After years of welfare reform there is evidence that privatization has been successful, not for the people who were supposed to be moved out of poverty, but for corporate profiteers.
By Melvin J. Howard
An unintended consequence of welfare “reform” has been the transformation of the nonprofit sector particularly the better-funded national organizations from community assets to market-based competitors. The traditional distinction between nonprofits investing in people and communities, and for-profit entities that make money for their owners, is becoming blurred. In some areas, for-profits and nonprofits are now in direct competition; in others, they are creating partnerships to secure government contracts. In the Harvard Business Review, William P. Ryan, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consultant to foundations and nonprofit organizations, looks at the changing landscape for nonprofits forged by government willingness to contract with for-profit corporations to administer government services. Ryan points out: “By playing in the new marketplace, nonprofits will be forced to reconfigure their operations and organizations in ways that could compromise their missions. The danger,” writes Ryan, “is that in their struggle to become more viable competitors in the short term, nonprofit organizations will be forced to compromise the very assets that made them so vital to society in the first place.”
One of the most insidious consequences of the San Francisco County’s welfare-to-work program is that local nonprofits and private businesses are able to “steal jobs from low-wage workers, for whom these jobs no longer exist.” This short sighted pitting of low-wage workers against welfare workers threatens to create a new group of unemployed workers, who may find themselves applying for welfare benefits.
To compete in the marketplace, nonprofits are adapting to its new realities in a myriad of ways, “from subcontracting to partnership to outright conversion to for-profit status,” writes Ryan. He points to the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, which although “large and sophisticated by any nonprofit standard…could not go it alone.” In order to deal with the “demand of a comprehensive, $40 million welfare-to-work contract, it created a for-profit limited liability corporation [called YW Works], with two for-profit partners.”
In addition to unleashing predatory corporate forces, and the ongoing transformation of nonprofit organizations into high stakes competitors for government contracts, the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 contains the first enactment of a concept known as “charitable choice.” Far from expanding anyone’s choices, “charitable choice” mandates that state and local governments include religious organizations in their pool of bidders for service-delivery contracts.
On the face of it, this is nothing new. As Cathlin Siobhan Baker, Co-Director of the Employment Project, explains, for years religious organizations have received government funding for emergency food programs, child care, youth programs, and the like. However, they were expressly prohibited from religious proselytizing. Now, Baker writes: “Gone are the prohibitions regarding government funding of pervasively sectarian organizations. Churches and other religious congregations that provide welfare services on behalf of the government can display religious symbols, use religious language, and use religious criteria in hiring and firing employees.”
President George W. Bush has been a big-time supporter of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives. If his faith-based initiative, announced to great fanfare in late January, ever gets back on track, it will allow for a bunch of social services to come under the control of faith-based organizations. During the presidential campaign, Bush repeatedly called for “armies of compassion” fielded by “faith-based organizations, charities and community groups” to help aid America’s poor and needy. In a USA Today opinion piece he laid out his plan for taking “the next bold step in welfare reform,” proposing $80 billion over 10 years in tax incentives to “help our nation’s most heroic armies of compassion.” He also proposed a federal initiative to “support community and faith-based groups that fortify marriage and champion the role of fathers.”
Welfare is no longer a question of poverty or the economic inequities in our society. Charitable choice frames the debate within such time-honored moral hodgepodge as the proverbial “epidemic of out-of-wedlock births,” or the “lack of personal responsibility”—behaviors that conservatives claim, contribute to the general moral breakdown of our society.
Since 1996, responsibility for welfare services has shifted from the federal government to the states and the states have contracted many services out to for-profit corporations and non-profit organizations. Under President Bush’s faith-based initiative, religious organizations have become a major player in the service provider mix. However, in addition to the bevy of objections raised by liberals and conservatives that have stalled the implementation of Bush’s faith-based plan, many people of faith do not believe that they can shoulder such a burden.
In Religion-Sponsored Social Service Providers: The Not-So-Independent Sector, independent researchers Jim Castelli and John McCarthy of Pennsylvania State University, conclude that it is mistaken to believe that faith communities can take on the burden of expanding their provision of social services as a substitute for government efforts. “Not only is there no infrastructure at the national, state, or local levels to administer programs and large amounts of funding, but such expansion would require faith communities to wholly change their funding priorities in order to build their capacity.”
Privatization as the engine powering welfare reform was supposed to replace federal and state bureaucracies with streamlined, cost-effective corporate service providers. Privatizers believed that private companies would administer welfare regulations more stringently and accurately, deliver services more efficiently, and focus on only those who really deserved benefits. Saving the taxpayers money was another appealing promise. Companies competing for contracts assured states that they would dramatically reduce the welfare rolls.
Has the privatization of welfare delivered on its promises? Have private companies and enterprising nonprofits transformed the old welfare system with the outcome of long-term employment with decent pay for former welfare recipients? Max Sawicky, economist at the Washington, DC-based Economic Policy Institute, is troubled by the fact that the so-called “success [of welfare privatization] was announced before the results are in.”
In a 1997 speech, Lawrence W. Reed, President of the conservative Midland, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, touted privatization as the wave of the future: “The superiority of [privatization]…is now approaching the status of undisputed, conventional wisdom: the private sector exacts a toll from the inefficient for their poor performance, compels the service provider or asset owner to concern himself with the wishes of customers, and spurs a dynamic, never-ending pursuit of excellence - all without any of the political baggage that haunts the public sector as elements of its very nature.”
· While welfare privatization has delivered drastic reductions in caseloads and welfare rolls, it has not moved recipients from the “underclass” to the working class. Privatization is not efficiently delivering job training and support services to those who need them.
· The financial bonuses privatizers receive for reducing caseloads create an incentive to terminate clients’ benefits, not to assist them in climbing out of poverty.
· As in the case of Curtis and Associates, staff working for private companies often have neither the credentials nor the training to handle their caseloads. Consequently, clients do not receive services they need, and to which they are entitled, such as childcare, transportation subsidies and medical care.
· As Wisconsin, New York, and Texas have learned to their chagrin, companies like Maximus and Lockheed Martin blithely spend public money from other jurisdictions to wine, dine, and pay off decision-makers in the pursuit of new contracts.
· The states and local governments that contract with corporations for welfare services have not instituted any form of systematic oversight. Because information about large private contractors is not centralized, it is not unusual for a company in hot water one place to pick up new contracts at the same time in another state—or in another county in the same state. Ultimately, for-profit corporations are accountable to their shareholders, not to the communities they are hired to serve.
Spurred by revelations of Maximus’s questionable activities, Milwaukee-area Democratic Congress- people Jerry Kleczka and Tom Barrett, are hoping the federal General Accounting Office will fully investigate the practices of private companies hired to manage welfare services. As we move closer to welfare reauthorization, the GAO needs to vigorously take on the Congresspeople’s request. In the meantime, corporations will continue prospecting for gold among the poor.