Recession Dooms Welfare Reform: Program Aimed at Booming Economy 2/22/10 Concord Monitor
Several weeks ago, I attended a hearing in the Legislature on a bill that proposed random drug testing for all applicants and recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and other public assistance.
Under that legislation, positive drug tests would result in termination of benefits. There was no explanation in the bill for why this group was singled out for drug testing.
In introducing the legislation, the prime sponsor described public assistance recipients as “society’s trash.” While the bill received a frosty reception from the House Health and Human Services Committee and was later killed, it is the words of that legislator I remember: society’s trash.
In a nutshell, the problem for any welfare program is right there. Facts do not matter. The stereotype is all-powerful. Hatred of the welfare recipient is deeply ingrained and seems to be widely held. Clearly, the circumstances that led to a person applying for welfare are of no consequence if he or she is seen as trash.
TANF remains a program mired in misleading mythologies. It has the designation “welfare” attached to it, but it is actually an employment support program. While there is a component of the program that helps disabled TANF recipients, the program is overwhelmingly focused on work participation and putting TANF recipients into approved work activities.
It is strange how welfare remains hated even after it is not what people think it is.
The recession has not been kind to TANF recipients and the TANF program itself. Along with everybody else victimized by the massive unemployment, TANF recipients have been particularly hard hit.
The architects of TANF designed the program for an expanding economy like the
1990s. In that robust type of economy, former TANF recipients could hope to land low-wage service sector jobs. The TANF architects did not anticipate a situation like the past two years.
TANF cannot work in an economy where the TANF recipient is competing against six others, including those with college education, for any available job.
The success of welfare reform has been significantly oversold. There was no plan in place for how the program would adapt if the economy went south as it has.
Success was simply defined as getting people off the rolls. The anti-poverty vision was lost, if it was ever there. If the goal was just to get the welfare recipient into the first available low-paying job, what happens when there are no jobs?
In New Hampshire, just as in other states, the state is ill-equipped to deal with the recession. With increased caseloads the TANF reserve is long gone, and the state is $4 million in the hole even considering the over $11 million New Hampshire received in stimulus money from the TANF emergency fund. Federal welfare funding has remained flat since the 1996 TANF law was created.
The idea that we will cut our way out of the budget shortfall is wrong-headed. This is balancing the budget on the backs of the poorest people in the state. Some recent measures like the creation of a waiting list for child care assistance as well as increasing child care co-pays are short-sighted and counter-productive. There are already 1,200 on the wait list, and 4,700 families have been adversely affected by raising cost share.
One bill worthy of special mention is House Bill 1598, a bill sponsored by Rep Tom Donovan of Claremont that tries to stem the use of TANF dollars for non-TANF purposes. The Legislature has raided the TANF program over the last six years and used over $50 million for purposes other than TANF assistance. House Bill 1598, which has passed the House, would stop this abuse. In better economic times, this finagling was ignored. The TANF program cannot afford to be bled.
TANF must be reauthorized at the federal level in 2010. An honest accounting would look at how poorly the program is meeting the economic need out there.
We need far bolder ideas than are being presently considered by mainstream politicians. The Obama administration should take a page out of the FDR playbook. It is time for a large public jobs program.
Projects could address the deterioration in public services and infrastructure that has resulted from long-term neglect in neighborhoods across the country. Such a program could put TANF recipients, unemployed and underemployed workers back to work on socially useful projects.
Once one steps outside of the blinders imposed by conventional thinking, the need is obvious.
As a lawyer who has represented many TANF clients, I do want to say my clients are not trash. If legislators and others could see the faces of people on TANF and hear their stories, they would have a very different view.