Welfare Regulations in Tennessee, Pennsylvania Spur Arguments

In Tennessee, welfare benefits may be reduced for families whose children get bad grades in school.

The plan, laid out in a bill that has cleared committees in the state’s House and Senate, touched off an uproar.

Quickly, the legislation was amended to say the money would not be cut if the parents attended parenting classes or got tutors for their children. Still, anger persists about the bill.

No such bill exists in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. But 15 cosponsors in the Pennsylvania legislature are backing a bill by State Sen. John Wozniak (D., Cambria) requiring drug tests for all welfare recipients.

As states face hard fiscal times, politicians explore ways to regulate welfare, a divisive issue despite being significantly diminished since 1996.

“If you’re asking for benefits, you should expect stipulations,” Stacey Campfield, the Republican state senator who introduced the original Tennessee legislation, said in an interview. His bill would cut welfare payments by 30 percent to parents whose children were left back a grade. “They [welfare recipients] have to be accountable.”

Not everyone sees it that way. “You shouldn’t adapt a policy that singles out someone just because she’s needy,” said Liz Schott, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which specializes in low-income issues. “It demonizes poor families.”

While arguments blaze on, one point gets universal agreement: Fewer people are on welfare than before 1996.

“Welfare” refers to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It’s cash assistance given to the poor, usually mothers with children. In Pennsylvania, a family of two gets $316 a month, or $3,792 a year. (The federal poverty level for a family of two is $15,510.) In New Jersey, a family of two gets $322 monthly.

The 1996 changes moved welfare from a federal entitlement to a block-grant program administered by the states, which now have much more discretion in how TANF money is distributed.

These days, people can’t exceed five years on welfare, and they must be working or training for work.

In Pennsylvania, nearly 500,000 people were on welfare rolls in 1995. Around 190,000 people get TANF benefits today, according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Of those, about 55,000 are adults, with the vast majority being children. In New Jersey, there are 25,000 adults on welfare, 57,000 children.

Just because millions no longer receive welfare nationwide doesn’t mean their poverty has been resolved, antipoverty advocates say.

In 1995, for every 100 U.S. families in poverty, 75 received welfare benefits, the center found. Today, it’s closer to 27 out of 100.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, TANF benefits amount to between 20 percent and 30 percent of the federal poverty level, the Center found.

Around here, the Tennessee measure caught people by surprise.

“I was shocked,” said Peter Zurflieh, staff attorney with the Community Justice Project of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network in Harrisburg. “It’s one more way to control the behavior of poor folks.”

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth in Philadelphia, called the bill “extraordinarily backward,” adding that no scientific research exists showing that decreasing people’s TANF changes their behavior.

The Tennessee bill is a way for states to say that poor people cost the rest of the citizenry money, said Sanford Schram, social-work professor at Bryn Mawr College. “States look for scapegoats,” he said.

And, experts say, impoverished children often do badly in school precisely because they’re poor: scant food, bad housing, and dysfunction in the family all contribute to difficulties making good grades. Taking money from such families would serve to further damage these children, noted Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a TANF expert with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

As in years past, some Pennsylvania legislators are exploring drug-testing TANF recipients.

“A high number of our constituents support it,” said Jon Hopcraft, spokesman for State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), a cosponsor of the Wozniak bill to screen all TANF recipients for illegal drugs.

Acknowledging that he had seen no proof that TANF recipients abuse drugs more than anyone else, Hopcraft nevertheless said the issue “gets taxpayers very upset.” It’s not clear how the bill will fare.

Recently, Florida instituted drug tests for TANF recipients. Around 2.5 percent tested positive for illegal drugs, much lower than the 8 percent of the U.S. population that tests positive for illegal drugs, figures show.

In February, the courts halted Florida drug tests, which had been called unconstitutional.