By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A passel of grinning kids giggle as they hang over an apartment balcony to peer at the people gathering next door. The Welfare Reform Coalition has called a news conference in the back yard of a Boyle Heights homeless shelter to critique the MDRC study and the L.A. County GAIN program. They castigate the Department of Public Social Services, which administers GAIN, for touting inadequate performance. And they criticize the media for buying the hype with no hint of skepticism.
"Some sectors of the media," complains Welfare Reform Coalition Co-Chair Bill Gallegos "have acted like a PR machine for the county."
But it was not just the county pulling the strings. The study of L.A. County GAIN was orchestrated by a Clinton administration desperate for some good news, and was funded in part by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in Washington.
Clinton, after all, once vowed to "end welfare as we know it" and led the charge for vast changes in the way the country cares for its poorest citizens. The work-first model is intrinsic to those changes. The MDRC study was geared for release two years after Clinton's welfare bill was signed into law, press-friendly timing that the L.A. Times seized upon with the credulous comment "The timing of the study's release couldn't have been better."
DHHS Secretary Donna Shalala personally released the results of the L.A. study at a press conference in Washington, accompanied by officials from MDRC and Los Angeles County.
Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the department, said DHHS provided the report eight or nine days early to some members of the press and arranged a briefing with "select reporters." He scoffed at the idea that such a briefing might contribute to a particular spin: "In my experience, reporters ask some pretty hard questions."
None were evident in the coverage, however. No one challenged the notion of celebrating an income of $214 a month, and most went beyond that to echo the DHHS assertion that, as the Washington Post put it, the report represents "the first solid evidence that welfare reform is beginning to work in the nation's largest cities."
The L.A. Times parroted the DHHS press release almost verbatim, reporting "dramatic gains in moving welfare recipients into jobs."
National Public Radio apparently saw little irony in selecting, as the audio backdrop for its report celebrating GAIN, a participant fruitlessly calling numbers cold from the phone book in search of work.
But if the rest of the nation now believes that Los Angeles has proven the efficacy of get-tough welfare reform, welfare-rights advocates here say they will continue to challenge the comfortable assumptions.
"We want to say to the [county] Board of Supervisors, 'Take some responsibility here. Don't just let someone put a study on your desk that says everything is fine, the economy is fine,'" says the Welfare Reform Coalition's Gallegos. "Because $214 a month to support any kind of family is not fine. It's criminal."