In 1991 off the New England shore, three systems combined to create the strongest single storm in recorded history. The colossal collision of “three pieces of energy” was a regenerated hurricane. This event, now known as the “Perfect Storm”—the title of a popular book and movie—was not acknowledged as a single phenomenon at the time. According to meteorologist David Epstein, “most meteorologists still refer to it as the no-name storm because it wasn’t given a name and it probably should have been.” Its power was unmistakable. Winds peaked at 100 miles an hour, and ocean waves of up to 100 feet and shore waves 30 to 40 feet high left devastation in their wake. Many of those who died in the course of this combined event were never found.

For those watching the federal and state budgets and social policy right now, the analogy comes easily to mind. The confluence of a number of “pieces of energy”—the profound and nowhere near fully realized after-effects of September 11, the more cyclical factors of the recession, and a decade of tax and social program cuts, among other forces—promises a collision that could devastate many of the most vulnerable.

In the wake of September 11 President Bush declared war on terrorism; in the process, the federal government went from a surplus of over several hundred billion dollars to a deficit exceeding $100 billion. With massive increases in expenditures for defense and homeland security of $48 billion and $18 billion respectively, social program funding at the federal level is being severely curtailed. There are proposed cuts in youth programs, job training, education, environment and highways among others.

These cuts are likely to have a dramatic impact on states, which play a big role in the provision of social welfare safety net programs. The lower federal spending in social programs combined with declining tax revenues due to a slowing economy have dramatically affected state budgets, which are projected to run a combined deficit of over $40 billion this coming year. As a result, state after state has announced massive cutbacks and all of them have concentrated these cuts on social welfare programs for the most vulnerable. The financially strapped states have without hesitation pounced on social programs as their main area for extracting needed cuts. For example, by January 2002, about one-quarter of the states had already imposed cutbacks in Medicaid and another quarter were planning to do the same.

This is all taking place in a broader context of the continuing campaign of the last two decades to scale back the social welfare safety net—a campaign that has been shrouded under the language of devolution, privatization, welfare reform, and turning public sector social services over to faith-based organizations.

The first President Bush recognized an opportunity to place retrenchment in a dewy glow when he called for a greater partnership with the private sector in championing the meager “thousand points of light” effort. Bush saw this metaphor as implying that greater reliance on the private sector would lead to greater diversity and innovation in the delivery of needed social services in ways that would make the welfare state replaceable. The second President Bush has followed suit, upping the sentimentality ante in calling for greater partnership not with secular nonprofits but in particular with what have come to be cal led “faith-based” organizations. Faith-based organizations are and always will be a vital element of a system of strong community supports. But make no mistake; this is a piece of privatization in a religious cloak with the implication that the solutions to social problems lie more in saving souls than providing material aid.

Privatization has been a key theme in government for some time, as a consequence of the belief that contracting with private sector firms, for-profit as well as nonprofit, could help manage public services more efficiently and effectively. Social welfare has in fact been a primary arena in which privatization has taken root. There is nothing wrong with this at the most conceptual level, except that it distances the government from the responsibility of maintaining a reasonable level of supports.

This diminishing sense of responsibility for basic human welfare underlies much of the welfare reform policies of the mid-1990s. The guiding principle is keeping families off the dole rather than keeping children and families healthy and stable. The number of recipients, most of them single mothers with children, declined dramatically from 14.1 million in 1993 to 5.8 million in 2000. Yet studies from the Urban Institute and elsewhere indicate that the decline in all likelihood stems in large part from the relatively robust economy in the mid- to late-1990s rather than from any alleged success of the welfare program.

In the current economic downturn, many women who had gained jobs have now lost them. The last hired are often the first fired. Many women have exhausted their time on welfare, gone to work, been laid off and are now at risk of having no means of help. In recent months, enrollment has begun to creep back up, even though there are now prohibitions and time limitations in place that make it much harder for people to access needed assistance. States are in a bind, and many have begun to repeal time limits in order to cope with the growing numbers of destitute families who have nowhere to go.

The lack of government concern goes beyond welfare. Food stamp and Medicaid programs have been tightened so that many low-income families find they do not qualify. Unemployment programs have also been greatly tightened over the past two decades and many laid-off low-wage workers do not qualify. Now less than a third of the unemployed qualify for unemployment insurance. Consistent with this trend, throughout the recent recession a divided Congress refused to pass extended unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks, worsening the situation for those who have been finding it hard to get work in the stagnating economy. Finally, as the recession began to end, Congress passed the extension along with tax cuts for the wealthy as part of a so-called economic stimulus package. Yet Congress did nothing to undo the years of tightening access to unemployment insurance for the newly unemployed.

One wonders how much longer this continued cutting away at the social safety net can go on before there are massive social consequences.

We don’t yet know how powerful the convergence of forces will be—the economy remains officially in a recession, the war on terrorism forges on and the scope of individuals affected by both widens. In contrast, we have yet to see the impact community leaders and welfare activists will have as they advocate for more humane public social policies. The welfare reforms are up for reauthorization this year, offering an opportunity for social change. For now, the numbers of families seeking food at food pantries continues to grow, and the ability of nonprofits to meet the needs of those who fall through the cracks continues to get pushed to the limits.

About the Author

Sanford F. Schram teaches social theory and social policy in the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College. He is the author of After Welfare: The Culture of Postindustrial Social Policy (2000) and the forthcoming Praxis for the Poor: Piven and Cloward and the Future of Social Science in Social Welfare.