Safety Net

Temporary Assistance Doesn’t Help Impoverished Married Parents

Marital poverty is a serious, widespread, but mostly unacknowledged problem in the United States. Just over 9.3 million people in married-parent families live below our extremely low official poverty line. Another 6 million people live between the official poverty threshold and 130 percent of the poverty line, which is the income limit for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and only about $26,000 for a married couple with one child.


Despite these staggering numbers, there is widespread denial of the reality of marital poverty. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has gone so far to claim that being “married with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not.” It appears he is unaware there are more married parents living in poverty in his state than never married parents living in poverty.

We know from a vast body of research that poverty and related financial stressors are risk factors for marital conflict, domestic violence, and divorce. And notable recent research by Laura Tach and Kathryn Edin found that economic factors are a more important predictor of dissolution for married parents than for cohabiting ones.

The Temporary Assistance (TANF) program should be playing a central role in helping married families overcome the kinds of economic hardship and other factors that contribute to the high divorce rate among working class families. Under the Temporary Assistance program, states receive funds to provide means-tested, re-employment assistance and other services to struggling unemployed and underemployed parents with low incomes. One of the four purposes of Temporary Assistance is to “encourage the maintenance of two-parent families.”

Despite this mandate, Temporary Assistance is failing struggling, married families. The extent of TANF’s failure is shown in the chart below. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of married parents living in poverty increased 39 percent, but the already extremely low number of married parents being helped by TANF plummeted by 54 percent. In the majority of states today, fewer than 1000 married parents receive Temporary Assistance. In Louisiana, for example, over 50,000 married parents live in poverty, but only about 50 of them receive Temporary Assistance.


Where Temporary Assistance has failed, other better-designed programs have stepped up. In 2014, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped 5.2 million low-income children who lived with both of their married parents, and another 1.2 million children who lived with both of their unmarried parents. Unlike Temporary Assistance, SNAP actually responded to the increase in married-parent unemployment and hardship during the Great Recession. Similarly, early evidence suggests that the Affordable Care Act—including Medicaid expansion and the Premium Tax Credit—has increased health insurance coverage among working-class married families.

How can we fix Temporary Assistance so that it doesn’t effectively exclude millions of struggling, married parents from getting the temporary financial help – as well as employment and other services – that could make the difference between staying together and splitting up?

The first and arguably most important step is to acknowledge the extent of the problem of marital poverty and hardship in the United States, and the destructive impact it has on family life.

Then we need to look at models for reforming Temporary Assistance. Most notably, the original version of the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) that was evaluated in the mid-1990s reduced divorce among participating disadvantaged, two-parent families. The reductions in divorce were particularly large—70 percent—among black married couples. In addition, both MFIP and Milwaukee’s New Hope Project increased rates of marriage among disadvantaged single mothers.

These progressive demonstration projects ensured that low-income married- and cohabiting-couple families had an adequate income to support themselves while searching for work or addressing issues that limited their work capacity, including through transitional jobs, re-employment, and other services. Unlike the current Temporary Assistance program, these programs did not utilize unreasonably restrictive participation rates or harshly punitive measures that are mostly aimed at reducing the number of people who receive help; instead, these programs emphasized helping parents obtain and maintain stable employment, while meeting their basic needs.

Unfortunately, the current financial structure of Temporary Assistance and the federal law that governs it makes operating rigorously tested programs like the original MFIP or New Hope all but impossible for states. Fixing this should be at the top of the list of reforms that would help struggling, two-parent families. At the very least, the federal government should establish a national Temporary Assistance demonstration project for married and unmarried two-parent families based on the original MFIP program and New Hope. Of course, some policymakers would prefer to just talk about family values, but even in today’s polarized political environment it should be possible to move forward on a concrete initiative like this one that actually values working-class families by helping them stay together.


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Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All

On a December morning nearly 60 years ago, Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her decision wasn’t made on a whim; and the ensuing arrest, public outcry, boycott and eventual desegregation of the Montgomery bus system were no coincidence.

Mrs. Parks was trained in civil disobedience; her action was calculated and planned in coordination with local leaders. She was one of hundreds of community members who had come together at a specific moment in history when African Americans across the country, after decades of living under oppressive Jim Crow laws, had reached a tipping point and were thirsty for change.

Today, we find ourselves at another tipping point.

With more than one in three Americans living beneath 200 percent of the poverty line, and more than 17 million people who want full-time employment unable to find it, families across the country are falling into economic crisis.

