The Romney campaign has launched a series of ads attacking the Obama administration for recent executive actions that would, according to a Romney press release, “gut” the work requirements of the landmark bi-partisan 1996 welfare reform law signed by Bill Clinton. The Obama campaign has responded with their own ads defending their moves as a way to provide governors with the flexibility they’ve been asking for. But beyond the politics and the policy debates there are real people, and I was one of those people who grew up in the old welfare system of the 60’s and 70’s.
My parents came to New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1950’s and divorced when I was two years old (I was the youngest of four children). Never having learned to read or write, my mother had no skills to fall back on and we ended up on welfare, which is how I grew up. We lived in constant poverty, sometimes homeless, often hungry, and never stable. We did have a small black and white television which provided a window to an outside world which served as my inspiration to aspire to a better life. Sadly, for too many the old AFDC welfare system became a family habit where generation after generation fell into the same cycle of dependency. This was the case with one of my own immediate family members. I saw first-hand how this dependency ravaged communities and devastated families.
What had been a well-intentioned program initiated in the “New Deal” era and updated in the “Great Society” days became a trap for far too many—a virtual quicksand that shackled many with the chains of government reliance. The unintended consequence was that it kept people down instead of lifting them up. At its peak in 1994, there were over five million families on AFDC with over 14 million recipients of aid (up from about four million recipients in 1965 and current recipients are back down to around four million).
The welfare reform law of the 90’s was an effort to change that. It accepted the fact that we have an obligation as a society to provide a safety net for struggling families. But that safety net ought to become a trampoline to help elevate people into self-sufficiency. TANF, as it was renamed, required those who were able-bodied to either conduct or seek work or obtain job skills training in exchange for benefits that were time-bound. Our welfare systems should be focused on helping families survive, strive and thrive. AFDC focused on letting folks survive with basic needs and not much else. TANF added the ability to help families strive for a better future and thus thrive once they are on their feet (ala teach to fish versus giving a fish). However, for this to make sense, you have to acknowledge that the best social program is a paycheck instead of a welfare check. There is no substitute for the dignity that comes from work, nothing can replace the value of earning your keep, and the most inspiring thing I’ve experienced is the result of my own initiative and seeing how success can be derived from seeing a future limited only by my own imagination.
There’s an old saying that says, “With one hand you give me a check; with the other hand you take away my dreams.” We should keep the work requirements in the welfare program and thus allow recipients to keep their dignity and their ability to dream.
Danny Vargas, President of marketing consulting firm VARCom Solutions. Former Commissioner, National Museum of the American Latino Commission, Former National Chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, regular MSNBC contributor, U.S. Air Force veteran raised in NYC.