High Poverty Rates Shadow Welfare Reform

Sep 26, 2011

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

On Sept. 8, 2011, the Subcommittee on Human Resources to the Committee on Ways and Means in the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), in preparation for the pending reauthorization of the block grant. CLASP submitted testimony for the record on Sept. 22. Below is an excerpt:

A few days after this Committee held its hearing, the U.S. Census released the official poverty numbers for 2010. These numbers reveal a story of increasing hardship among America's children, particularly its youngest children. In 2010, 22 percent of children were in families with incomes under the poverty level, and 10 percent were in families in extreme poverty - with incomes less than half of the official poverty level. More than one in four children under the age of 5 were in poverty, with 12 percent in extreme poverty.

We know that such poverty is associated not just with immediate hardships - inadequate nutrition, unstable housing, low quality child care, increased rates of child abuse and neglect - but also long term effects on educational outcomes and adult earning potential. When compared with children from more affluent families, poor children are more likely to have low academic achievement, to drop out of school, and to have health, behavioral, and emotional problems. These linkages are particularly strong for children whose families experience deep poverty, who are poor during early childhood, and who are trapped in poverty for a long time. With child poverty and extreme poverty at these rates, we cannot consider TANF a success.

Based on the experience of other countries, we can conclusively reject the claim that we must accept persistently high levels of poverty and deprivation as the necessary price for ensuring high levels of labor force participation. Countries like the Netherlands - which now has a higher rate of female labor force participation than the United States - prove that it is not necessary to threaten parents with destitution as the alternative in order to engage them in work. The combination of job training, assistance in finding employment, and supports that make it possible for parents to work have been demonstrated to be an effective option for promoting employment, even while benefits that remain far more generous than those in the United States provide all families with a measure of economic security.

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