At the same time, income inequality has steadily increased over the last three decades. Since 1979, wages for the top 1 percent have increased an astounding 138 percent, while wages for the bottom 90 percent have increased just 15 percent over the same period.

These statistics are even grimmer for women and people of color. While unemployment among whites has dropped to just 4.4 percent, the rate for African Americans living in metropolitan areas is an astounding 11.3 percent. Likewise, women are still making just 78 percent of what men make. For black and Hispanic women, these numbers drop to 64 percent and 54 percent, respectively.

And just as occurred in Montgomery, when civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and E.D. Nixon were ready and willing to organize an eager public to participate in the 381-day bus boycott, we too are now surrounded by palpable energy for change.

Just two weeks ago, the Fight for $15 movement held a national day of action—reported to be the largest mobilization of people with low-incomes in history—that furthered the national public debate about low wages and job quality.

Other social movements are making connections to income inequality and jobs as well. In an effort to end employment barriers for people who were formerly incarcerated, criminal justice reform advocates are working to “ban the box” that asks about conviction history on initial employment application forms.

Likewise, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the immigrant rights movement have begun to link their fights with the fights of low-wage workers, connecting the dots between human and civil rights, and improving the lives and working conditions of people in low-wage jobs.

With so many families struggling to get by and so much energy for change, the Center for Community Change (CCC) has joined forces with a coalition of national, state and local organizations in 41 states dedicated to building a new economy from the ground up that actually puts American families first.

This morning, CCC, Working Families Organization, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Center for Popular Democracy, and Jobs With Justice are unveiling a bold new agenda called Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All. This initiative takes the major crises of our time and turns them into opportunities for change. The following are the five focus areas of the campaign:

  • Decades of stagnant wages, the erosion of labor-market standards, and attacks on unions have left millions of working people without enough to get by. By raising employer standards, setting higher wage floors and restoring workers’ bargaining power, we can ensure that all working Americans have enough to provide for their families.
  • As mothers and fathers struggle to find quality, affordable childcare, and families are forced to make difficult decisions every day about taking care of elderly or disabled family members, a major investment in the care economy would not only create and improve jobs in childcare and in-home care, but would also support families in need of quality care for loved ones.
  • Historic disinvestment in communities of color has created concentrated areas of high poverty. By reinvesting in these communities, we can level the playing field and give millions of Americans the opportunity to advance and unleash their talents for the benefit of everyone.
  • Global climate change may very well be the single greatest challenge facing humanity in this century, but it is also an opportunity to create sustainable jobs that reduce carbon emissions.
  • Lastly, as millions of Americans struggle to provide for their families, the top 1 percent own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and they continue to be showered with tax cuts. It’s time we fix this system and invest revenue in an economy that works for all of us.

Less than a week before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. about the Poor People’s Campaign – an initiative that sought to unite Americans, rich and poor, into a movement to end poverty.

King told the crowd, “This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

Today, our country is more aware than ever before that our entire economic system is out of balance. We have reached a time in history where the need, the opportunity, and the energy are all here to create an economy that works for our families—now we need the will and the dedication of the American public to make it happen.

To learn more about Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All, and to join our campaign, visit


Media and Politics

Why a “Faithful” Federal Budget Must Address Inequality

It is now almost a cliché when religious leaders state that the federal budget is a test of our nation’s moral values because it reflects our fiscal priorities. We have been saying that individually and collectively for decades.

How are we doing in this measure of morality?

A key moral issue of our times is extreme wealth inequality in the U.S., along with structures that block people from accessing what they need to rise out of poverty, such as a lack of affordable housing or access to healthcare. Like Pope Francis, we at NETWORK believe there is an urgent need to address these twin injustices. The federal budget is one of our country’s most important tools to make that happen.

However, most major budget proposals coming from Capitol Hill do little or nothing to address inequality – or, even worse, they exacerbate it. This is not a partisan view. In fact, powerful and wealthy voices motivated by self-interest have seen their influence greatly increase across party lines in recent years. Their voices drown out those of millions of people with less clout.

In 2011, appalled by years of skewed budget priorities, my organization joined a coalition of 37 faith groups representing Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions. Our goal was to formulate a new budget plan rooted in our faiths’ teachings about compassion and justice.

Our work resulted in a document we call “Faithful Budget,” which combines bedrock values drawn from our sacred texts and shared experiences with real examples of how our federal budget can address economic injustice. We later updated the document to reflect our new economic reality.

