Thursday, April 20, 2006

Welfare Reform

In the brave new world of one-party rule in America, we have a Congress that no longer debates public policy – just rams it through. If a measure looks as if it may fail, it’s slipped quietly into an appropriations bill or some other guaranteed to pass piece of legislation. The REAL ID ACT was inserted into an appropriations bill. New regulations on TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) were casually slipped into the euphemistically named “Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005” aka the 2006 budget. Now those new regulations are coming to light – regulations that NH must comply with by October 1. NH DHHS Commissioner John Stephen brought a proposal to the NH Senate this week.

The Federal government requires the states to increase the number of TANF recipients who are working 30 hours a week by 1, 164, in order to meet the requirement that all states must have 50% of their TANF population employed in any given week.
Now, this doesn’t sound terrible – we all hope that TANF recipients will be able to leave poverty behind and get good jobs. What is curious about the new regulations is what the federal government is willing to consider as “work.” At this moment in time, vocational education and job search programs count as ‘work.” Under the new law, those activities will be limited. Could someone please explain to me how a vocational education program is a bad thing? Learning a trade seems like a ticket right out of poverty and into the permanent workforce. Trade jobs are not easily outsourced. Under the new regulations, internships and community service will count as “work.” Okay – so learning a trade isn’t “work” but volunteering is? That is just ridiculous.

The 1996 welfare reform laws brought sweeping change to eligibility and administration of welfare programs. There was a dramatic decrease in welfare rolls; from 12.2 million to 4.5 million. In the booming economy of the 1990’s, many were able to move out of poverty. There were many jobs that paid a living wage. We hear much about the current booming economy, but the reality is that poverty is on the increase. Real wages are on the decline and good paying jobs are being exported. The gap between the haves and have nots has reached epic proportions. We’ve all read about the Exxon CEO who is earning almost $6000 an hour in retirement. For the rest of the population, increasing numbers of people are hungry and homeless – in fact, Hurricane Katrina seems to have created a permanent refugee population in the southern part of the US.

TANF is a 60 month program. An eligible person may receive only 60 months of benefits in their lifetime. This isn’t the free ride that some portray it as. In NH, the maximum TANF benefit per month for a family of 2 is $556. For a family of 3 the maximum benefit is $625, and for 4 it is $668. Even with food stamps – this is not enough for housing, clothing, and transportation. NH TANF recipients are not buying Cadillacs. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” crowd is often comprised of people whom have never had to do any such thing. It’s difficult to dig out of poverty – and this kind of regulation change seems guaranteed to make the process harder.

The new reform measures include $150 million to support programs that encourage marriage and responsible fatherhood. I’m certainly in favor of initiatives that encourage men to be committed and involved fathers – that’s a wonderful thing. Touting marriage as the way out of poverty is bizarre. The surest route to poverty for a woman is childbirth. If we want to eliminate welfare programs and poverty, we’d do well to encourage comprehensive sex ed programs, and encourage the use of contraceptives, instead of trying to make the process ever more restrictive.

We can’t have it both ways. Abstinence only programs are a surefire way of increasing teen pregnancy rates, which in turn increases the poverty rate, and the numbers of TANF recipients. Restricting and eliminating abortion will have the same effect. We need to stop pretending otherwise. The only sure way to avoid poverty is to be born into a wealthy family. Perhaps we should encourage the unborn to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and choose the right parents.

The American dream has moved beyond the reach of many – and as a society we are unwilling to examine this, never mind discuss it. While leafleting on tax day, I heard outrage from a few about their tax dollars supporting “lazy welfare bums.” A very small percentage of our tax dollars actually go to TANF – over half the discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon, in one form or another. That dismissive rhetoric, not even rooted in reality is damaging – and only results in further stigmatizing those who are stuck in poverty.

Do we really want to eliminate poverty? No real steps being taken to do so, just smoke and mirrors. Spending our tax dollars to encourage TANF recipients to get married is silly – even sillier when one considers that we’re going to have to cut them out of vocational education programs. The message for women is clear: Husband = good. Trade = bad. I realize that Commissioner Stephen has a tough task ahead of him. I hope that he and Governor Lynch will encourage other states to call for changes that makes sense – because these new TANF reform laws sure don’t. It seems likely that more women (the ones without potential husbands) will be forced into permanent low wage employment, and a lifetime of poverty.

“There was never a war on poverty. Maybe there was a skirmish on poverty.” Andrew Cuomo

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