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Tales from the Welfare Jungle in the Good Ol' USA

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Wednesday, 19 April 2000

Australia is fascinated by America. Our culture is saturated with the images of US products and popular culture – think Nike, Coke, McDonalds…Like the rest of the world we scoff their fast food, pay high prices to wear their fashions and pay squillions to wear the state of the art running shoes. Old and young alike avidly watch US TV shows which range from the witty and creative to the mind-blowingly appalling (nominating examples would only embroil me in a distracting controversy). It was the Australian obsession with all things American that drew me to apply for funds to study in the US. I was an Americanite. I loved the movies, the TV, the books, the clothes, the food, the sport, the comics. In a fit of Yankee enthusiasm I even learned the rules of Gridiron and taught myself to throw a spiral pass.

But it was more than popular culture that brought me here. I had seen the pervasive American influence begin to affect politics as well as food and fashion. This influence was much more sinister and insidious than even bad television. As a volunteer at a legal clinic for homeless and disadvantaged young people I had watched political leaders increasingly flirt with ideas like "zero tolerance" and "the war on drugs". With more alarm I had begun to see the practices of US police being implemented by stealth in New South Wales, my state, with predictably dire consequences for the young, the poor, the indigenous and the ethnic minorities. It was this American influence that I decided to take a closer look at during my year abroad.

When I told my friends I was off for a year at an Ivy League university I could see them picturing me sauntering through beautiful gothic buildings, reading great books and engaging in fascinating exchanges of ideas with brilliant professors and students in lecture halls and coffee lounges. I don’t think anyone (especially me) envisioned me wrestling a hysterical, screaming autistic 9 year old splashed with blood to the floor whilst simultaneously trying to restrain his agitated mother from attacking the nurse desperately trying to collect a sample of blood before it hit the floor. Yet that is how I spent my morning. The experience of this morning, and especially of the family I was trying to help this morning, has crystallized many of the feelings I have had about the dangers of American influence since I arrived here.


Don’t get me wrong, America is a great place, an exciting and fascinating country, a land of opportunity and ideas, of wealth and creativity and of natural beauty and human warmth and kindness. It is a land where I have met many passionate and effective advocates for social justice and change. It is a place where I have spent many happy hours strolling in ivy covered grounds and indeed engaging in those eagerly anticipated intellectual debates. But it is also a nation suffering from tremendous contradictions. The US invented incarceration as a humane alternative to the British use of hanging, whipping and other cruel and unusual punishments. Yet just this week, in the country of individual rights, a state legislature declared that prisoners are not "persons" for the purposes of human rights protection in response to reports of systemic sexual assaults by guards of female prisoners. Reports also emerged this week that homelessness was on the increase in the richest nation in the world. At a time when the US has never been more confident in its place in the world, and of its authority to set moral norms for all other nations, the country seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that its wealth and standing has done little to prevent an inhumane atmosphere where routine abuses of human rights are directed towards the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick and disabled, the black, hispanic and indigenous populations, and many others without money or a powerful voice.

We should certainly look to the US and what it has to offer in opportunity, theory, ideas and programs. I for one will be proselytizing on my return for the adoption of many American advances in legal education and university based legal services for the poor. But we should always regard political references to the "American" approach with caution, even suspicion. This great nation does some terrible things to its own people.

You probably have heard all this before, I am certainly not the first to observe that the US offers much of both the best and worst of the human condition, so enough grim rhetoric. Let me provide some examples, actually just one example, a client with whom I have been working through my school’s legal services program (a fantastic US led initiative).

Denise Washington is a black woman in her forties. She has three children who suffer from a variety of medical issues including autism, serious behavioral problems and asthma. Ms Washington has been a long-time client of the legal clinic for a number of reasons. At one time her house burned down. Homeless, she and her children were evicted from a shelter after a dispute and her children were taken from her by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF). A long attempt to regain the children was jeopardized when she appeared at a local hospital asking for counseling - she was extremely stressed and feared that she might take drugs. Instead of receiving counseling Ms Washington was reported to DCF who raised the incident during the neglect case. I took over Denise Washington’s case when the Department of Social Services (DSS) threatened to discontinue her welfare benefits. The reason given was that she had failed to comply with a number of "work for welfare" requirements.

How does the welfare system in the US work? It must first be understood that while there are some limited ways to receive compensation if you become unemployed, there is no general entitlement to unemployment benefits. Cash benefits are granted only to impoverished single mothers with children (benefits known as TANF – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and to people who are so profoundly disabled that they are unable to work at all (benefits known as SSI). Occasionally people outside these categories are entitled to food stamps, a benefit which can only be used to purchase basic groceries. The standard food stamp allocation is $2.00 per person per day.

Presumably the political justification for family benefits is that whatever the fault of the parents in failing to succeed in the land of opportunity, one cannot punish the children. But every effort is made to ensure that welfare recipients do not exploit their entitlement and fall into idleness. Thus, since Bill Clinton’s famous "welfare reforms", family benefits are time limited. The only way to obtain an extension of benefits past the 21 month limit is to establish that you have made "good faith efforts" to look for work. This good faith effort requires regular attendance at workshops and orientation sessions run by the DSS. This is what had undone my client. Ms Washington had missed a number of orientation sessions and penalties from the DSS had reduced her cash allocation to $90.00 a month. Now her time limit was up and her extension application was being formally denied.


I was confident that I could have her benefit entitlement restored. After all she had children with serious medical problems and that constitutes grounds for a medical exemption from the requirements under the regulations. As I argued in our appeal of the termination, Ms Washington has a child with both autism and seizure disorder and his condition prevented her from attending sessions when he was home sick from school. Another session was missed when Ms Washington had rushed to the school of her child who was having an asthma attack. During previous attacks he had needed to go to the ER (no easy feat when you have neither a phone nor a car). Yet another session had been missed when her third child was taken to the ER suffering from "homicidal ideation" after he attacked a child on the school bus. Surely this was a classic case of a necessary medical exemption?

Perhaps not. The officer was sympathetic but refused to grant the exemption. He wanted to know more - how many ER visits had there really been, how often were her children sick? Surely she could work when her children were in school? (a period between 8.30 and 1.30). I found this attitude depressing but also puzzling. Why was it so important, in the richest country in the world, that she work at all? After all this is the land of family values - shouldn’t mothers be available for their children and protect them from the temptation of drugs and teen sex and the dangers of the street?

Recent economic analysis has also cast doubt on the nexus between employment and an end to poverty. Mothers taking low paying jobs (the kind that ‘work for welfare’ trains them to get) have been shown to be worse off in "material hardship terms" (evicted or homeless for failure to pay rent, missing meals, utilities being disconnected, sick children not going to the doctor etc) than they are on welfare. It certainly is not because of the generous amounts of welfare – estimated to constitute approximately 40% of the bare minimum costs needed for survival.

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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