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5 Ways States Are Screwing the Poor By Making Welfare Almost Impossible to Get

TANF doesn’t recognize the real world people live in.
 
 
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When President Clinton signed welfare reform into law 17 years ago this month, he said, “[W]e are ending welfare as we know it, but I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended but for what it began.”

One of the most critical “beginnings” welfare reform ignited was an increase in power among states in allocating welfare cash assistance. Welfare cash assistance -- also known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) -- has been heavily criticized by progressives in part because it is structured as a block grant, allowing states broad freedom to allocate the federal funds they receive as they see fit. (By contrast, the welfare cash assistance program that came before TANF was a federal-state partnership.)

As a result, conservative state leaders have long tried to place stringent guidelines on TANF recipients or to divert TANF dollars to programs wholly unrelated to poverty alleviation. This has continued even after the Great Recession, and even while those who qualify for TANF generally do not have more than a maximum of $2,000 in total assets. As Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator for CLASP (Center For Law and Social Policy) told AlterNet, “Some states' TANF policies are driven by this ideology that people are poor because they’re making bad choices, that they’re bad people, and thus we need to force them to shape up. It doesn’t recognize the real world people live in.”

This 17th year of TANF has brought in a wave of states bills hoping to establish tougher guidelines for welfare recipients as well as plans to divert welfare funds to agencies that do not help struggling families -- as well as a handful of states that are trying to do better.

1. Tennessee: Welfare Checks Contingent on Poor Students’ Grades

In April, Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) proposed “reducing TANF payments for parents or caretakers of TANF recipients whose children fail to maintain satisfactory progress in school.” Currently Sen. Campfield’s bill, HB 261, is still making its way through Tennessee’s legislature, having recently been assigned to the Ways and Means Subcommittee on July 11. Even though Tennessee's legislative session ended April 19, Sen. Campfield told AlterNet the Tennessee legislature would have a special committee to review his proposal this summer.

The problem with a bill like this is that it is only concerned with academically struggling children whose parents are poor. As Melissa Harris-Perry noted in April, “How about a $1,500 tax penalty for middle- and upper-income parents who shirk their responsibilities? Little Billy brings home a C and Daddy the Doctor has to pay more on his tax bill?” Campfield’s legislation could subject poor parents on welfare -- many of whom are mothers -- to the added scrutiny and shame already heaped on the poor. Meanwhile, the state’s welfare benefit is $186 per month, and has remained at this level since 1996.

2. Texas and Kansas: Drug Testing

This year, Kansas and Texas enacted suspicion-based drug testing for welfare recipients.

Texas’ bill, SB11, requires adults applying for financial assistance benefits for themself or their child to submit to a controlled substance use screening assessment to establish the applicant’s or the child’s eligibility for the benefits”

Kansas’s bill is similar. These bills persist despite evidence that such testing is ineffective and stigmatizes the poor. CLASP has found that such policy assumes that applicants for public benefits are poor because of their bad choices, such as substance abuse. CLASP also notes that such testing can cost states more money than they would save by denying people benefits.

 
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