Lazy lies about welfare: oped By Derrick Z. Jackson FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 3 May 1998 02:16:23 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Boston Globe  04/29/98  page A23


     By Derrick Z. Jackson, Globe Columnist

Over the last month, influential newspapers have published in-depth
accounts on how welfare reform is not getting recipients into jobs and
especially into jobs that lift them out of poverty. Despite the claims of
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that slashing welfare rolls ''is probably
the best thing that we've done,'' The New York Times received so much
resistance from Giuliani for statistics that Bill Keller, the Times's
managing editor, said:

''City Hall's message seems to be that the press - and the voters and
taxpayers - should celebrate what the mayor decrees to be reforms but
should not look beyond the press releases or check the record or ask
difficult questions. That's a remarkably cynical view of the
responsibilities of public office.''

On this day Keller was right. In a larger sense the Giuliani-Times spat
serves only to underscore a stark irony. Welfare reform might not have been
born so callously had the media not been so lazy as to produce
irresponsible, cynical coverage.

In New York, less than a third of the people cut from the rolls went to
jobs. Work is being pushed on welfare mothers even though there are only
enough licensed child-care slots in the city's neediest sections for one
out of every three or four children.

There is clear evidence that New York's 33,000 workfare participants are
nothing but cheap labor. They clean and maintain streets, parks, and
buildings for between $5,000 to $12,000 in welfare benefits while Giuliani
has slashed the people who used to do those jobs for $20,000 to $40,000 a

All of this was predicted by welfare advocates. They had studies to show
there were nowhere enough jobs in large urban areas to lift people out of
poverty. They warned that recipients needed far more education, training,
and child care. They produced data that showed there was not enough public
transportation to get ex-recipients out to the suburbs, where the new jobs

The media ignored the advocates. They found it more colorful to cruise
ghettos to cast moral judgment than stake out CEOs, many of whom seem to be
paid to get rid of jobs in the United States and send them abroad. ABC's
Diane Sawyer once demanded of teenage mothers, ''Why should taxpayers pay
for your mistake? ... Answer their question.'' There is no such hounding of
corporations, whose tax breaks amount to seven times more than welfare for
the poor.

The majority of people impacted by welfare reform are women. But for 30
years, from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's ''welfare dependency'' to
President Reagan's ''welfare queens'' to Charles Murray's ''Losing Ground''
to President Clinton's declaration that the biggest problem in this nation
is teenage pregnancy, nearly all the booming voices for ''reform'' have
been privileged men.

In a three-month study period in 1994-95, when welfare reform dominated the
news, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that 71 percent of the
sources in stories on cutting welfare were men. Only nine percent of the
sources were researchers and advocates for women on welfare. When ABC, NBC,
and CBS all featured welfare reform on the same Sunday morning on their
meet-the-press shows, no woman on welfare debated the George Wills or Pete

Studies have shown that the blacker you make the issue, the more negative
white Americans think of it. The media aided anti-welfare sentiment by
depicting the poor as black. African-Americans are 29 percent of the poor.
In a 1996 study by Yale professor Martin Gilens, 65 percent of poor people
on the networks were African-American. African-Americans were 62 percent of
the poor portrayed in Newsweek, Time, and US News and World Report.

While Murray, Newt Gingrich, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, and
many conservative governors saturated the senses with apocalyptic visions
of teenage mothers who have babies to get a welfare check, there were no
household names who were factual counterpoints. Real experts on welfare
like Kathleen Mullen Harris, author of ''Teen Mothers,'' found no such
correlation between welfare and pregnancy. Teen pregnancy looks worse today
mostly because married women are having far fewer babies.

Corporate welfare at $250 billion a year costs taxpayers seven times more
than welfare for the poor, nearly the equivalent of the budget for the
military. But the media do not spotlight tax breaks for the powerful with
seven times the power. In the Globe's major-newspaper database, the phrase
''welfare reform'' appeared 14 times more often than the phrase ''corporate

Informing the public of the failures of welfare reform is important. But
reform might not have failed so badly had the press been a fount of
balanced information at the outset instead of a collapsed dam against a
cascade of stereotypes. The media can lecture Giuliani today about his
responsibilities to the truth. Yesterday, newspapers and television helped
spread the lies.


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