As Our Safety Nets Get Slashed, More People Fall into Deep Poverty

  • submit to reddit

This post originally appeared at Mother Jones.

Jennifer Donald whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also know as food stamps, eats dinner with her sons David, 6, left, and Donovan, 4, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Jennifer Donald whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also know as food stamps, eats dinner with her sons David, 6, left, and Donovan, 4, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The economy is picking up in some parts of the country, but that hasn’t translated into any new serious efforts to help those suffering the most hardship. In fact, for those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, life may be getting even harder. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) looks at cash benefits provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, commonly known as “welfare.” It finds that the value of monthly cash benefits that make up the fragile safety net for the poorest families with children has continued to decline steadily since the program was “reformed” in 1996.

Back then, benefits weren’t exactly generous, but they did manage to keep a whole lot of kids out of really deep poverty. Today, those benefits are almost nonexistent. The lucky few who are able to get cash assistance aren’t getting enough to pay rent or keep the lights on in most states, and the value of the benefits has declined precipitously since 1996 — even more so since the recession started. According to CBPP, there is not a state in the country whose welfare benefits are enough to lift a poor single mother with two kids above 50 percent of the poverty line, or about $9,700 a year. In many southern states, TANF doesn’t provide enough money to get a poor family much above 10 percent of the poverty line. What’s especially troubling about these figures is that, as CBPP reports, TANF benefits are often the only form of cash assistance poor families receive. They may be getting food stamps, which definitely help their situations, but you can’t buy diapers or pay the rent with food stamps.

People like President Bill Clinton and then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich claimed they’d be doing welfare recipients a favor in the 1990s when they reformed the welfare program to impose work requirements and make it more difficult for people to get benefits. The idea was that welfare recipients were just lazy and that their government checks were keeping them from working, making them dependent on the government. When the reform legislation passed, with Clinton’s signature, some people in the administration quit in protest, arguing that cutting off cash assistance for poor families would push millions of children into poverty. That didn’t happen, at least not right away. But funding for the TANF block grant hasn’t increased since 1996, meaning that in real terms, what the country spends to help poor families in the program has fallen 30 percent overall since welfare was “reformed,” and benefit levels have fallen even more in some states that cut benefits after the financial crisis started in 2007. Not surprisingly, since 1996, the number of families with children living in extreme poverty — that is, on $2 a day or less — has gone up nearly 130 percent.

The US Census Bureau reports that the number of Americans suffering significant hardships, such as having utilities cut off, getting evicted or suffering food shortages, has escalated sharply during the recession. Between 2005 and 2011, nearly seven million additional people were unable to make a mortgage or rent payment, suggesting that as the nation’s last-ditch safety net for people in really dire straits, TANF, is not working. Given that science is now showing just how damaging the stress of poverty is to children and their health and intellectual development, maybe it’s finally time for welfare reform to be reformed in a way that gives poor kids a fair shot at a decent future.

Stephanie Mencimer works in Mother Jones‘ Washington bureau.
  • submit to reddit
  • Anonymous

    If Wisconsin voters don’t get the clausal connection between Governor Walker and this statistic, the state should just change it’s name to Wississippi.

  • Owen Johnson

    It seems there are those who don’t care if poor kids have a shot at life and there are also those who actively oppose giving them that opportunity. What the hell has gone wrong in this country? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

  • Jk

    Its sad

  • Anonymous

    Imposing work requirements without offering jobs that pay a living wage is a cruel joke.

  • Anonymous

    As a former participant in ‘the system’ I can tell you that it is set up on numbers pulled out of a hat. Numbers that have nothing whatsoever to do with need. Even the most well intentioned have great difficulty navigating their way out of poverty. The stress of pulling a rabbit out of a hat every day takes its tole. Most in that position are single mothers trying to raise children. I found my way out, though never made enough to really leave poverty behind. By world standards, I am fine. There are plenty of things we could do to improve this picture, none of which punish the recipients like people want to do today.

  • Anonymous

    And we cut nutrition support for poor & hungary people especially children & elderly to give Carghill Corp. 10s of millions in ag. subsidies & massively taxpayer subsidized revenue stop loss insurance & direct shallow loss payments (100% for shallow loss). This reality is despicable behavior by our elected officials. Drop all agri ulture industry subsidies & payouts, fund nutrition in a separate bill.

