For Needy Families, a Needy Program

September 20, 2010 | The New York Times |  Link to article

Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, our nation's primary cash-welfare program for families with children, would more accurately be named Inadequate Assistance for Needy Families.

The latest Census Bureau estimates show that an additional 2.1 million children officially entered poverty between 2007 and 2009, as the poverty rate among children rose to 20.7 percent from 18 percent.

This comes as no surprise, given increases in unemployment over these years, from 4.6 percent in January 2007 to 10 percent by December 2009 (declining only slightly to 9.6 percent in August 2010).

But the inadequacies of the needy-families program have also contributed to the deterioration of economic conditions among the very young.

The program was set up in 1996 as a replacement for Aid to Families With Dependent Children, with the putative intent of encouraging paid employment and self-sufficiency by imposing time limits and work requirements. In the late 1990s, when unemployment rates were relatively low, many single parents made successful transitions to paid employment.

Today, however, many parents seeking employment can't find jobs, and those who rely on public assistance are especially vulnerable. About one-third of parents, and about one-quarter of children in families receiving aid from this program, suffer from a chronic health problem or disability.

Federal policy changes created big financial incentives for states to cut their enrollments in the needy-families program, regardless of the consequences for those families. Many states have actively discouraged and diverted applicants, applying severe sanctions even for minor rule violations.

Only about 22 percent of poor children received aid from the program in 2008, down from 62 percent receiving from its predecessor in 1995, according to the aptly titled "Battered by the Storm," a report published last year by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Center for Community Change, Legal Momentum and Jobs with Justice.

The needy-families program was not designed to deal with the effects of a major recession; the size of the safety net that states provide is not effectively tailored to the number of individuals who are in free fall. As Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Center for Law and Social Policy points out, relatively few low-wage workers qualify for unemployment benefits, and aid for needy families is not taking up the slack.

In Michigan, a state with a 14.3 percent unemployment rate in January 2010 (the highest in the country), needy-families program caseloads did not increase as a result of the recession. In Rhode Island, a state with 12.7 percent unemployment, caseloads fell in 2009 as time limits were enforced.

Mothers are even less likely than children to receive assistance. According to a recent report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, only about 12 percent of impoverished adult women with dependent children reported receiving cash assistance from the program in 2008, with even lower rates typical in most states in the South.

Federal block grants to the states to support aid to needy families have declined substantially in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1996, and the cash benefits now provided amount to half or less of the poverty level in all states.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided an emergency fund intended to bolster aid for needy families, but this fund is scheduled to expire this month. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program as a whole is also up for reauthorization this year.

We could make this program more responsive to the needs of poor families and their children.

Until we do, we should start calling it by a more accurate name.

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