Our social safety net needs mending
The current government social safety net that was built for a growing economy has stretched to its breaking point.
While Congress has acknowledged the dire circumstances working and middle-class families now face, little attention has been paid to those on the brink of the economic precipice: poor families facing the expiration of government assistance, with no jobs on the horizon and all avenues for help closing off.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will prevent many from falling off the cliff; however, many decisions that will affect the neediest families will be left to the states. To effectively buoy working families and children coping their way through this crisis, we must rethink how we provide assistance to those who need it most.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has been the government assistance of last resort for our nation's poorest families for over a decade. Current rules for TANF set a 60-month lifetime limit for assistance, and allow states to set shorter limits, as nearly a quarter of them do. While some exemptions to the time limit are permitted and some states continue to provide aid with state funds, thousands of families lose their benefits solely because they reach that limit. The vast majority, 90 percent by some studies, of adult TANF recipients are women, many of whom are taking care of children or disabled relatives. With the unemployment rate at its highest in years, these families are finding their benefits expiring just when jobs are incredibly scarce for experienced workers, much less those lacking a high school diploma or a consistent work history, as many TANF recipients do.
TANF benefits enable families to get by and subsist, not save; the women, children and men currently falling off the rolls are slipping into a very vulnerable situation wherein homelessness, hunger and abuse become par for the course.
And families are indeed slipping off, by the thousands. Despite a 12-month recession and record unemployment, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year.
Amid the largest U.S. economic downturn in decades, the number of individuals and families receiving cash assistance is at or near a 40-year low. The very structure of the welfare system, in which states receive federal funds in fixed block grants and must shoulder any increase (or savings), has created a perverse incentive for states to discourage people from accessing the program and move recipients off the rolls as quickly as possible. Even in good economic times, this proves damaging for struggling families. In the current economic environment, it is downright debilitating and it further burdens communities and local resources by emptying food pantries and filling homeless shelters.
Fortunately, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes federal funds to supplement state TANF costs. Congress should go further, however, and suspend time limits during the crisis, thereby protecting poor women, children and men from falling into the abyss of joblessness, homelessness and hunger. Extending time limits will not eliminate rules which require recipients to be involved in a work-related activity 30 hours a week; it merely guarantees that people following the rules are not thrown off the rolls. Moreover, states must step up and focus on expanding their welfare programs during the crisis, as opposed to maintaining a status quo in which participation is discouraged. Similarly, states should utilize that increased funding for training, education and child care so that TANF recipients have the best possible chance to get and keep jobs during this precarious time.
Modifying the TANF program during this time is critical to the basic stability of millions of low-income women and families. Now is not the time for ideological grandstanding. At a time when more people than ever are falling through the cracks, our social safety net needs serious mending. For the millions of families moving closer to the edge with each passing week, time is running out.
(Editor's note: Irasema Garza is president of Legal Momentum, the nation's oldest legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls.)
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