Our principles for a faithful budget are these:

  • Economic opportunity for all: The economy is failing to create enough jobs with sustaining wages. We need to invest in education and job creation, along with policies that help families to build assets.
  • A genuinely progressive tax system: Our tax system now frequently places more of a tax burden – as a percentage of income – on the middle class than it does on the wealthiest among us. We need to prioritize raising sufficient revenue for vital programs over cutting taxes for those with the most wealth.
  • Prioritizing true human security over Pentagon spending: Our nation now allocates well over half of its discretionary budget to the Pentagon. We need to cut Pentagon spending while we fully fund healthcare and other sources of individual, family and community wellbeing.
  • Addressing human needs in the U.S. and around the world: Far too many people live with hunger, unemployment and untreated or avoidable illnesses. We need to fully fund programs like SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid.
  • Care for the economic wellbeing of future generations and for all creation: We now do far too little to ensure that future generations will thrive in a sustainable world. We need to fund programs that help children to be better prepared for the future and move us to a healthier environment.
  • Healthcare access for all: We must build on recent successes in increasing the percentage of people with health insurance. Current efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act through defunding and other means should be thwarted, and healthcare access should be expanded to include all.
  • Recognition of a robust role for government in fostering economic justice: Government must focus on the wellbeing of all, not just those who are rich and powerful. We need more effective budget priorities designed to overcome inequality.

Catholic sisters, and all who serve people at the economic margins, experience on a daily basis how poverty and inequality unravel the social fabric of our entire nation. We can’t afford to let that continue.

On April 28, members of our Faithful Budget community will be on Capitol Hill to brief congressional staff about our vision. We hope and pray that next year’s budget will better reflect our shared values of fairness and compassion. Thousands of our members intend to convince Congress it should act to ensure that happens. This is the right thing to do to pass the moral test of our time.



Poor People Need a Higher Wage, Not a Lesson in Morality

This article originally appeared at The Nation.

“The idea that poverty is a problem of persons—that it results from personal moral, cultural, or biological inadequacies—has dominated discussions of poverty for well over two hundred years and given us the enduring idea of the undeserving poor.”

—Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks called for a “moral revival,” one which requires “holding people responsible” so that we have “social repair.”

To illustrate the need for said revival—which he frames as a reassertion of social norms—Brooks offers what he describes as three “representative figures” of “high school-educated America”: a man whose mother was absent, Dad is in prison, attended seven elementary schools, and “ended up under house arrest”; a girl who was “one of five half-siblings from three relationships,” whose mom lost custody of the kids to an abuser, and whose dad left a woman because another guy had fathered their child; and, finally, a kid who “burned down a lady’s house when he was 13” and says, “I just love beating up somebody and making they nose bleed…and beating them to the ground.”

So goes the latest iteration of the “undeserving poor,” an age-old concept brilliantly excavated by the late historian Michael Katz in his book of the same title. Like the long lineage it stems from, Brooks’ rendition is as “representative” of people with low-incomes as corrupt corporate titans are of small entrepreneurs. Anecdotally, in my years working for Boys and Girls Clubs, reporting as a poverty correspondent for The Nation, and now editing which regularly features posts from people living in poverty—Brooks’ “representative figures” remind me of exactly zero people I have met during this time. I’m not saying that these individuals don’t exist, but they have little to do with the policies or the morality we need to dramatically reduce poverty in America.

Brooks preaches that we should react to these stories with “intense sympathy,” but then ask people who are struggling questions like: “Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?”

What we really need isn’t a moral revival but a moral revolution.

“Everybody struggles,” he writes. “But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.”

Katz presciently called out those like Brooks when he updated The Undeserving Poor in 2013 not long before his death: “The role of culture in the production and perpetuation of poverty…is enjoying a revival…[This] work remains implicitly animated by the questions, in what ways are poor people different (the answer is not because they lack money) and what should be done about these differences? They are not the most important questions to ask about poverty today.”

What we really need isn’t a moral revival but a moral revolution, one that might begin with Brooks and others looking in the mirror and asking some basic questions:

Do I accept that people working full-time are paid wages that keep them in poverty?

Do I accept that workers with low-incomes can’t take a paid sick day to care for themselves or a family member?

Do I accept that many parents can’t afford the childcare they need to go to work?

