“A partisan disgrace,” declared Speaker John Boehner.

“President Obama now wants to strip the established work requirements from welfare,” Governor Mitt Romney charged.

“The end of welfare reform as we know it,” warned Robert “You Aren’t Poor If You Have Air Conditioning” Rector, of the Heritage Foundation.

The source of all of this consternation?

A memo from Health and Human Services (HHS) announcing that it will “allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.… The Secretary is interested in using her authority to approve waiver demonstrations to challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment.”

In short, let states explore new ways to get better results from their efforts to employ low-income people in good jobs.

Sound familiar? Giving states more flexibility to run their Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs? The notion that local folks might have some of the best ideas on how to help people in their jurisdictions?

It’s straight out of the Republican playbook. Only this time around the proposal is from a Democratic Administration, so suddenly it’s not kosher.

The fact is that in 2005 Governor Romney and twenty-eight other Republican governors wrote a letter requesting more “flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations,” including “increased waiver authority.” Indeed the New York Times reports that two of the first five states to express interest in the new waiver policy—Utah and Nevada—have Republican Governors.

“It’s really unfortunate that politics have totally overtaken this in Washington,” Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), told me. “This is an area where there is actually not that much disagreement that TANF programs should be focused on the best ways to help people prepare for, find and keep jobs.”

I asked Schott to walk me through exactly what these waivers would do, because deciphering this stuff is kind of like settling down to a good novel written in legalese.

Currently, much of what a state does in administering TANF is driven by an effort to meet a target “work participation rate”—which usually means having more than 50 percent of its TANF recipients (including 90 percent of two-parent families) working thirty hours per week. If a state doesn’t meet that target rate, it can face steep fines from the federal government, as we are currently seeing in Ohio.

As a result, states aren’t necessarily as motivated by a desire to connect families to good, sustainable employment as much as they are looking simply to move people into activities that fulfill the work participation requirement.

For example, maybe someone is steered into a job-training program with no job (or a very low-wage job) on the other end; and then the individual repeats that program with the same disappointing result. Or maybe the person performs a “community service” with no wage and no prospects for advancement—like sweeping the county garage, or cleaning toilets in an office building, or filing papers for a non-profit.

“Currently it’s all about whether an individual is participating in certain activities for a certain number of hours,” said Schott. “Whether that’s the right activity or an effective activity to find and keep a good job is largely irrelevant.”

Schott said that a waiver might allow a state to decide, for example, that it’s a priority for TANF recipients to obtain a GED, or to complete two years of post-secondary or vocational education.

“A state could decide that a single parent working twenty hours, plus taking care of a kid, plus going to school, is going to interfere with her ability to be successful as a parent and a worker in the economy,” said Schott. “So it could request that these parents be permitted to go to school full-time and have that count towards the required work participation rate.”

Other waiver possibilities outlined in the memo include strategies to serve people with disabilities more effectively (the employment rate for people with disabilities in 2010 was a stunning 18.6 percent); and counting people in subsidized jobs towards meeting a state’s work participation rate.

Any waiver is subject to meeting “interim performance targets” and a “federally approved evaluation.” In other words, the pilot projects have to demonstrate that they are improving employment outcomes for low-income people in order to continue.

Republicans in the House and Senate have already introduced bills that would deny HHS waiver authority. What is striking about this overreaction isn’t just GOP leaders’ hypocrisy on the issue of allowing states more flexibility, but that they went apoplectic over some pretty modest reforms—reforms that are focused on jobs and measurable outcomes. Congress has put off TANF reauthorization for a couple of years running now, but at some point—I’m guessing in 2013—it won’t be able to ignore that obligation any longer.

Can you imagine the outcry if there were good, aggressive reforms offered by Democrats—the kind found in Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s RISE Act? Among the smart changes Moore calls for are: adjusting each state’s block grant for inflation so it’s no longer frozen at 1996 funding levels, unchanged for the past 16 years; allowing education and job training to count towards work requirements; providing childcare for all work-eligible parents; and prohibiting time limits of less than 60 months.

Now that would indeed be the end of welfare reform as we know it. Or at least the end of some of its most egregious failures—and the beginning of a system with the interests of poor people at its heart.

