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How Reforming Welfare and Gutting Programs for the Poor Became a Bipartisan Platform

The real scandal is that both parties have made kicking the poor a prerequisite to winning office.

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The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.

Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.

The lost opportunities for children threatened with dire poverty are immeasurable. 2005 data reveal that TANF  gave a crucial lift to about one in five of the children who "otherwise would have been in deep poverty." But a decade earlier, AFDC protected about three in five of the kids who would otherwise face that extreme hardship . One main reason is simply that fewer families receive benefits, but another problem is that TANF’s block-grant structure ensures that funding levels will stay locked and erode due to inflation. CBPP points out that “States receive 30 percent less in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars than they did in 1997, a year when the unemployment rate averaged just 4.9 percent.” 

With bipartisan support, welfare reform "worked" like a neoliberal bulldozer into TANF, one that the Romney-Ryan ticket  now wants to plow into other programs like Medicare

Can TANF be fixed? Though state governments and the White House generally remain devoted to the welfare-to-work concept, revising the work requirements might ease the burden. LaDonna Pavetti, an analyst of Family Income Support Policy at the CBPP, says, “The problem is with how the work requirements are defined and how states’ performance is measured,” and broadening the definitions of what qualifies as “workforce participation” would make it easier to meet the participation rate requirements. Otherwise, as Pavetti  testified at a congressional hearing last year, "States often gear engagement with participants toward meeting the work rates first and foremost, and may try only secondarily to meet the actual work-related needs of families they are serving.” 

That says a lot about the perverse motives that drive dehumanizing welfare policies. The political class laments how poor people lack incentives to be self-sufficient, while policymakers receive accolades for "reforms" that attack the most vulnerable.

Michelle Chen writes for The Nation. 

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