Do I accept that people with low-incomes often lack the transportation needed to get to job assignments and as a result are kicked off of income assistance?

Do I accept that our public schools are separate and unequal—with some kids forced to share textbooks while just miles away an affluent community has state-of-the-art facilities?

Do I propagate myths and stereotypes about people living in poverty, or do I help spread the truth—like the fact that more than 1 in 2 Americans will spend a year in poverty or near poverty during their working years?

Do I embrace the real evidence that shows just how far a little assistance can go to improve life outcomes for people in poverty?

When it comes to morality and supporting families, I’ll trust my favorite nun over Mr. Brooks any day. Testifying at a congressional hearing on the status of the War on Poverty, Sister Simone Campbell was asked if the real blame for continuing poverty is “the fact we’ve lost our family values? We’ve got single parents and so forth?”

She replied: “I practiced family law for 18 years in Oakland. I found with low-income families that the biggest cause of family break up was economic stressors. So I think the most important piece we could do to support families would be to raise the minimum wage.”

On Saturday, Katz posthumously received a distinguished service award from the Organization of American Historians. It was well deserved, and his voice is still well worth listening to.



Why I Joined a Worker Center

I began my career in the restaurant industry while I was traveling overseas in the Middle East. I wanted to be adventurous and live aboard after I graduated college, and I was excited to gain useful skills. Upon my return home, I was eager to plant roots in a new kitchen; I hoped that, with hard work and patience, I could utilize my skills and pursue the American Dream.

Unfortunately, the American Dream is just that—a dream. When I returned to the States, I quickly realized that in many cases restaurant workers—who often earn the minimum wage or the tipped minimum wage—are expendable in the eyes of employers. After working for about a month in a restaurant in my hometown, I began noticing improper behavior from my employer. They failed to pay me on time and accused me of stealing without presenting any evidence to back up their accusations. When I didn’t receive my paychecks on time, I had to rely on customers’ tips.

Even so, I would come to work early and leave late – not for the money but to gain experience and knowledge. I tolerated petty arguments and misdirected anger. I had a clear vision and burning motivation for a career in the restaurant industry, but I was unhappy with my work. I felt disposable and without a voice. However, since I needed to pay rent and had responsibilities, I knew that quitting would be financially unwise.

I was lucky to learn about the D.C. Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a worker center dedicated to improving working conditions and raising industry standards for all Washington, D.C. restaurant workers. Here I was, a young, broke, female, black, twenty-something-year-old from nowhere that mattered. But to organizations like ROC-D.C., I do matter. When I quit my job, and my employer withheld my final paycheck in retaliation, ROC-D.C. advised me about my options. They reassured me that I am the embodiment of the American dream and that I have a life that should not be measured by the size of my bank account.

I am the embodiment of the American dream and that I have a life that should not be measured by the size of my bank account.

ROC-D.C assisted me but I was left wondering – how can everyone become educated about their rights in the workplace? I am not alone in these experiences. Through ROC-D.C., restaurant workers come to realize that although we might be dealing with problems on a daily basis, we are also part of the solution. We have to fight for a living wage, against wage theft, and for protection so that we can stand up without fear of employer retaliation.

Restaurant workers are adults, mothers, realists and dreamers. We are living off tips, and working more than one job to make ends meet. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club), “We’re [low-wage workers] everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers.” With our laundromat-washed uniforms, nicked fingertips, and loose dollar bills, we are paid as low as $2.13 an hour.

It is time to take a stand. The minimum wages in D.C. and across the country has been infuriatingly inadequate for way too long. In Washington, D.C., servers take home a median wage of just $9.23 an hour including tips. We often rely on food stamps and have a poverty rate that is twice as high as the poverty rate of the general workforce. This unacceptable reality spurred workers and advocates to launch a successful campaign to raise wages. Former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed a “living wage” bill, which increased the minimum wage to $11.50 and indexed it to inflation.

Unfortunately, tipped workers will still receive an extremely low base salary of $2.77 an hour, meaning we have to continue to live off tips and the mercy of the customer.

If you are a restaurant worker in the Washington D.C. Metro area, I encourage you to get involved with ROC-D.C. We are currently running a ONE FAIR WAGE campaign to raise the minimum raise for all workers, including tipped workers. If you’re unhappy with your job, or think you’re being treat unfairly, then I encourage you to join a worker center. Get involved in a local movement that pushes for respect, fair wages, and benefits for all workers.