhood Denny’s. Yet we rarely take our middle class readers there.

Last year, when I wrote a piece about four people who worked but remained poor, readers told us they were shocked to learn about 11-hour days, unaffordable health insurance, continued dependence on help from family and government subsidies, and the simple things their kids coveted—Beanie Babies, overalls from Target. Unless we lead readers into that world of working poverty, we leave them comfortable with one of the most enduring American myths: that anyone who works hard can make it in America.

Recognize the shift of political weight to the suburbs and answer the question: Why should I care?

Poverty is often seen as an urban problem. But job growth in my region, and in most urban areas, is fastest in the suburbs. If an urban labor force can’t easily get to thos
e jobs, what is the cost to employers and communities on both ends? If there’s a serious shortage of housing for low-wage workers, how do public fears and zoning restrictions contribute to it?

Last year, while researching a piece about a program that links city workers with suburban jobs, I was shocked to visit high-tech factories in quiet suburban office parks that employed hundreds of non-English-speaking immigrants, the only work force available here at $7 an hour. One personnel manager—who was working like mad to help immigrant workers with housing, health care and language problems while continually replacing people who moved on to better jobs—described a visit by members of the suburb’s human rights commission. At the end of the commission’s visit, the chairwoman turned to the personnel manager and asked if this wasn’t a sweatshop. There stood the personnel manager, caught between suburban sensibilities and corporate managers in California who set $7 an hour as the most she could pay for entry-level workers. These pressures are being played out in our suburbs as well as our cities.

Deeply probe public and political attitudes.

Jesse Ventura, Minnesota’s wrestler-turned-governor, has made personal responsibility a central theme of his administration. On the steps of the state capitol and in visits to college campuses, he’s challenged single moms and college students to pay their own way and not look to government for help. “The free ride is over,” he declared in his State of the State address.

Yet beneath his rhetoric, Ventura’s budget takes a moderate stand. It doesn’t trim the state’s sizeable investments in student loans and child care for the working poor; it simply doesn’t increase them. He isn’t alone in that gap between rhetoric for political consumption and actions taken regarding specific programs.

A recent statewide poll by my newspaper showed that Minnesotans strongly agree with Ventura that fellow citizens should take more personal responsibility and rely less on government. Yet when asked about specific programs, they favored increased funding for financial aid for college students and continued funding of the state’s large sliding-fee child care program for the working poor. This suggests not out-and-out opposition to government spending but a willingness to spend selectively. Good reporting about who is served by programs and how well they work can help shape and refine public views.

Follow the money.

Federal block grants are shifting billions of welfare dollars to the states. As welfare caseloads decline, there’s a powerful temptation to use these funds for other purposes. Even in Minnesota, which historically has been a relatively generous state, the governor has proposed to substitute federal block-grant money for $45 million in state spending on daycare subsidies and social service grants, freeing up state money for other priorities. A friend reminds me of an old story about the governor who wanted to use Medicaid money to build a freeway ramp. It improved access to health care, he claimed.

For journalists, tracing what happens to block-grant money provides opportunities to examine in some depth the new federalism, congressional intent, state ingenuity and the unmet needs of poor families that are being kept from jobs because the federal funds aren’t being used to subsidize day care, transit and the like.

Spend time in the bureaucracy.

Any program can look good on paper. It’s how programs work day-to-day and over time that count. If job counselors have caseloads of 180 people, as occurs in some Minnesota counties, what kind of guidance can they offer? We have learned from research on nongovernmental programs such as New Hope in Milwaukee and Project Match in Chicago that the advice and support of counselors is often the most important benefit received by people making the leap from welfare to work. Recognize this and report how well your welfare-to-work program delivers in this regard. If caseloads are high or counselors poorly trained and supervised, ask why and whether available funds are being withheld from training or hiring of additional workers. Perhaps the system is poorly led and managed? At the same time, recognize and report on successes within the public bureaucracy, church programs and nonprofits. Not to do so is to contribute to the easy cynicism of the bash-government crowd.

Pay attention to the hardest cases.

As easier welfare clients have moved into jobs, states are increasingly dealing with families that have the most serious barriers—mental illness, illiteracy, chemical dependency. One important test of this new system will be how it treats these families and what states, cities or counties, churches or charities do to plug holes in the social safety net.

Don’t forget about research.

The devolution projects at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, a group working with sociologist William Julius Wilson at Harvard, and many other researchers are monitoring this transition to a work-based, time-limited aid system. Like most academic research, results will come more slowly than we’d like. But keep asking what they’re finding. Moreover, a large literature of informative reports from the state welfare experiments of the 1980’s and 1990’s is already on the shelf, and new reports continue to be issued. A recent evaluation of the New Hope project found that family heads who entered the pilot project working full-time actually cut their hours when they received a childcare subsidy and a wage supplement that helped lift them out of poverty. For the most part, they cut second jobs and overtime, and the research shows their children, especially boys, benefited socially and academically from extra time with parents. As people from all economic circumstances debate how to balance family and work, the experience and views of poor families should be included.

Tie the welfare story to large economic trends.

Wage distribution, trade policy, immigration and unionization each has big effects on the low end of the job market. In reporting this story, we should take advantage of this fresh opportunity we have to explore these linkages. In my county, a high proportion of people who use the state’s sliding-fee childcare funds work in the health care and hospitality industries. The public needs to know about this indirect government subsidy to those industries and to examine why wages aren’t high enough for workers to pay for their own childcare. Or do these industries have some obligation to help pay for these essential services?

As always with the best journalism, reporting that moves a story forward and places it in a broader context (to improve readers’ understanding) is driven by the commitment and ingenuity of individual reporters and editors. These are time-consuming stories, requiring tenacity and patience, an understanding of policy, affection for people, talent for telling observation, and an ability to weave narrative writing into a factual context. It’s much cheaper—but far less meaningful—to fill newshole or air time by covering city council meetings or crime scenes.

When he became editor of The Milwaukee Journal in 1997, Martin Kaiser decided that his paper had to “own” the two social policy issues being tested in its backyard. These stories involved the use of publicly funded vouchers to enable poor kids in Milwaukee to attend private schools and Wisconsin’s early, dramatic and much-watched changes in welfare policy.

Kaiser’s co
mmitment drives a consistent deployment of newsroom resources. Wherever the strongest work on this critical story is being done, at its center you will find a reporter or editor with the same devotion.

Lynda McDonnell is State Government Editor, The St. Paul Pioneer Press. She covered welfare and social policy for five years before becoming her newspaper’s Politics Editor in 1998. She is a 1980 Nieman Fellow.

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