Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Welfare and the Poorest of the Poor"

Peter Edelman on TANF -- must reading, I think, for those of you in SWK 6201. An excerpt:
. . . Nonetheless, the main message was to downsize the rolls, and downsize they did. The palpable result thirteen years later is the virtual disappearance in many states of cash assistance for low-income mothers with children, with caseloads going down by well over 90 percent. Overall, the rolls shrank from 14.3 million mothers (and a few fathers) and children in 1994 to under four million in 2007. In 1995, nine million of the 14.5 million children then poor were in families that received welfare. By 2006, only four million of the 12.8 million poor children were in families getting TANF. That the gap bespeaks a failure to respond to legitimate need seems obvious.

These are the techniques of radical reduction: shut the front door almost completely; staff the back door with the equivalent of a tough nightclub bouncer; and, in between, hassle applicants to the point where they just give up and go away.

At the front door many states just say no, evoking memories of the pre-1960s period, when unbridled discretion ruled. Some cloak the turndown with the euphemism of “diversion,” which means, “You look able-bodied. Go out and look for a job.”

At the back door there is sanctioning—kicking people off the rolls because they were late to a work assignment (no excuses for sick children, late buses, or car breakdowns) or didn’t show up for an appointment at the welfare office (no excuses for failure to receive notice of an appointment or inability to understand English). In some states multiple infractions of this sort can result, legally, in lifetime disqualification.

In between there are requirements to bring an entire dossier of documents in order to navigate the application maze, intrusive questions about the applicant’s private life, assignments to demeaning work programs that sometimes ask people to work without necessary protective equipment, regular and irregular summonses to come in for redetermination of eligibility, and much more. Many needy people refuse to undergo the indignities associated with asking for help.

Since the current recession began, it has become even more obvious that TANF is not responsive to the real level of need. The number of people receiving food stamps, to which there is a statutory right, now exceeds thirty-three million, while the number receiving TANF has remained stuck at around four million. The numbers have increased somewhat in some states in recent months, but even a 25 percent average increase nationwide would bring the total caseload up to something like five million. And there are states where an eligibility administrator will routinely approve an application for food stamps and just as routinely turn away the same person’s application for TANF. A sideshow barker might say, “Step right up, step right up. Only a nickel to see the incredible shrinking TANF program.

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