Hard Times USA

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

TANF doesn’t recognize the real world people live in.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

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 beenheavily 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 totalassets. 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.”

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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 waythrough 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.

3. Ohio: Diverting TANF Dollars to Anti-Choice Groups

Nobody likely anticipated that the cash assistance program would ever support anti-abortion groups, but that is exactly what is happening in Ohio. The Buckeye state, which received $777 million in TANF funding for this fiscal year, is directing some of those funds to crisis pregnancy centers.

This provision was added to the house version of the state budget and was sustained in the final version. According to NARAL Pro Choice Ohio and Innovation Ohio, CPCs have a history of giving women misinformation. “Rather than spending TANF dollars to help families, Republicans are diverting money to their ideological agenda and misinformation,” said Jenny Brodie, head of Innovation Ohio’s Women’s Watch program.

While it is unknown exactly how much of Ohio’s $777 million TANF allocation will go to CPCs, Brodie says that Ohio authorizes the director of the state Department of Job and Family Services to devote TANF dollars to CPCs. “He could channel a lot into CPCs if he wanted,” Brodie said.

4. North Carolina, Texas: Cuts and Restrictions on Long-term Unemployment Benefits

Assistance programs like TANF work best when the economy is also doing well, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. However, attacks on welfare are coming alongside attacks on long term unemployment benefits. Texas, mentioned above as requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, also enacted drug testing as a condition for unemployment insurance benefits.

And North Carolina cut its long-term unemployment benefits completely. When states like North Carolina cut their long-term unemployment benefits, it's a double whammy. North Carolina currently has a 8.8 percent employment rate but recently removed itself from eligibility for $700 million in federal long-term unemployment assistance for its states’ poor.

As Paul Krugman pointed out in the New York Times earlier this summer, “In general, modern conservatives believe that our national character is being sapped by social programs that, in thememorable words of Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, “turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency. More specifically, they believe that unemployment insurance encourages jobless workers to stay unemployed, rather than taking available jobs.”

5. All states: Spending on Cash Assistance Insufficient

Per the block grant structure, the amount of TANF dollars states receive is fixed and does not increase even during economic downturns. In addition, many states actually cut TANF benefits after the Great Recession. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has pointed out, TANF recipients are provided very modest cash assistance 2011, a family of three received $428 per month in the median TANF state; in 14 states, such a family received less than $300. Children are impacted most by the decline in TANF spending as well as other programs, as one study by the US Department of Agriculture found, “That average total inflation-adjusted household benefits from all programs examined declined. The decline was largest among children in the poorest households.”

A Few States That Are Getting it Right: Nebraska, California, Minnesota, Illinois

Having said all of this, there are a handful of states that are making changes to TANF this year that can aid the poor -- even some traditionally “red” states. For example, in light of current challenges of finding and keeping jobs, Nebraska passed legislation enabling TANF recipients to meet their work requirements by pursuing a GED or high school diploma. California and Minnesota voted to slightly increase welfare recipients’ monthly cash allowance. And the Illinois state legislature passed a bill that removes the $3,000 asset limit eligibility requirements for TANF applicants and recipients, broadening the number of poor people who may qualify.

As we head into the 18th year of welfare reform, the power of states in allocating welfare dollars will remain steadfast. What they choose to do with that power will continue to depend solely upon the commitments and philosophy of state leadership.

Sheila Bapat is an attorney and writer covering economic and gender justice. Her work has appeared in Salon, Reuters, Slate, AlterNet, Truthout, and many other publications.