Residents React to Barry's Proposal to Cap Welfare Benefits

Shantella Y. Sherman | 11/22/2010, 12:02 a.m.
The days when need alone justified government aid, died in August 1996 when...

The days when need alone justified government aid, died in August 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 into law. The legislation repealed 60 years of financial aid for the poor and required welfare recipients to work, go to school, or learn a trade.

Recently D.C. Council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) announced co-sponsorship of a bill that would impose a five-year limit on cash payments to participants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

"It's like [Richard] Nixon going to China. People always see Marion Barry as this big liberal who wants the government to pay for everything, which is not true," Barry, 74, told Fox5 News during an interview on Tue., Nov. 16.

"I want everybody to be self-sufficient. I want the government to help make them that way."

If the bill passes, 8,000 people would be dropped from the District rolls immediately. Critics contend that children and adults would be left homeless and hungry. Still, Barry said that blanket mismanagement of TANF had increased the number of recipients to 17,800 families, when only 500, or about 3 percent, of those families were in compliance and eligible for aid according to regulations.

Many District residents, like David Burris, 37, agree with Barry's position, citing the dog-eat-dog nature of need during a recession.

"Times are hard in America and I work three jobs to keep my household in order. While I'm scrimping and struggling, the last thing I want to see is someone living like a king on public assistance. I'm not hard-hearted, but if you are a real man, you work. I don't care if it's picking up trash. You work at something before you take a handout from the government," Burris said.

Burris' girlfriend, Melody Hellstern, 34, also agrees with Barry's plan, but thinks that women with children should be moved off gradually.

"There are some women who may need three to five years to get on their feet, especially during a rough economy, but then there should be no more handouts," she said.

"Between the housing subsidies, day care vouchers, food stamps and welfare checks, I have friends who will never do for themselves. Just like their mothers and grandmothers didn't do for themselves," Hellstern said.

Barry's proposal would not remove individuals from the rolls instantly or without sufficient notice. In an effort to provide marketable entry-level skills to current welfare recipients, Barry said that he hopes to encourage more training in areas like hospitality.

"There was a time in the African-American community, even during segregation, when 90 percent of the waiters were Black. This is an excellent opportunity to train these welfare recipients to be able to speak a certain way, to learn menus, to learn courtesy and make up to $200 to $300 a day," Barry said.

But not all welfare recipients are keen on the idea of working in a service industry.

"I'm not trying to be a waiter," Marquis Bulow, 36, said.

"It's not like I feel that type of job is beneath me or anything, but I'm not really trying to do that," the Southeast resident said. If the country ever returned to the days when one had to work in order to eat,

Bulow said, he would simply go back and live with his mother. Most aid laws currently require recipients to have worked within two years of receiving assistance, limit most assistance to five years total, and allow states to establish "family caps" which deny additional benefits to mothers of children born while the mothers are receiving public assistance.

"In these current economic times which parallel the Great Depression of 1929, personal responsibility seems to be of utmost importance," said Elaine Jackson, 50.

"Hopefully, with Council member Marion Barry's help, those who are in non-compliance with the law will see the need to take responsibility for their future," said Jackson, a former District resident, who now lives in Silver Spring, Md.