Op-Ed: Welfare ‘reform’ would only deepen a poverty crisis

January 17, 2014
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By Georgia Mattison and Margaret Rhodes/Special to the Gazette

One might think that the legislature would be busy figuring out how to provide more help for those in need. But no, instead the Senate and House Conference Committee is considering how to “reconcile” two mean-spirited welfare bills that chip away at the meager benefits now in place.

The Senate bill would impose work requirements on pregnant women in their third trimester, even though it’s unlikely any employer will hire them.

Both would deny public housing to many immigrant groups, including domestic violence survivors who do not yet have green cards, and citizen children whose parents don’t have an eligible immigration status.

Both bills would give the current or future administration a blank check to change the standards for disability, and thereby cut off benefits to thousands of children whose disabled parents are unable to work.

Both bills require applicants to prove they have looked for a job, even if they don’t have a phone, Internet access, money for transportation or anyone to watch their children.

The provisions now before the Conference Committee will unfairly cut the rolls, create new hoops for recipients to jump through, and put applicants in Catch-22 situations, further undermining the state’s commitment to people in need.

Why this hard-heartedness? For decades, politicians and regulators have asserted their right to control poor citizens by relying on myths about those in need. These myths are familiar to anyone tuned into popular media: the poor are lazy and must be forced to work; they don’t value education; they squander their resources on drugs and alcohol; they cannot care for their children properly. Those on “welfare” stay on it for their whole lives and engage in rampant fraud.

Research studies have repeatedly debunked each of these myths. Still, these fictions have prevailed over fact in public consciousness. There is irrefutable evidence that poor people are as hardworking and moral as any other group and that what fraud exists is minimal or committed by providers. However, all of this evidence is ignored while the entitlement of the powerful to demean the poor in exchange for resources thrives.

We live in a state where the inequality gap between wealthy and poor citizens is one of the highest in the nation. It is unconscionable for us to be inflicting further hardships upon our most desperate citizens. We urge the Conference Committee to keep these destructive provisions out of the welfare bill.

We appreciate the efforts of Jamaica Plain Representatives Jeffrey Sánchez and Liz Malia in ameliorating some of the worst features of the House bill.

Georgia Mattison, a Jamaica Plain resident, and Margaret Rhodes are board members of the Poor People’s United Fund, a Boston-based nonprofit organization whose mission is social justice advocacy for poor people in Massachusetts.