Thursday, September 16, 2010

Poor women get the shaft while Senate flails

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A friend laid it out for us last weekend: "There used to be programs where you could send them. But now -- nothing." She works with the down and out in San Francisco's Tenderloin, the sort of dense, relatively cheap, dope-infested and dangerous downtown slum that barely exists in newer and smaller cities. Think grit among apartment buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the people in those buildings are families -- women on their own with children, new immigrants with little English, African-Americans, the unlucky of all races.

Back when Bill Clinton was trying to make nice with a recalcitrant Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich, both parties combined to "end welfare as we've known it." That is, they agreed they'd stop offering cash benefits to women with kids who couldn't work, setting a 5 year limit on how long women could get any help -- and giving the states the funds as block grants that they were supposed to use to help poor women get into the labor force. Women on welfare and their friends howled, but the plan -- called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) -- sailed through in 1996. (Full disclosure -- I was employed in those years on campaigns to expose what Congress was doing to poor people.)

The horrors we anticipated didn't completely show up because, just as the cuts were taking effect, the economy got much stronger, some women were able to find jobs, and the rolls got smaller. "Success!" both parties crowed.

But those block grants to the states haven't grown; they are still set based on 1994 welfare costs to states and have lost 27 percent of their value. Moreover states are allowed to divert the federal grants to other uses, such as balancing their budgets. Stephanie Mencimer reports in Mother Jones that even before the Great Recession hit

the state of Georgia dropped nearly 90 percent of the women off its TANF rolls between 2004 and the end of 2007, even as unemployment soared by 30 percent, and then diverted millions of dollars in federal anti-poverty money to other parts of the state budget. Thanks to this, only 18 percent of all children in Georgia living below 50 percent of the poverty line -- that is, on less than $733 a month for a family of three -- were receiving TANF in 2008.

When welfare was a guaranteed federal program, the case rolls would have automatically increased in a recession like the present one, helping tide people over until the job market improved. But with the current rules and system of federal payments to the states, that isn't happening. In fact, according to a report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, census data shows that TANF is horribly broken.

... despite the nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, almost 90 percent of poor women with children are struggling through the recession without any financial assistance. The numbers range from 60 percent of poor women not receiving aid in DC to fully 96 percent in Louisiana who aren't getting a dime.

The federal stimulus package passed in 2009 did help some people.

The TANF Emergency Fund (TEF) ... has given states over $1 billion to operate subsidized jobs programs that have proved successful on multiple fronts. The fund has been a “win-win-win,” helping unemployed families find work, businesses expand capacity in a difficult economic environment, and local economies cope with the recession. Without the fund, some 120,000 young people would not have had summer jobs and some 130,000 parents would not have had jobs to provide for their families’ basic needs; they would also have lost a valuable opportunity to build skills for the future.

But this program ends on September 30 unless Congress reauthorizes it. That's why Jobs with Justice, a coalition including labor unions and community organizing groups that work among and are the poor, rallied outside Senator Diane Feinstein's office this afternoon, urging reauthorization. As has been true of so many bills this Congress, the House has passed an extension but the Senate is stymied by Republicans' (and perhaps the usual Dems') refusal to allow a vote.

Meanwhile, as my friend the Tenderloin caseworker explained, "there's nothing left." Medical won't enroll the sick at least until the health reform kicks in; training programs are closing; non-profits are being shuttered. Lfe is going to even tougher if the TANF emergency program is allowed to expire. Annie Lowrey in the Washington Independent reports today that

.. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) held a hearing to urge the TEF’s reauthorization. ... Casey is looking for a vehicle for the funding, but the chances seem dim.

Dumping on poor people is so much easier than taxing Wall Street to pay for civilization ...

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The "welfareQUEENS" from Poor Magazine raised spirits at today's rally.

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