Response to Demeter (Reply #64)
Mon Apr 9, 2012, 02:19 PM
Demeter (65,449 posts)
65. Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit
Last edited Mon Apr 9, 2012, 02:19 PM USA/ET - Edit history (1)
Perhaps no law in the past generation has drawn more praise than the drive to “end welfare as we know it,” which joined the late-’90s economic boom to send caseloads plunging, employment rates rising and officials of both parties hailing the virtues of tough love. But the distress of the last four years has added a cautionary postscript: much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared. Despite the worst economy in decades, the cash welfare rolls have barely budged. Faced with flat federal financing and rising need, Arizona is one of 16 states that have cut their welfare caseloads further since the start of the recession — in its case, by half. Even as it turned away the needy, Arizona spent most of its federal welfare dollars on other programs, using permissive rules to plug state budget gaps. The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.
Critics of the stringent system say stories like these vindicate warnings they made in 1996 when President Bill Clinton fulfilled his pledge to “end welfare as we know it”: the revamped law encourages states to withhold aid, especially when the economy turns bad. The old program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, dates from the New Deal; it gave states unlimited matching funds and offered poor families extensive rights, with few requirements and no time limits. The new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, created time limits and work rules, capped federal spending and allowed states to turn poor families away.
But supporters of the current system often say lower caseloads are evidence of decreased dependency. Many leading Republicans are pushing for similar changes to much larger programs, like Medicaid and food stamps.
“This is what really bothers me: the people who supported welfare reform, they’re ignoring the problem.”
The welfare program was born amid apocalyptic warnings and was instantly proclaimed a success, at times with a measure of “I told you so” glee from its supporters. Liberal critics had warned that its mix of time limits and work rules would create mass destitution — “children sleeping on the grates,” in the words of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who died in 2003. But the economy boomed, employment soared, poverty fell and caseloads plunged. Thirty-two states reduced their caseloads by two-thirds or more, as officials issued press releases and jostled for bragging rights. The tough law played a large role, but so did expansions of child care and tax credits that raised take-home pay. In a twist on poverty politics, poor single mothers, previously chided as “welfare queens,” were celebrated as working-class heroes, with their stories of leaving the welfare rolls cast as uplifting tales of pluck. Flush with federal money, states experimented with programs that offered counseling, clothes and used cars.
But if the rise in employment was larger than predicted, it was also less transformative than it may have seemed. Researchers found that most families that escaped poverty remained “near poor.” And despite widespread hopes that working mothers might serve as role models, studies found few social or educational benefits for their children. (They measured things like children’s aspirations, self-esteem, grades, drug use and arrests.) Nonmarital births continued to rise. But the image of success formed early and stayed frozen in time....The recession that began in 2007 posed a new test to that claim. Even with $5 billion in new federal funds, caseloads rose just 15 percent from the lowest level in two generations. Compared with the 1990s peak, the national welfare rolls are still down by 68 percent. Just one in five poor children now receives cash aid, the lowest level in nearly 50 years. As the downturn wreaked havoc on budgets, some states took new steps to keep the needy away. They shortened time limits, tightened eligibility rules and reduced benefits (to an average of about $350 a month for a family of three). Since 2007, 11 states have cut the rolls by 10 percent or more. They include centers of unemployment like Georgia, Indiana and Rhode Island, as well as Michigan, where the welfare director justified cuts by telling legislators, “We have a fair number of people gaming the system.” Arizona cut benefits by 20 percent and shortened time limits twice — to two years, from five. Many people already found the underlying system more hassle than help, a gantlet of job-search classes where absences can be punished by a complete loss of aid. Some states explicitly pursue a policy of deterrence to make sure people use the program only as a last resort.
Since the states get fixed federal grants, any caseload growth comes at their own expense. By contrast, the federal government pays the entire food stamp bill no matter how many people enroll; states encourage applications, and the rolls have reached record highs.
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Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit
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