The Real Deal on VAWA

“The House leadership’s Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) agenda seems to be much like its so-called economic agenda: it harms those who are weakest and those who need these programs the most.”

That’s how Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for government relations at Legal Momentum—the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund for women and girls—explains the flawed House VAWA bill and Speaker John Boehner’s refusal to reconcile it with a stronger, bipartisan Senate version.

The Senate bill—championed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Senator Mike Crapo—passed with sixty-eight votes, including fifteen Republicans; the House bill passed along a party-line vote with twenty-three Republicans voting against it.

The Senate bill includes new protections for Native American women by allowing tribal court systems to prosecute domestic violence abusers—whether the abuser is native or not. Currently, most sexual assaults and domestic violence crimes on Native lands go unpunished, particularly by non-Native abusers.

“Indian country is the poorest of the poor, however you slice it, and Native women are more victimized than any other group of women in the country,” says Jacobs.

In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday, Senator Patty Murray noted, “One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, two in five of them [are] victims of domestic violence, and they are killed at ten times the rate of the national average.”

The Senate bill also ensures that special visas remain available to immigrant women who report abuse and cooperate with law enforcement; extends protections to the LGBT community; and offers better protection for college students who face domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It also provides resources to help ensure that underserved populations—such as communities of color, the elderly, people in rural areas, people with disabilities, and others—have access to services.

Rather than proceed to reconcile the bills—with a House bill that is difficult to defend and lacking in bipartisan support—Speaker Boehner is hiding behind a procedural excuse known as a “blue slip” issue. As a New York Times editorial describes, “The Senate bill imposes a fee to pay for special visas that go to immigrant victims of domestic abuse. This runs afoul of the rule that revenue-raising measures must begin in the House.”

“Speaker Boehner is sitting there with his arms folded pretending that he can’t solve the very same problem that he did in fact solve in order to move the transportation bill,” says Jacobs. “He merely chooses not to solve it now so that he can avoid passing a bill which protects all victims regardless of immigration status, sexual orientation or anything else.”

Don’t just take Jacobs’ word for it. Five Republican Representatives wrote a letter to Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging them “to solve the blue slip problem as effectively as you did with the Transportation Bill.” The GOP Congressmen also called for the final bill to include the stronger Senate protections.

“We cannot allow VAWA to become another victim of election-year gridlock,” said Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL). “A strong, bicameral compromise can and should protect all victims of violence. And these recommendations reflect years of input from our volunteers and counselors on the front lines, fighting domestic violence in communities across the country.”

Time is running out. Congress is scheduled to recess next Thursday and doesn’t have too many workdays in September either. After that, it’s all campaigning, all the time.

“Yesterday we sent a letter from over 600 organizations to the House and Senate leadership urging them to complete their work on VAWA, but we still need people’s help,” says Jacobs. “Call your Senators and Representatives, tell them to finish the job before they go home. We need the improvements in the VAWA bills to become law. Survivors of domestic and sexual violence, dating violence and sexual assault, are relying on us to help get this bill out of Congress and onto the President’s desk.”

Notable Studies

US poverty rates higher, Safety Net Weaker, Than in Peer Countries, Elise Gould and Hilary Wething, Economic Policy Institute. This report finds that among similarly developed countries, the United States stands out as the country with the highest poverty rate and one of the lowest levels of social expenditures.

“The relatively low social expenditures in the United States partially explains the high poverty rate,” said Gould. “When it comes to alleviating the effects of poverty, the U.S. could learn from its peers.”

Some of the major findings: Despite the relatively high earnings at the top of the US income scale, inequality in the United States is so severe that low-earning US workers are actually worse off than low-earning workers in all but seven peer countries; more than one in five children in the US lived in poverty—this level is over two times higher than the peer-country average of 9.8 percent; the average peer countries’ tax and transfer programs achieves a poverty-rate reduction of 17.4 percentage points—an effect nearly two times greater than that produced by such programs in the United States.

Racial and Ethnic Differences in Receipt of Unemployment Insurance Benefits During the Great Recession,” Austin Nichols and Margaret Sims, Urban Institute. The Great Recession hit black workers harder; the unemployment rate was higher for non-Hispanic black than for non-Hispanic white or Hispanic workers; and black unemployed workers had the lowest receipt of Unemployment Insurance benefits, 23.8 percent compared to whites’ 33.2 percent. Differences persist even after controlling for education, past employment, and reasons for unemployment.

