Low-Income Families Caught in the Spin Cycle

Nov 10, 2010

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Elizabeth Kenefick

It would be funny if it didn't reveal harsh truths about how partisanship is preventing the nation's lawmakers from supporting sound policy solutions that benefit ordinary people.

This week, Rep. Tom Price, chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC),  announced that Republicans would trim $25 billion in federal spending by eliminating the TANF Emergency Fund.  Problem is, the TANF Emergency Fund expired on Sept. 30, 2010, so these savings are pure fiction.  Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) included the same proposal in his YouCut program in May and again in Delivering our Commitments, a recent report accompanying his bid for House Majority Leader.  

Rep. Cantor was less disingenuous in his May proposal. At the time, he reported a savings of $2.5 billion, the amount included in a then-pending House bill calling for a one-year extension of the emergency fund.  But he and Rep. Price have since inflated so-called savings by multiplying the one-year extension over ten years.

What's most troubling about Rep. Price and Rep. Cantor's proclamations is their tone.  In his RSC statement, Rep. Price used incendiary phrases such as, "requiring able-bodied individuals to work."  Such code words hark back to decades-old pernicious stereotypes about people receiving public assistance and ignore the sweeping changes that have occurred since welfare reform in 1996.

Calling to ‘restore welfare reform' misses the point.  The TANF Emergency Fund didn't undo welfare reform. Rather it was a short-term program created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which was passed at the height of the nation's recession when millions were losing jobs, homes, savings and other resources. The successful program enabled states to assist some of the most vulnerable families.  All of the work requirements under the regular TANF program still applied.  Forty states (including DC) used the fund to create subsidized jobs - mostly in the private sector - for nearly 250,000 low-income parents and youth.  These jobs helped TANF recipients support their families and meet work requirements while also aiding struggling businesses and putting money back into the economy. 

Conservatives who are paying more attention to substance than spin have supported this program.  Kevin Hassert with the American Enterprise Institute said the following about the extension of the TANF Emergency Fund: "Given the state of the labor market, it is hard to imagine how any sensible person could oppose such a move. It is shame that such common sense was absent last year."

It is true that the nation must think sensibly about federal spending. But putting an erroneous spin on public policies is political gamesmanship that does nothing to address real problems such as increasing poverty and persistent unemployment during this tough economic climate.     

More information on the TANF EF.


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