BOB GARFIELD: Congress is poised to re-authorize welfare reform, and this weekend some activists are planning Mother's Day protests against the president's plan to divert some 300 million dollars under the welfare bill to the cause of strengthening marriage. These and other proposals have provoked a new round of coverage of welfare reform, 6 years after President Clinton signed it into law. Phillip Martin looks at the media's changing portrayal of welfare in an age of reform. [SOUND OF GOLF CLUB HITTING GOLF BALL]
PHILLIP MARTIN: On a golf drive near Worcester, Massachusetts Kevin Weldon, a laid off technician, is practicing his swings. [SOUND OF GOLF CLUB HITTING GOLF BALL] He pauses when asked about the subject of welfare and explains that it was mainly through television and radio talk shows that he developed his long held view of welfare recipients.
KEVIN WELDON: At the risk of sounding bigoted-- a lot of black and Puerto Rican people seem to make up the majority of it. You usually think of it as someone that doesn't want to work.
PHILLIP MARTIN: An unflattering image of welfare mothers was particularly popular during the Reagan administration says UCLA political scientist Martin Gilens.
MARTIN GILENS: Reagan, from the time he was governor of California, liked to employ some apocryphal stories about welfare "queens" driving Cadillacs and so on.
PHILLIP MARTIN: He says President Reagan was driven by a belief that many recipients were undeserving.
RONALD REAGAN: As you know, the current collection of programs designed to assist the needy spends nearly 120 billion dollars a year. But you also know how uncoordinated it's all become with many who are not poor receiving benefits intended for the poor.
PHILLIP MARTIN: Gilens, the author of Why Americans Hate Welfare, says that the portrayal of the undeserving recipient [fueled] an anti-welfare hysteria in the '80s, but many prominent journalists were quite critical of Republican efforts to cut back on social programs.
ED BRADLEY: I think maybe I brought a different perspective of welfare with me because of my experiences growing up in that I knew people who were on welfare and they weren't there because that's what they wanted out of life!
PHILLIP MARTIN: 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley.
ED BRADLEY: In the '80s when there were all of these stories about welfare "queens" I think there was a perception that anyone who was on welfare was getting over on the system when in fact there were a handful of people who were getting over on the system, but most people who were on welfare had no way out!
ROBERT RECTOR: We didn't have a lot of mothers committing fraud. We didn't have a lot of mothers driving Cadillacs. But we did have a great upsurge in out of wedlock childbearing.
PHILLIP MARTIN: Robert Rector is welfare policy expert for the conservative Heritage Foundation. He says the left-leaning media in its effort to counter welfare myths ignored what he believes is the number one reason for swelling welfare rolls -- unwed mothers.
ROBERT RECTOR: I can remember about 10 years ago giving a speech to a group of reporters and talking about how at the beginning of the war on poverty 7 percent of children had been born out of wedlock and by the early 1990s we were at around 28 percent and, and actually having two reporters stand up from the back of the room and denounce me for talking about this topic.
PHILLIP MARTIN: But even now there's still plenty of talk about unwed mothers in the one place where unwed mothers are still freely invoked -- talk radio. This is from a recent call in to Russ Verne's Judicial Watch program on USA Radio KKJT in Dallas.
CALLER: They pretty much stepped in and you know empowered the single female; told her basically, look -- you don't have to be married. You don't have to have a man in the house. We'll give you welfare, government assistance--
RUSS VERNE: Well actually it empowered the, the male to leave and shirk his responsibilities because somebody else would pick up the tab for him so he could go off and run and play.
PHILLIP MARTIN: But conservatives and liberals seem to agree that the coverage of welfare overall has changed for the better and the turning point they say was 1996 when President Clinton signed into law a measure designed to move 13 million recipients into jobs.
BILL CLINTON: Most American families find that the greatest challenge of their lives is how to do a good job raising their kids and do a good job at work. Trying to balance work and family is the challenge that most Americans in the workplace face. We want at least the chance to strike the right balance for everybody. Today we are ending welfare as we know it.
PHILLIP MARTIN: From that moment the coverage of welfare as we knew it also changed. Now recipients were being heralded in media campaigns as decent, hardworking folk. Now it's welfare itself that's the problem as suggested in this recent TV public service announcement.
WOMAN: I was not happy doing nothing! I was motivated to do more with my life. I wanted more. People tell me how lucky I am. And I always tell them-- the harder I work, the luckier I get.
ANNOUNCER: We're not asking you to hire everyone on welfare. Just one.
PHILLIP MARTIN: The success of welfare reform is measured in how many people leave the welfare rolls. That's what much of the media ads and press coverage has focused on. [SOUND OF CASH REGISTER]
BECKY CURBOY: There you go. [BABY CRYING]
WOMAN: Thank you.
BECKY CURBOY: You're welcome.
PHILLIP MARTIN: Becky Curboy rings up another customer at the Royal Springs Family Golf Center while a friend cares for her newborn baby. Curboy became the owner of this golf center in Charlton, Massachusetts after agreeing to repair the run down business. Last year a story about Curboy, a former welfare mother of 5, was featured in the Boston Herald. It attributed her success to welfare reform.
BECKY CURBOY: That couldn't be further from the truth. It's not - not because of this welfare reform that I'm successful.
PHILLIP MARTIN: Curboy credits a women's training course she took on her own and in fact, says Diane Dujon, a member of the National Welfare Rights Union, "welfare reform often gets more credit from the media than it deserves."
DIANE DUJON: The coverage has gotten a lot worse, and there seems to be no understanding whatsoever that we need a safety net and why we need a safety net. Everybody's acting like welfare reform is working. What I see in the trenches is people suffering! All they talk about is the welfare rolls are dropping. Yeah! Well of course they're dropping! If you kick people off, guess what? [LAUGHS] Your rolls drop!
PHILLIP MARTIN: Whether one applauds or denounces welfare reform, there seems to be agreement across political lines that, quote, "a new conversation has begun." A key feature is that the welfare "queen" has been supplanted, at least for now, by more sympathetic portrayal of the welfare recipient. But Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson argues that sympathy will dry up quickly if the media continues to simplify the complex links among the economy, poverty and welfare.
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: If you don't have the media fully analyzing the problem and presenting the data in such a way that people would understand the forces that are producing these negative outcomes, then people will be influenced by demagogic messages that simplify the problem. Demagogic messages that suggest that there's something wrong with these people.
PHILLIP MARTIN: As the president and Congress begin to debate proposed new provisions of welfare reform, careful media scrutiny will become even more necessary, says Wilson. To help the public sift through the myths and realities of a system they love to hate. For On the Media, I'm Phillip Martin in Boston. [MUSIC]
"Original music for On the Media"
by Ben Allison