The University of Chicago Magazine June 1995
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Between Help and

a Hard Place

It's not easy being poor. And, as Harold Richman shows his students in "Social Welfare in the United States," it's not easy figuring out how to help.

A THIRD-YEAR FROM PITTSBURGH worries about pregnant teenagers. A student from Cincinnati tells of his volunteer work with the Legal Aid Society. A second-year from San Francisco mentions working with AIDS patients. A fourth-year from Austin says, "I know people on these programs." A psych major from Chicago also has friends on aid. A student from Chicago Heights wonders, with a tremor in her voice, why the lower-middle class doesn't qualify for government aid. A woman from New England classifies her family, who've been on and off welfare, as "the rural poor."

Up one row and down the next, students answer Professor Harold A. Richman's question: What contact have you had with people who receive some form of social welfare?

There's no time to hear from every one of the 50 or so students gathered in the lecture hall in the 1155 Building. In fact, Richman, AM'61, PhD'69, has already implored any first- or second-years in the room to consider dropping the course, which he designed in 1987 as a way to examine the evolution of social-welfare provisions in U.S. society. That year, no one signed up.

Eight years later, the course taught by Richman -- the Hermon Dunlap Smith professor in the School of Social Service Administration and the College, the director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children, and a 1990 Quantrell award winner for outstanding undergraduate teaching -- has more takers than it can handle.

"This course," Richman tells the first-day crowd, "really should be called `Help' -- with an exclamation point! But you can't put that in a course catalog," and so the course is known officially as Social Sciences 253, "Social Welfare in the United States."

The professor, who starts every session by taking off his suit jacket and rolling up his sleeves, encourages his students to take a similar, wade-right-in approach.

The first written assignment asks them to choose one of four "vignettes" -- a grandmother on Social Security who, diagnosed with Alzheimer's, needs round-the-clock care; a 17-year-old whose family has kicked her out because she's pregnant; a mildly schizophrenic college dropout who can't hold a job; a 12-year-old from the projects who's being pressured to join a gang -- and figure out how to get help. Keeping track of the calls they make and the leads they follow, they're to weigh the solutions they find, picking the one that seems to make the most sense. Only one directive is offered: "You might want to start with the phone book."

Readings begin with Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, an account of two boys growing up in Chicago's South Side projects, and end with Michael Katz's In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, which Richman calls "a rather dense intellectual history" of social welfare in America. He chose the books for "their ability to get to the contemporary reality," a starting point for asking hard questions about who gets help and why. As Richman warns, "This is a course as concerned about judgment as it is about knowledge." Also, in a very real sense, "it's a course about citizenship."

"I'm going to push you to examine your values, to develop your knowledge, and to bring them together. The best way to bring knowledge and values together," he emphasizes, "is to talk about them."

"This is a course as concerned about judgment as it is about knowledge," Harold Richman tells his students. Also, in a very real sense, "it's a course about citizenship."

Five minutes into the second day of class, Harold Richman plays moderator as students try to decide how much money the state of Illinois will give a hypothetical family of three -- a single mother with a ninth-grade education, her 13-year-old daughter, and her 10-year-old son -- to comply with the state-mandated guidelines that support the federal Aid to Familes with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The state, he explains, "says you should get support at the level that allows you to live in circumstances of health and decency -- and that allows you to live with full participation as a citizen.

"It's not a useful guideline," he suggests, "if you're trying to figure out how many dollars to give someone." Nevertheless, it's the guideline that the students -- like their real-life counterparts in Springfield -- must use to shape their decisions.

The class starts by considering rent.

"They live in Chicago?" comes the first question.

"Do we know where she lives, and what they charge for rent?" another student asks.

"The budget applies to everybody," Richman replies with bureaucratic neutrality. "Where should she live -- Kenilworth? Woodlawn? Hyde Park?" No answers.

"We gotta do it," Richman admonishes. "This lady's gotta get her check."

"Three hundred dollars?" a woman offers.

"Too low!" someone counters.

"I've seen it done."

Richman steps in. "Remember, in Illinois, there are 700,000 people on AFDC. Have you seen a lot of two-bedroom apartments in the city for $300?"

The discussion shifts: Should it be a two-bedroom apartment? Could the family get by on one bedroom with a fold-out couch? Or should they have three bedrooms, giving everyone privacy?

"We shouldn't even consider a three-bedroom," one woman says decidedly. "These people are poor."

"We're just picking numbers here," another woman complains. "Is there any way we could get an average rent for a two-bedroom apartment?"

"Good question," Richman responds. At the lectern, he searches through his notes, looking up to announce, "Fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Chicago area, according to the Center for Social Welfare Policy and Law, is $692. That's for the city as a whole."

"Why don't we look at what the average family spends," a voice in the front says, "and then cut that by 10 percent."

"Why do that?" Richman asks.

"You don't want them to be better off on welfare than working," comes the response.

"Isn't this sort of the dilemma?" a woman asks. "We want to provide a decent lifestyle to people without jobs, but people who have a minimum-wage job aren't getting those opportunities."

"What are you going to do about that?" Richman asks her. "Social welfare," he continues, "used to be guided by the principle that people who aren't working shouldn't be paid higher than the lowest-paid worker. Yet you've got to create a condition of decency. You've got a problem."

Minutes later, Richman calls for a vote. Some hands go up boldly, others more hesitantly as he calls out the figures chalked up on the blackboard: $375. $450. $500. $550. $600. The "winner," barely, is $500.

Next, how much for food? "They have the time to go and find out where to get the best deal," says a woman in a baseball cap. "It's in their own best interest." For clothing? "We're assuming that these people are buying new clothes," a man says, suggesting that the family should buy only second-hand outfits: "That creates the shame and that gets the mother off welfare." Amid moans of dismay, hands wave furiously.

"We're back to something we talked about in the first class," Richman referees, "the ambivalence that we feel about people on aid. Along with helping, should there be an element of shame, stigma, punishment as an incentive to get them off welfare?"

Through personal expenditures, utilities, transportation, and furniture, the accounting continues into the next class session, each item argued back and forth as students try to be fair without being indulgent. A young man in a Hawaiian shirt, who's lowballed every other category, surprises the group by being "more lenient" when it comes to transportation -- "if the main goal is to save money by going out of the neighborhood to shop, and so that the kids can go to a better school," he clarifies.

When each point has been debated and voted, Richman adds up the allotments and announces the annual aid (sans medical help) the class has awarded the family: $14,100. "When you look at the numbers," he asks, "do you think you've been very generous, sort of generous, or strict?" The class decides on "sort of generous."

"In the eight years I've been doing this," Richman confides, "you are the strictest class ever -- by quite a lot." In past years, classes came within a thousand dollars of each other -- generally between $16,000 and $18,000.

"How about compared to actuality?" asks a young woman who's argued for holding the family to strict economies.

The number Richman reveals -- combining a cash subsidy and food stamps -- draws some gasps: $7,044. The figure is $4,956 less than the poverty level, and $3,056 less than something called the standard of need -- the amount that the state has calculated it should be paying such a family.

"How is that possible?" a student wants to know. Leaning forward at the lectern, Harold Richman navigates a complex web of federal and state laws and policies -- conflicts and compromises that recall his warning as the class constructed its own budget.

"Remember," he'd told the student- citizens, "you made this. You may have to defend it -- against the guy who is filling out his tax form, as well as the woman who is sitting on the streets with her bags and her child." -- M.R.Y.

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