Study looks at welfare reform from the viewpoint of most needy
Providing a street-level perspective on welfare reform, a new book reveals a world of struggle for people living in Philadelphia row houses, where many residents contend with long histories of drug addiction and alcoholism.
The author spent two years studying people with substance abuse problems who were sent to Philadelphia, often on one-way tickets from as far away as Puerto Rico, to live in recovery homes set up in derelict Philadelphia row houses.
"Out of about 100 guys I knew, there is only one today, eight years later, who is still sober. The rest have been in and out of jail and in low-wage jobs," said Robert P. Fairbanks II, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and author of How it Works, Recovering Citizens in Post-Welfare Philadelphia. The recently published book examines the most needy in the welfare system.
"The book is about a broader relationship between the houses and the city, and it introduces a new approach to studying addiction and urban policy," Fairbanks said. Instead of using conventional measures of success and failures of welfare reform, he said the book "is meant to work backwards from the level of how people are experiencing poverty, up through to the city, state and federal level of urban welfare restructure," he said.
Philadelphia has about 60,000 vacant properties; half of them abandoned row houses. The row houses, many formerly occupied by Philadelphia's working class in factory neighborhoods, are remnants of the city's industrial decline. Fairbanks found a new phenomenon in which entrepreneurs set up self-help programs and reused hundreds of the empty houses as facilities for recovering addicts and alcoholics.
The system emerged after welfare reforms in 1982 established a payment of $205 per month for alcoholics and drug addicts. By pooling the payments (which have yet to increase) and by taking advantage of food stamps, these group homes have become sustainable at a subsistence level, and even marginally profitable in some cases.
Operating without a license and unregulated by any government office, the recovery houses provide food, shelter, company and encouragement to addicts who live an area saturated with drugs and devastated by poverty, Fairbanks said. "The houses are often overcrowded, prone to substandard conditions and coercive in the way they treat people. Some are virtuous brotherhoods, in which one addict helps another, and there is everything in between," he said.
Policymakers and others interested in poverty have much to learn from the experiences in Philadelphia. The row house system shows how the city allows the situation to continue and how the national government and state government permits the arrangement to continue. "There are lessons here for national conversations, of how the federal government and then the state, dumps the problem on the city, which ultimately dumps it on the neighborhood," Fairbanks said.
The solutions to the problem may not be easy, but Fairbanks said that the experiences of people in desperate situations in Philadelphia provide insights. "These backsliding stories actually explain a new kind of poverty management system," he said. "The failures of the system lead to other regulatory encounters, with workfare programs, child support systems and in some cases involvement with the criminal justice system. These experiences provide insights that inform scholarship on the broader restructuring of the welfare system and the postindustrial city."
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