You can count on your fingers, and maybe a toe or two, the number of otherwise progressive public officials and policy experts inside the Beltway who want to talk about the gaping hole in our safety net for mothers and children. Up to and including President Obama, the mainstream Democratic position on cash assistance for families with children is that we reformed welfare in 1996 and that the ensuing policy regime is a roaring success.
This is just plain wrong.
Lest I be immediately dismissed in what I am about to say (and the usual suspects will do so anyway), let me be clear that the main way to end poverty is jobs that result in a livable income, and the education necessary to get and keep those jobs. The totality of strategies to reduce poverty also includes healthy communities and necessary services—including health and mental health services—child care, legal services, and more. A discussion of welfare is not the same as a discussion of how to end poverty.
But one part of an antipoverty strategy is indeed a safety net. And this is where people who should know better (or actually do) are averting their eyes.
Short history: The old welfare system—Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, which existed from 1935-1996—needed to be reformed. It did not work hard enough at helping people get jobs and become self-sufficient. There were 14.3 million people receiving it when President Clinton was elected and that’s too many.
In 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was enacted. Just then, and quite unforeseen, the economy heated up and jobs became plentiful. The welfare rolls plummeted and the number of never-employed single mothers obtaining jobs increased substantially. But even then, because states had no legal obligation to grant benefits, about 2 out of 5 people who left welfare did not obtain jobs, and large numbers were turned away at the front door.
Beginning in 2001, the impressive numbers of single mothers at work began to go down, and now is nearly back to where it was before the 1996 law was passed. But that didn’t mean that the TANF rolls went back up, because states did not extend benefits to those who were losing their jobs. By the time the recession started, the TANF rolls were at 3.9 million.
TANF was absolutely useless as an antirecessionary tool. Food stamps went up from reaching 26.3 million people to 48 million people, because there is a legal right to receive them. TANF went from helping 3.9 million people to 4.4.million—and even reached fewer people during the recession in some states—because there is no legal right to assistance.
Here’s the bottom line: TANF is basically defunct in more than half the states and the percentage of children in poor families receiving cash assistance nationally has dropped from 68 percent to 27 percent. In more than half the states, fewer than 20 percent of children living in poor families are receiving TANF. Wyoming is the poster state. About 600 people—4 percent of children living in poor families—receive cash aid in Wyoming. Before 1996, with all of the faults in AFDC, the safety net at the bottom consisted of AFDC and food stamps combined. The median income from welfare and food stamps combined was only half the poverty line, but there was a legal right to both. No longer.
So, now 6 million people have incomes composed only of food stamps. Stunning? Who knew? These are government figures and they have appeared on the front page of the New York Times. A lot of people are averting their eyes. Whatever the facts were about the success of TANF in the flush times of the late 1990s—and I think they weren’t so fact-based even then—the recession exposed the utter bankruptcy of TANF as a public policy.
This is enormously frustrating. The minute the government gives someone a nickel we hear a chorus of aversion to handouts, a cacophony of complaints that these are people who do not want to work, a concert of disapproval of the character of anyone who would accept cash help (and now the disapproval extends to anyone receiving food stamps).
Of course we want to have a minimum number of people receiving cash assistance. Of course we want to help mothers receiving TANF find work—and that help has to include child care assistance and health care coverage. And we not only want to do those things well, which is not the case now, but we also need a safety net that is responsive to the individual problems and needs of the families it serves. A properly designed cash assistance program for families with children would take into account the availability of work as well as the fact that recipients vary in their capacity to work.
It’s past time to acknowledge that we have blown a huge hole in our national safety net for the very most needy among us. Shame on us.
Peter Edelman is a Professor of Law at the Georgetown Law Center, and the Faculty Director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.