Welfare Reform Challenges Women’s Shelter


Patricia Mohr, program coordinator of the West Women’s and Children’s Shelter in Portland, Ore., recently spoke at the Farm Foundation National Public Policy Education Conference on “Consequences of Welfare Reform.” The following is a summary of her presentation.

The Salvation Army has a very long history of dedication to the nation’s poor and disenfranchised–a dedication which has not diminished through many reforms, administrations and policy changes during more than 100 years of service. While The Salvation Army is not opposed to welfare reform, we believe it is a process, not an event. It is a process that needs to be approached in a thoughtful and considered manner and continually evaluated for effectiveness. Much as we would like it to be, this reform process is not a “quick fix.”

Each step taken in trying to create a system to raise people out of cyclical poverty has very real consequences.

When the reforms were first begun nationwide, we saw an increase in demand for food and shelter varying from state to state. At the San Francisco Harbor Light, for example, the number of clients served daily in the past year has increased 67 percent. Numbers grow toward the end of the month when those who are receiving aid run out of money.

The working poor, a segment of our society which is on the increase, will be in need of cash assistance for prescription medicine, utilities, transportation, rent, and other necessities. We have been advocating an increase in the federal emergency food and shelter program to absorb this increase in demand.

We have found that providing adequate services to the working poor means a long term commitment, or “case management,” because they also need help rebuilding their support system within the community as well as their economic base and self-esteem. Often they have been caught in a culture of poverty for years or generations. We see this expanded underclass getting progressively larger and poorer without the time and committed effort of supportive, non-judgmental “others.”

Locally, for us to take a family of four from the emergency shelter to self-sufficient housing could cost $12,000, including all costs for their shelter, transitional housing, rent assistance, and support services. We will be able to maintain our current level of assistance, but cannot increase it without increased revenue. With volunteers we can expand our programs, but the State needs to be responsible to the ongoing need for supportive services. In addition, it is necessary to have a real commitment to raise the minimum wage if we are truly working to “lift people out of poverty.”

The Welfare Reform Act has some results more difficult to see on the surface, but may have more lasting impact on our clients as well as our staff. Mothers required to work have no time to attend parenting classes needed to interrupt the cycle of domestic violence and child abuse.

Women with drug convictions are being denied benefits for the rest of their lives because of a drug-related felony conviction, even though they may have been very young at the time, coerced into such behavior by an abuser or raised in a family where such activity was expected of them.

Even if the mothers have extended family nearby, these families are anything but “safe havens.” We become the extended family for these women.

We will raise another generation of dependent citizens if we do not adequately invest in parenting education for young women in their teens. Society will pay a much greater price than the current welfare amount if the cycle of domestic abuse is not stopped.

We would like to see the local junior colleges more involved with shorter term training courses as well as degree programs. We would particularly like to see the process of reform reflect an understanding of and sensitivity to the unique circumstances of our beneficiaries.

For many of the poor and working poor in the local area, it is not an entirely economic issue. Life skills training, establishing trusting long-term relationships, mentoring programs, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, mental health treatment, adequate children’s services, and domestic violence counseling must be included as necessary in each individual’s case when determining a workable “welfare-to-work” plan. The non-profit sector is well versed but ill-funded to shoulder this larger burden. We can shift our focus some and change the way in which we deliver services, but that does not remove our very real need for sources of hard cash to provide the much-needed support that makes the difference between someone clinging to the economic ladder and sliding off.

As we strive toward a more workable welfare policy, we must keep in mind that these difficulties are happening in what some would call a “boom” economy. Our best efforts could be devastating if the economy takes even a slight downturn.

It is important that we create and carry out policy that truly takes people from welfare to meaningful work–that we don’t count our successes only by the numbers of people who no longer appear on welfare rolls, but rather by improving the economic well-being of the poor. The Salvation Army has been, and is to this day, dedicated to creating real change in the lives of the nation’s poorest and most troubled citizens–not simply changing people’s economic status, but helping them to change their lives.

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