  • Wisconsinnotwalker

    Even before Walker there was not any monetary benefits for Mothers and Kids in Wisconsin. How they ever think they will get out of poverty is beyond me!

  • Sarah Smith

    Not doubting the numbers, but the distribution seems to be reflected more of the way states pay out TANF and not a reflection of which states really have more poverty.

  • Anonymous

    Kids grow up desperate in desperate homes and eventually end up in jail – right where the prison industry wants them.

  • Peter Gatliff

    Iv made a point to boycott all Republican owned business’s when possible.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    Millions of people are being set up to fail, then blamed for their own failure by telling them they are lazy & don’t work hard enough. It’s not just a cruel joke…it’s inhumane.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    I’m a recent college graduate of UWEC still looking for a job since I graduated last December. I’ve very recently become a widow & have 5 kids. My 2 kids over 18 help support us by living at home and paying a modest rent so we can get by (and trust me–2 very young men don’t want to live at home with their mother & 3 younger sisters, but they made a promise to their dying father). I still have 3 kids under age 18 to support. I won’t ever get out of poverty–not in my lifetime. Plus I’m $67,000 in debt with college loans. So much for believing the propaganda that “college will better your life.” I don’t even know what to do now.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    You’re exactly right. I’m still in “the system” trying to get out. Hard making ends meet being a 44 year old widow with 5 kids.

  • Tiffany

    If this doesn’t prove our dear leaders, including the law makers who play in the captain’s chair while their people starve, are a bunch of sociopaths, nothing will. Can anyone say North Korea? http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/09/nsa-director-modeled-war-room-after-star-treks-enterprise.html

  • Bobbie 828

    Terri – I’m so sorry for whatever reasons your children are not receiving social security from their father and you as the caregiver. It would have made such a difference for you. Best wishes in finding a well paid, satisfying job. Sounds like you really deserve a break.

  • John Schwartz

    Podverty is awfull especially for kids and nobody who is not in it can feel the pain. But the issue is not really the welfare act. Apart from the heartbreaking fate of being a widow with several children, single mom’s emerge from broken families and bad choice (stats 73% of black children born out of wedlock). Agreed that we need to provide a sustainable safety net for socially disfavored persons in our society, but if that society did more to get on top of its family issues, there would be a lot less poverty around. Second, a badly run economy with a private sector hamstrung by over regulation and uneconomic policies causes job loss and lesser opportunity to earn a reasonable living. Several states (including WI) are getting out of a bad hole created by former bad policy makers.

  • skitstovel

    This will not change. The problem with most “post neocons” is that they will always see the critically poor as undeserving leeches. They can’t conceive of any social benefit in lifting people out of poverty. We used to have a civil society but in the age of corporate (for profit) media, tough questions don’t get asked, reactionary behavior is never assessed critically, and untruths are aired, unassailed and unsupervised. I used to live for Sunday talk-shows, now it’s just grating noise – like a school yard fight with no adults around. We’re doomed.

  • Anonymous

    There is no safety net. TANF, for those who have dependent children, is essentially a short-term marginally subsidized temp help service. It’s not an entitlement. Those without children are just out of luck. This generation got very, very, very tough on the poor, the ill, the unemployable.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, I think those who carry the burden of the responsibility is the “progressive” media that waves the Middle Class Only banner, standing in solidarity with the better-off, those with incomes in the $50k range (you know, the people who insisted that those on $4k aid were living in unacceptable luxury). Progressive media was largely replaced (esp. since Clinton) with a media for the bourgeoisie alone, deeply dividing the poor and middle class.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, only a fraction of the poor qualify for TANF, and this is not an entitlement. It is basically a time-limited temp job agency that saves businesses a lot of money in wages.

  • Anonymous

    Tragically, there has been no progressive movement to reverse these priorities. Occupy had the potential to do just that, but before we even had time to catch our breath, liberal media (perhaps especially MSNBC) redefined Occupy as a Middle Class Only movement. So, the rest of us walked away.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know how you do it. Our abundance of low wage workers lack any job security whatsoever, in a country with no legitimate safety net. The fact is, times have changed, and very, very few low wage workers will ever be able to work their way up, out of poverty.

