'The Worst I've Seen by Far': Budget Cuts Meet Poverty in the Heartland
For Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, the fact that Congress and statehouses across the country are pushing budgets that would further cut assistance for poor people is downright frightening.
“I’ve been doing this work for thirty years, and this is the worst I’ve seen it by far,” says Frech. “And when I say the worst, I mean the absolute worst.”
Frech says his clients are now “double and tripling up on housing” and “only surviving because they wait in long lines at food pantries.” They are forgoing medical treatment and trying to maintain “some old junk car” so they can “put in their fifteen or thirty hours—whatever they’re lucky enough to find—to meet their work requirement so they can continue to receive assistance.”
But they’re still not even close to achieving minimal security.
“People on our programs get all the cash and food stamps they’re going to get, meet their work requirements and still run out of food,” says Frech. “So we have to give food boxes out of our welfare department. That’s a first, and it’s absurd.”
Frech says when he began as a caseworker in 1973 it was far easier for Ohioans and citizens everywhere to get the help they needed.
“The presumption was if you were totally out of help everywhere else, you go on down to the welfare department, you sign up and you get help,” he says. “We’d give people a welfare check, food stamps, and they could find a place to live. It would certainly be humble—but people could have food on the table every day; they could survive.”
But the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform deal shredded that safety net. It created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which since 1935 had guaranteed cash welfare to poor families with kids. The reform deal also severely limited the funds available.
“Most people don’t realize that welfare reform froze the money for poor people at the 1995 level and has kept it there ever since,” says Frech. “With costs and demands increasing, there is far less money available for programs. And still, nobody is talking about putting one dime more into it.”
The block grant allowed states wide discretion in terms of eligibility, benefit levels and how the funds would be used. While Republicans and Democrats have touted caseload reductions as evidence of success, the reductions aren’t because of fewer poor families but because a smaller proportion of poor families are receiving benefits.
“States have implemented restrictive policies to reduce the number of families who are eligible for assistance,” says Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
According to Pavetti, in 1994-95 seventy-five families were receiving AFDC benefits for every 100 in poverty. By 2008-09, that number shrank to just twenty-eight families enrolled in TANF for every 100 in poverty. The impact is borne disproportionately by children.
“There are 14.8 million children living in families with below-poverty income, and only 3.4 million of those children are receiving TANF-funded benefits,” said Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC, a social policy research group, in recent testimony to Congress.
Many families were denied benefits for failing to meet rigid work requirements that don’t take into account an individual family’s circumstances. Research shows many likely dropped out because of barriers to work, including mental and physical impairments; substance abuse; domestic violence; low literacy or skill levels; learning disabilities; parenting a child with a disability; and housing, child care or transportation problems. TANF reauthorization in 2005 also made it more difficult for adults who wish to improve their job skills to count education or training toward their work requirement.
“There is no good justification for the limits TANF now places on job search or education and training,” said Berlin.
“We’re telling people to go get jobs, but when they try and get the education and training they need to be self-sufficient, we tell them that those types of good jobs aren’t for them,” says Melissa Boteach, manager of Half in Ten, a national campaign to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years.
Indeed a Rutgers University study found that nearly 60 percent of parents who leave state welfare-to-work programs that encourage training and education with a job are still employed one year later, compared with only 22 percent of parents who leave programs that discourage training and education.
“Contrary to what most people seem to believe,” says Frech, “what these folks want most of all is a good job. Their motivation to take care of the people they love is every bit as strong in them as it is in anyone else.”
For those families who do receive TANF benefits, the amount is paltry—less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line ($9,155 annually for a family of three) in all states, and less than 30 percent of the poverty line in over half the states.
“When you have kids that you know need food, need shelter, need help, and you intentionally only give them half of what you know they need—if we really cared about kids in this country we’d fix this problem,” says Frech.
Instead, Frech—who has testified at the Ohio General Assembly on every budget since 1979—has watched life grow increasingly difficult for poor people, with budget cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy passed on a bipartisan basis over the past decade.
“Both Congress and the Ohio General Assembly still have this bizarre notion that if we just channel enough money to rich folks they’re going to come down here to Athens, or Meigs or Vinton County, and invest money in jobs down here in Appalachia,” says Frech. “It’s been proven untrue year after year after year—and yet both parties keep selling it to us anyway.”
As a result, Frech’s department has been forced to cut services at precisely the time when the need is greatest. For example, a dental program that helped 150 clients per month was eliminated; a program helping 690 clients study and work at community college was cut to 500, and slots continue to decline; a summer employment program for teenagers and young adults had 138 participants but received zero funding this year, even with record youth unemployment rates; money to help people with fuel and automobile repairs so they could fulfill their TANF work requirement was also eliminated.
“If you’re living on $300 to $400 per month, you don’t have money to get your car fixed or pay for gasoline,” says Frech. “So these are people who literally have to take food out of their kids’ mouths in order to sweep the county garage and meet their work requirement. And that situation is going to get worse with the next round of budget cuts.”
Frech says he listens in disbelief as politician after politician—from state legislators to President Obama—claim to be “protecting the most vulnerable people, especially children” but support budgets that make the lives of poor people and kids harder.
“Things are just so much harsher now, the way we treat poor people,” says Frech. “It makes you wonder—who is going to champion their cause? When you keep your eyes open to how much people are hurting out there, there’s a lot of nights I don’t sleep.”