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.