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This Week in Poverty: Revealing the Real TANF | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: Revealing the Real TANF


(Flickr/USDA)

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.

“TANF does provide an important safety net for unemployed or underemployed families, but it reaches very few families in need, and when it does reach families they get a very small amount of cash,” said Pavetti. 

Pavetti also pointed out that in 1995—the year before TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—AFDC kept over 2.2 million poor children from falling into deep poverty (defined as below half the poverty line, or less than $11,500 for a family of four today). This means that AFDC successfully lifted over 62 percent of poor children out of deep poverty. But in 2005, TANF lifted just 21 percent of children who would otherwise be in deep poverty, or just 650,000 kids. TANF has directly contributed to the number of people living in deep poverty rising from 12.6 million in 2000, to 20.4 million people today. This includes over 15 million women and children (and nearly 10 percent of all children). 

“So we have a lot less effect [today] on families and [are not] helping them deal with very, very deep poverty,” said Pavetti.

But it was her report on TANF as an employment program that I found most striking. She demonstrated that the (mostly) conservative claim that the TANF work requirement led to huge employment gains for single mothers is bogus. It’s true that in the late ’90s there was a significant increase in employment, but that’s largely because there was a booming economy. Those gains began to decline in 2000 and have vanished today.

“[By] 2011, we basically had lost all of what we had gained,” said Pavetti. “We’re back to where we were in 1996—actually a little bit below it.” Indeed in 1996, 64 percent of single mothers with a high school education or less were working, and in 2011 it was 62 percent. 

Pavetti said that the “more compelling story” is told by comparing the employment of single mothers with and without a high school degree, to single women with similar educational backgrounds and no children. In the early 1990s, there was a significant gap between the two groups. But since 2000, the likelihood of employment for a single mother with kids is almost exactly the same as it is for a single woman without kids. The more significant determining factor for earned income is level of education. 

“This is not a story about parent responsibility,” said Pavetti.“It’s really about what are the labor market opportunities for individuals who have a high school or less than high school [education].”

Pavetti suggested that TANF needs to be reformed to allow parents more educational opportunities so that they can advance in the labor market. Currently, the federal statute is very rigid about which kinds of education and training activities can be counted towards work requirements for TANF participants. She also suggested a renewed focus on a subsidized jobs program—like the one that placed 260,000 unemployed low-income parents and young adults in jobs during the recession. The program enjoyed bipartisan support from governors before House Republicans allowed it to expire. (Many people waged a strong fight to save the program, including Pavetti, who maintained a sort of vigil through her blog, counting down the days until it was scheduled to “die.”)

Mcghee talked about the powerful role that the subsidized jobs program played in her life. She said she was “thankful” for a medical assistance/medical billing work-training program that she enrolled in through TANF.  But when she graduated, prospective employers wanted her to have at least one year of experience in her field. So she found herself instead applying for fast food and other low-wage jobs for which she was then overqualified—what witnesses call “graduation to the same poor wages.”

The federally subsidized Way to Work program allowed her to work for the Coalition Against Hunger doing SNAP outreach, and educating other mothers and families about nutrition. With that work experience, Mcghee was able to obtain a job as a nutrition assistant for the Philadelphia WIC program, where she has been employed for two years.

“The Way to Work program gave us the job readiness that we needed to further our employment,” she said.

Witnesses to Hunger founder Dr. Mariana Chilton—an associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch—talked about the tension between education and work for mothers in poverty.

“It’s a real struggle,” she said. “It’s what the women in Witnesses to Hunger call ‘the monster under the bed.’  Because they know they need to improve their education in order to make a better wage. But as [one] Witness said, ‘What am I supposed to do? Tell my kids I can’t feed you for two years—just wait while I go to school and then I’ll feed you?’ So there’s a real Catch-22 between advancing education to get the better job, or going into work and getting stuck in this dead-end job. We need to find some better ways to work with this system.”

Dr. Kristin Seefeldt, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan and author of Working After Welfare, has been interviewing women in poverty and deep poverty for decades. She also talked about the difficulties women participating in TANF encounter as they try to further their education. In the late 1990s, she said these women were able to find stable jobs with decent wages—enough to get by—and could plan on waiting until their children were a little older before they returned to school.

“Now it’s different,” said Seefeldt. “That sort of choice is no longer there—the jobs aren’t giving that many hours, the wages aren’t enough to support [a family]. So either women get trapped [in low-wage work].”

Because they can’t obtain the education they need through TANF, many end up taking on huge debt while working multiple jobs. Seefeldt described a woman determined to get her Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) degree who now works two jobs—because the hours of her “main job” were cut back.

“So she sits beside rehab patients in the middle of the night and tries to do her homework then, and she has another job during the day,” said Seefeldt. “And her kids are either in the car with her—driving from one place to the next—or they’re at a relative’s house. All of them are almost never home. That’s going to go on for another couple years, and I don’t think that’s a situation anyone wants to be in.”

Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman—director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy—moderated the discussion and noted that some of the program’s resistance to education is found in TANF’s original underpinnings.

“At the very beginning, the philosophy of TANF was work first,” he said. “The premise was that job training doesn’t work, and that letting somebody get educated first before they go to work is wrong—they should get experience and that’s the path to later success. That’s an over-simplification, but there are many states out there that still buy into that attitude.”

Deborah Schlick, project manager of Transitions to Economic Stability at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said that the “assumption that we need to push people into work” is unfounded. She reported that 80 percent of the parents in Minnesota who turn to TANF for assistance have been in the state’s labor market, and 50 percent are “coming straight out of a job.” She also noted that only 40 percent of the state’s workers are able to collect unemployment insurance, so very low-wage workers with children are forced to turn to TANF. Schlick suggested that to improve TANF she would “start with an assumption that poverty is a measure of circumstances, it’s not a measure of the person. I think misunderstanding that has gotten us in a lot of trouble.”

You go to a discussion like this and you get a sense of just how deep the knowledge is—sixteen years after TANF was created—about why the program doesn’t work and how it could easily be improved. And yet, Republicans and some Democrats continue to get away with pushing the notion that it is a success. 

I’m not sure what it will take to reveal the truth to Americans about how this program is failing low-wage working families and families that are unable to work. But I sure hope I won’t be writing another version of this article six months from now. Instead, I’d like to write about a creative, coordinated campaign by advocates and families across the country that is focused on revealing the real TANF, and that refuses to be distracted by the same old lies told by the same old people. 

A Reader’s Comment on “Time to Take on Concentrated Poverty and Education

Missing from This Week in Poverty’s list of projects designed to alleviate the effects of concentrated poverty are projects aimed at providing more access to books. There is very consistent evidence showing that:

1. children of poverty living in high-poverty areas have little access to books at home, at school, or in their communities

2. more access to interesting, comprehensible reading material means better development of literacy

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

3. providing access to books increases literacy development

The major source of books for children of poverty is the library. Studies done in the US and internationally show that library quality (more books, more staffing, presence of a credentialed librarian) is associated with reading proficiency.

Recent research suggests that the presence of a library can cancel the negative effect of poverty on reading achievement.

Improving school and public libraries and supporting librarians, in high poverty areas, is a quick and easy way to improve the quality of life and school performance. For a fraction of what we are paying for tougher standards and massive testing, every child in the US could have access to an excellent supply of books and other reading material.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

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Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman

Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)

Old, Female and Homeless,” Rose Aguilar

American Winter: a documentary about a country in search of its promise,” [TRAILER]

Aspen Institute Holds Discussion on Domestic Workers,” Aspen Institute [VIDEO]

Policy Wonks Push for Investment in ‘Advanced’ Manufacturing,” Jake Blumgart 

Murder and segregation: till death do they part,” Steve Bogira

Pushing Arne Duncan to Fast-Forward,” James Cersonsky

Meeting the Challenge: The Dynamics of Poverty in Connecticut,” Connecticut Association for Community Action et al.

Twenty Years after the FMLA, Our Family Leave Policies Are Dragging Us Down,” Bryce Covert

High Rates of Child Poverty Hidden in Smaller Metro Areas,” Sara Edelstein

The Hidden Prosperity of the Poor,” Thomas B. Edsall

How earnings for Latino immigrants vary in the top 100 US metros,” Maria Enchautegui

Advancing Healthy Housing: A Strategy for Action,” Federal Healthy Homes Work Group

How Effective Is the Safety Net?” Robert Greenstein

Jessica Bartholow and anonymous Calworks recipient discuss Calworks,” The Michelle Jackson Show

Eric Cantor wants to make your life work. Here’s how.” Ezra Klein

Lost Votes, Problem Ballots, Long Waits? Flaws are Widespread, Study Finds,” Adam Liptak

US Rep. Jim McGovern kicks off ‘End Hunger Now’ Speech Series,” Rep. McGovern [SPEECH]

School-Based Health Centers Redefine Health for Kids and Teens,” National Assembly on School-Based Healthcare

A Look at the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2012 Family and Medical Leave Act Employee and Worksite Surveys,” National Partnership for Women & Families 

What Federal Budget Sequestration Will Mean for Child Care and Head Start,” NWLC & CLASP

Abercrombie’s State-of-the-State agenda includes plans for minimum wage hike,” Pacific Business News

As Corbett balks at expanding Medicaid, millions suffer,” Philadelphia Daily News

Equity and the Future of the American Economy,” PolicyLink and SEIU [VIDEO]

In Hard Economy for All Ages, Older Isn’t Better… It’s Brutal,” Catherine Rampell

Memo to Congress: To bring down the deficit, focus on jobs,” Greg Sargent

Missing the mark on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy at MLK Avenue,” Michael Shank

Searching for affordable housing in Anacostia: For some, that’s asking too much,” Michael Shank 

