This is the fourth post in TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues and lays out the questions they want President Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first posts here, here and here.
When Tim Casey was 6 years old, his father was committed to a psychiatric hospital. His mother suddenly found herself alone with four kids.
“For the next several years we survived on welfare,” Casey tells me. “And I learned from personal experience how inadequate the welfare system was, and how inhumanely it was administered. I had a real interest as I grew older in trying to do something about that.”
That interest resulted in Casey doing antipoverty work for the past thirty-five years—first in legal aid where he focused on welfare issues, and then coordinating the New York City Welfare Reform Network, where he advocated for adequate and just welfare policies at the city, state and federal levels.
Today, he serves as a senior staff attorney for Legal Momentum, the oldest organization advocating on behalf of the legal rights of women and girls in the United States. He came to the organization in 2001 because it had always defined poverty as “a women’s issue” and was somewhat ahead of the game in that regard.
“There is often a failure to recognize that the poverty rate for women has always been much higher than it is for men,” says Casey. “And instead of proposing policies to address the gender poverty gap, women are blamed, told that they should marry or that they shouldn’t have kids. What we should be doing is looking at structural policies in the US that result in higher poverty rates for both women and men as compared to other high-income countries.”
Casey says those structural problems include the lack of a nationally mandated minimum benefit level for cash assistance (TANF)—instead it’s left to the discretion of states, so that we literally have fifty different systems; the percentage of workers employed in low-wage jobs is much higher than in other high-income countries; and there is an absence of subsidized childcare compared to peer countries as well—a particularly difficult barrier for single mothers in the United States who want to work. (Federal assistance for childcare currently reaches about one in seven of those who are eligible.)