Commencement Day: Six-Year Effects of a Freshman Learning Community Program at Kingsborough Community College,” Colleen Sommo, Alexander Mayer, Timothy Rudd, and Dan Cullinan, with Hannah Fresques, MDRC. A report on an unusually successful one-semester program at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn called “learning communities.” Kingsborough serves many poor students and is very diverse—black, Hispanic, Asian, white, and 40 percent foreign-born students.

The program placed freshmen into groups of up to twenty-five students who took three classes together during their first semester: a developmental or college-level English course, an academic course required for the student’s major, and a freshman orientation course. It also provided enhanced counseling and tutoring as well as textbook vouchers.

This brief program increased six-year graduation rates by 4.6 percentage points—one of the first rigorous studies to show that an intervention in a community college boosted graduation rates. This increase in graduation also made the program cost-effective—the cost per degree earned was lower per program group member than it was per control group member.

Other Resources

2012 KIDS COUNT Data Book,” Annie E. Casey Foundation. Its 23rd annual state-by-state report of child well-being, this year’s edition reveals significant improvements in health outcomes and academic achievement for children in most states. Over the period of 2005 to 2011, improvements include a 20 percent decrease in the number of kids without health insurance and an 11 percent reduction in the rate of high school students not graduating in four years. But the Data Book also shows how kids and families continue to struggle economically in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2010, one-third of children had parents without secure employment—an increase of 22 percent, or approximately 4 million children, from 2008. From 2005 to 2010, the number of children living in poverty rose by 2.4 million.

The State of America’s Children 2012 Handbook,” Children’s Defense Fund. This resource provides key national information in a range of areas, as well as state tables showing how children in your state are faring and how your state compares to other states in protecting children.

A Portrait of Inequality 2012,” Children’s Defense Fund. A report showing the gross inequalities facing black children compared to white children, across all critical indicators of wellbeing. Also, “A Portrait of Inequality 2012—Hispanic Children in America.”


Concentrated Poverty and Homicide in Chicago,” Steve Bogira
Shorty’s Comeback,” Steve Bogira
The Right Embraces ‘Big Government’,” Melissa Boteach
Tax Hikes on the Working Poor,” David Callahan
Food Stamps in Elmo’s World,” KJ Dell’Antonia
America Has a Class Problem,” Peter Edelman
New Orleans’ Other ‘Million Dollar Neighborhood’,” Shereen Marisol Meraji
Summer Programs for Low-Income Youth,” Elsa Falkenburger
Protecting SNAP: Notes from the Field,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt
Mayor Says Civil Disobedience by Janitors Justified,” Chris Moran
Renters’ Tax Credit Would Promote Equity and Advance Balanced Housing Policy,” Barbara Sard and Will Fischer
Having It All? Many Working Poor Parents Don’t Even Have Child Care,” Diana Scholl
Official Poverty Measure Ignores Key Improvements in Safety Net Since 1960s,” Arloc Sherman
Stories on Earned Sick Leave: Interview with Retail Action Project,” Spotlight on Poverty
Women for Paid Sick Days,” Katrina vanden Heuvel
Large, Profitable Companies Employ Most Minimum Wage Earners,” George Zornick

Get Involved

Affordable Housing for Parcel 42 (DC readers)
Dignity at Darden
House and Senate Bills to Increase Minimum Wage and Tipped Minimum Wage
Hyatt Boycott Goes Global

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

Increase in deep poverty, 1976-2010: doubled—3.3 percent of population to 6.7 percent.

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,628 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

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.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quote of the Week

“It seriously disturbs me that people looking in from the outside sort of draws this conclusion that the young black males or the people who are victims of the 50 million circumstances and issues that plague Central City—have just drawn a conclusion that they don’t want better—because that’s not true, that’s not what I see, I’m living it. I can honest to God tell you this: every single person that I’ve given a chance, has done well.”
      —Candince McMillian, owner of a contracting business in Central City, New Orleans, on Marketplace.

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.