I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: the American people have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program created in 1996. Both parties tout it as a “success,” but if you look at the numbers—and at the real lives of people who turn to the program for assistance when they are out of work—the picture is bleak, to say the least.
This March, TANF is set to expire and will need to be renewed. It will mark yet another opportunity to have an honest, fact-based discussion about the program. So it was good to see a top-notch panel of experts at the Center for American Progress (CAP) yesterday talking about TANF—“Learning from the Past, Planning for the Future.”
The speakers included Witnesses to Hunger member Shearine Mcghee, a former participant in the successful TANF subsidized jobs program that was created through the Recovery Act but allowed to expire in 2010. Kudos to CAP for having as one of the experts on poverty someone who has actually lived in poverty—it’s way too rare in this town, especially in Congress where public policy decisions are made without testimony from the people who are most affected.
Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), opened the discussion with an overview of how the program has performed as a safety net and in boosting employment—since the promise of TANF was that it would serve both purposes and thereby create pathways to self-sufficiency.
Her top line statistic in assessing TANF as a safety net—a statistic that I wish every member of Congress and every progressive activist had on his or her bulletin board, and that the mainstream press would deign to report every now and then—is this: Before welfare reform, for every 100 families with children in poverty in the US, 68 were able to access cash assistance; now that number has fallen to just 27 (and Pavetti thinks it will be even lower when the 2012 data comes in). The benefit for those lucky twenty-seven families who are able to access it is less than 30 percent of the poverty line in most states—so less than $5,400 annually for a family of three.