Welcome to the Cruel World

Welfare reform has dramatically changed public housing in Miami-Dade County. Personal responsibility is the new refrain, and zero tolerance is the law.

Bell makes the most of whatever bounty life may bring. The beer takes the edge off her worries. Later she has promised to dig some fish out of the freezer and fry it up for the neighbors. They'll each donate a couple of bucks to the pot. In that way Bell will make it through the days that remain until the next check arrives.

One day soon Bell hopes she'll finally receive a settlement from the bus accident and be able to buy her own house. It will be a blessing come from bad, but a blessing that will get her out of public housing. If she isn't kicked out first.

Careful where you toss that wrapper, Junior: Fifteen bucks for littering, and stay off the grass while you're at it
Steve Satterwhite
Careful where you toss that wrapper, Junior: Fifteen bucks for littering, and stay off the grass while you're at it

Public housing is a different beast today than it was when President Bill Clinton first ran for office. In the early Nineties the federal government seemed to have lost the war on poverty to a hormone-driven gangsta army. Poor black neighborhoods, and the public-housing projects at their hearts, were converted to drive-through money factories with drugs as the sole product. America shopped there in spite of lurid news reports of turf wars fought with AK-47s, innocent children killed by stray bullets, and crack-crazed criminals willing to murder for ten bucks. News accounts of life in the projects often featured mothers and grandmothers afraid to let their young ones venture outdoors.

But it wasn't only the drug epidemic that had America wringing its hands. The national mood turned sour on welfare and its recipients as well. The system began to be viewed as a first cause in the perpetuation of poverty. It was criticized for creating a culture of dependency passed from one generation to the next. The "welfare Mom," supposedly having baby after baby to collect extra aid or trading food stamps for crack cocaine, became the symbol of everything wrong with government programs. Mothers were accused of raising a generation of girls who, following Mom's example, dreamed no further than their own government-subsidized apartment and a gaggle of children for income security. The boys, according to the stereotype, were allowed to run wild. And with no daddy around to provide a different example of manhood, they looked to the gold-draped drug dandies for cues about what it meant.

Clinton capitalized on this shift in thinking during his 1992 campaign with a declaration that, if elected, he would "change welfare as we know it." The climate was right. From the problems within public housing, the rot went all the way up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an agency accused of squandering hundreds of millions of dollars. The Republican-led Congress held the president to his promises by forcing through a sweeping welfare reform act that went beyond what even he had proposed in 1994. Pressured into compromise, Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. Thus a sweeping experiment in social engineering was begun that would change radically the way the nation had helped its poor for the past 60 years.

The goal was to end lifetime reliance on government aid and foster individual responsibility and self-initiative, with a prod from the government if necessary. The reform act made public assistance a temporary stop-gap measure, put limits on the number of years one could draw a welfare check, and gave current recipients a deadline to either get a job or be cut from the rolls. Ending the long-standing entitlement to cash benefits was the most dramatic shift in policy, and the results can be measured in millions of dollars saved and plummeting welfare rolls. But that was only one prong of reform. Welfare-to-work also brought a raft of regulations in its wake aimed at making tenants accountable for their living conditions. Rules already on the books had new purpose when viewed through the rubric of responsibility

To enlist families in the drive to clean drugs out of public housing, Clinton instituted a "one strike, you're out" policy in 1996 that gave housing agencies the authority to evict residents if any family member were charged with a drug offense or violent crime -- even if those charges did not result in a conviction. Because the arrest of her son Rollie could lead to Bell's eviction from public housing, she removed his name from the lease as resident of the family apartment. Her neighbor Eliza Johnson did the same following her son's arrest.

The Miami-Dade Housing Agency, a county department funded by the federal government, also began aggressively scrutinizing the behavior of tenants and levying fines when that behavior was found wanting at the public-housing projects it owns and operates. MDHA had long held the power to fine residents for infractions of rules and charge them for damages to their units, says public information officer Sherra McLeod. But in the past four years, housing-project managers began to enforce those policies with newfound ardor as the climate in public housing shifted and pressure increased to manage the complexes more efficiently.

Maintenance fees and fines collected from residents of Perrine Gardens almost doubled from 1995, when the complex reported collecting $6666 in fees, to 1999, when the complex collected $12,136, according to figures supplied by MDHA. The files of several residents show that tenants now are being charged for maintenance work that was performed for free in the mid-Nineties.

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