In time of economic distress, bankers get bailouts and the middle class gets stimulus. And the poor? In this recession, the social safety net that was to be the ultimate protection of the unfortunate lies in tatters.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people classified as living in extreme poverty has risen since the year 2000 by more than a third to 17.1 million. A government report spoke of almost 50 million Americans living with "food insecurity." More than 36 million are on food stamps. So whatever happened to welfare, which has always been considered the last resort for someone down on his luck?
Welfare as a federal program was initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt as aid to dependent children. In 1996, with the rolls peaking at more than 4 million, President Clinton undertook to "end welfare as we know it." And he surely did.
Aid for Families with Dependent Children was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, ending the basic entitlement to financial assistance. A five-year lifetime limit on aid was imposed.
Peter Edelman resigned from the Department Health and Human Services in 1996 in protest of Clinton's welfare reform. Today he recalls that the draconian program removed many from the rolls who could not find jobs. A number of states cut their welfare rolls by almost 90 percent.
It took a recession to reveal the full effects of the welfare restrictions. It's hard to get people to go from "welfare to work" when there is no work.
Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in The Washington Post that the Clinton welfare overhaul was based on reckless assumptions about perpetual prosperity. They say what is urgently needed now is a massive emergency relief package to repair the safety net.
President Obama is concentrating his attention on creating jobs — itself a worthy endeavor. But that will not address the problem of the hungry and homeless, who have no welfare rolls to turn to in their emergency.