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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 05:21 GMT
Welfare debate reopens
Charities say that demand for services is increasing
Kevin Anderson

Miriam's Kitchen provides breakfast and social services for the homeless and the poor in Washington DC.

They have seen a 38% increase in the number of people they serve over a year ago, and many of them are like the limousine driver who used to ferry passengers from Reagan National Airport.

The airport was shut for three weeks following the September 11 attacks, longer than any other airport in the US due to its proximity to the Capitol, the White House, numerous monuments, government buildings and military installations including the Pentagon.

Those three weeks out of work were enough to drive the limousine driver to homelessness and to Miriam's Kitchen, said director Ruth Dickey.

Hospitality workers suffer

Some estimates put unemployment as high as 50% in Washington's hospitality industry, which includes restaurant and hotel staff as well taxi drivers.

Homeless man begging
The knock on effects of 11 September

Many of these workers were the last hired and now are the first fired due to the recession and the knock on effects of the September attacks.

"We're now seeing numbers like we haven't seen since the early 1990s," Ms Dickey said.

It will strain social service agencies and programmes such as Miriam's Kitchen, and it will be the first test of welfare reform in the US.

The boom years

The test of welfare reform will help frame the debate as much of the programme is up for reauthorisation this year in Congress.

The reform effort put more emphasis on work and also placed limits of how long recipients could receive benefits. It also moved much of the responsibility from federal control to the states.

Welfare reform has been seen as a huge success.
US Capitol
Major parts of welfare reform are up for review

Welfare rolls have been cut in half since reforms were introduced in 1996, and child poverty dropped from 20.5% in 1996 to 16.2% in 2000, according to census figures.

But critics of reform and some Democrats say that reform coincided with the longest economic expansion in US history and does not represent a true test of the reforms.

During the late 90s, entry-level employers went to unprecedented measures to fill vacancies, often providing pay well above minimum wage and benefits including health care even for temporary work.

Shadow of recession

But now with the recession and some welfare recipients hitting time limits for benefits, charities are worried that the reforms may not work as well during times of want as they did in times of plenty.

"A lot of people will be cast off welfare, and the safety net is not there," said Monica Testa with the Capital Area Food Bank.

Welfare reform is great if you don't need it

Max Sawicky, Economic Policy Institute

And charities may not be able to pick up all of the slack. From August to November of last year, the food bank saw call volume to its hunger hotline quadruple while donations were down 30% from the year previous, Ms Testa said.

Max Sawicky with the Economic Policy Institute said, "Welfare reform is great if you don't need it."

And while it is on the agenda of Congress for the year, it is not on the political radar, he said.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans are expected to call for dramatic changes in welfare reform.

Republicans are expected to try to add provisions that will promote marriage, and Democrats are asking that welfare reform be used to help reduce poverty.

Some Democrats and charities say that the emphasis on putting welfare recipients back to work has often masked the fact that entry-level positions has not helped lift families out of poverty.

See also:

17 Oct 00 | Issues
Campaign issues: Welfare reform
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