Schools Can't Do It Alone: Why 'Doubly Disadvantaged' Kids Continue to Struggle Academically,” Paul Thomas

Jews fight for food stamps,” Ryan Torok

America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model,” Sarah Treuhaft, Angela Glover Blackwell, Manuel Pastor

Low-income Pregnant Women in Rural Areas Experience High Levels of Stress; Mothers’ and Babies’ Health at Risk,” University of Missouri researchers 

The ‘painfully undiscussed’ problem of poverty in America,” Alex Wagner [VIDEO]

Should DC Residents Need a Lawyer to Access Emergency Shelter?” Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

More states consider welfare drug testing bills,” Morgan Whitaker

Some Notable Studies (summaries written by James Cersonsky)

Choice in the Real World: The use of family, friend and neighbor child care by single Chicago mothers working nontraditional schedules,” Illinois Action for Children. With limited access to childcare and nontraditional or erratic work hours, many mothers rely on Family, Friend or Neighbor childcare, or FFN. This report interviews fifty single mothers in Chicago about work-life balance and patterns in childcare. The authors find that 58 percent of mothers rely on a single FFN, while the remainder use multiple FFNs or a combination of FFNs and childcare centers or home care. While most mothers preferred to keep their current arrangement, some wanted changes—most commonly, more affordable care, other children for their kids to socialize with and settings with longer hours. The authors propose a variety of policies: increased child care options, government support for FFN care, support for emergency care, support for kids’ homework needs and parent-friendly employer practices.

Community Action Agencies: Strengthening Ohio’s Communities,” Ohio University and the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies. Community action agencies (CAAs) aim to alleviate poverty while empowering low-income families. This report, co-produced by Ohio’s consortium of CAAs, summarizes the benefits of CAAs for Ohio residents. Among the findings, Ohio CAAs invest nearly 40 percent of their federal funding toward community economic development projects like workforce training; in 2010, 94 percent of this portion was geared toward job development; 34 percent of CAA funds go toward programs designed to maintain workforce productivity; and 50 percent goes to infrastructure-related projects.

Citizen Gain: The Economic Benefits of Naturalization for Immigrants and the Economy,” Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins, Center for the Study of Immigration Integration. Immigrant naturalization is—or should be—based on basic justice for immigrants. As this study shows, naturalization also has measurable economic benefits for immigrants. Using data from the 2010 American Community Survey, the authors estimate an 8 to 11 percent gain in individual earnings for naturalized immigrants—and, over the next decade, an aggregate wage boost of $40 billion. The impact of naturalized status cross-cuts educational attainment: naturalized immigrants earn more than non-naturalized immigrants at every education level. Some of these gains might not be seen right away; earned income returns tend to rise the longer someone has been naturalized. So why, the authors ask, does this “citizen gain” go unrealized? Part of it has to do with financial barriers that immigrants face like required medical screenings. Fortunately, there’s a lot of work that groups and government agencies can do—and have done—to ease these barriers.

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing at HUD: A First Term Report Card,” Poverty & Race Research Action Council. In this report on Department of Housing and Urban Development activity over the last four years, the authors review HUD’s racial integration efforts in nine programs, ranging from its strategic plan to specific initiatives like the Moving to Work program. It concludes, “A flurry of positive activity inside the agency during the first term has not yet been reflected in final program regulations or guidance, even though some of this work has been underway for years.”

Among the report’s findings: HUD hasn’t taken significant action to remove barriers to fair (i.e., non-discriminatory) housing choice under Section 8, despite finally examining these barriers; it has treated fair housing as a policy goal rather than a legal obligation; it has delayed release of “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rules, despite significant public engagement; it hasn’t come through with clear enough implementation for the Sustainable Communities Initiative; and its support for housing mobility programs has been limited to three cities. 

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children.  Poorest age group in country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Low-income families that were working in 2011: More than 70 percent.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.

People experiencing homelessness on any given night, US: 643,067.

Children living on streets or in homeless shelters, US: 1.6 million, 42 percent under age 6.

Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.

Quote of the week

“The good news story is that when you get low unemployment it disproportionately benefits people at the bottom—African-American unemployment and African-American teens. African-American unemployment tends to be roughly twice the overall avergage. African-American teen unemployment tends to be around six times the overall average. In 2000, we got the unemployment level down to 4 percent—the unemployment rate for African Americans was about 6.7 percent. Last year we were over 13 percent for the African American unemployment rate…. and for African American teens we were somewhere around 37 percent—a real disaster story. Now no one’s going to celebrate that it was 23 percent in 2000, but that’s a huge, huge difference. The percentage of each group that has poverty level wages [also] hugely changes when you get to a situation of low unemployment. The bad news: this is not on the political agenda in Washington. The political agenda in Washington is cutting the budget deficit.”
                                                         —Dean Baker, co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research,
                                                                     at Equity and the Future of the American Economy conference.

James Cersonsky wrote the “Notable studies” summaries and co-wrote the “Clips” section in this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company.  You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

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