  • Anonymous

    But I read that some 80% of middle classers support this (at least, until they get replaced by workfare labor).

  • Anonymous

    Yes, it’s called “the middle class.” These are the privileged (incomes in $50k range) who actually think they have (by virtue of their superiority) job security. The middle class has been getting phased out since the 1980s, and so many of them still don’t get it.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a lifelong Wisconsinite (58 yrs.). Our downhill slide began in the mid-1980s with Gov. Thompson, who began ending the New Deal/Great Society (what became known as AFDC was actually first written into FDR’s Social Security Act of 1932). He would still be in office, if he hadn’t been selected for a job in DC (where he was embarrassingly WAY out of his league, and he was finally sent packing). Thompson began the movement to liberate WI from its family farms and manufacturing jobs, the backbone of the middle class. This was followed by a brief Doyle administration, a solid conservative Democrat. Voters then gave us Walker, who will remain in office for as long as he wishes. He merely picked up where Thompson left off, tackling labor. Did I mention that Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of binge drinking and alcoholism, which might explain our politics?

  • Anonymous

    Well in MN we are generous to billionaires and will build them a stadium. Too bad about the poor folks, our billionaires are overeaters!

  • David

    It breaks my heart to see what is happening in America. I’m an English teacher in California and could not get a job for the 2012-2013 school year. I have two MA’s, fully credentialed, and wonderful references. I was receiving unemployment benefits and due to the sequester, my benefits were cut almost 18%. To get a job, my wife and I moved overseas. I miss America, but as long as corporate interest trump the people, America’s middle class will continue to decline, and sadly, probably cease to exist.

  • Anonymous

    You said a mouth full there. Privatized prisons are huge money……they are buying judges now. Smallest infractions people end up in prisons. It’s very frightening and few realize what is going on.

  • jillscherb7

    Your argument is called the “culture of poverty” argument. It’s not a new argument at all. Basically, you’re saying that the poor, whom you identify as largely black, must rise out of their poverty through self-help and adopting middle-class ways. Arguments like these have been tendered since the 1860s Poor Laws in England. For a complete look at the rhetoric which produces these type arguments, see Albert O. Hirschman’s “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.” First of all, MOST American women on welfare are white divorcees with two children. We need to provide a sustainable safety net, not only for socially disfavored persons in our society, but for economically disfavored persons. The private sector you refer to has steadily chipped away at safeguards like Glass-Stegall, instituted in the 1930s, against such debacles as the 2008 Worldwide Recession, caused by risky investors, not by poor black women or their children, until it removed them altogether. So much for safeguards and so much for regulation! People in the 1930s were also led to believe that it was their own individual “bad choices” that were responsible for the, again, Worldwide Economic Depression. Many did believe that. They were wrong. And so are you. We do have some social problems, but we also have some economic problems and the ones that caused the 2008 Worldwide Recession are amenable to regulation, if we had the strength as a nation to call for that. A “monetized” economy that makes profits by “flipping” factories the way people use to “flip” houses for profit, and by “flipping” debt (student loans among other things, hamstringing our graduates before they can even get started) IS a problem and the risky investments by private equity firms and others did cause the 2008 debacle. Those actions also affected people at the bottom of our society, and not only banks. Most individual citizens received no bailouts and, in fact, paid taxes to “fix” those problems. People at the bottom, always vulnerable, were hard hit, and no amount of social engineering is going to change that. Some economic engineering might give them at least a fighting chance to survive. As it is, if you read this article carefully, many of them are at their wits end and having to use every ounce of intelligence, creativity, drive, and will that they have merely to survive. Don’t blame them!

  • jillscherb7

    They are not sociopaths, alas. They are often well-meaning, but ill-informed people like Mr. John Schwartz above. These well-meaning people could indeed lead us down a path toward totalitarianism or fascism, should they get their way entirely. They already led us to the 2008 Global Recession and a good deal of ills around the world, as well as at home, as a result. We need to be fighting to overturn Citizens United, working to make voting districts look like our communities really look, not political playthings. We need to be getting together with other grassroots groups organizing against interests that tell us pollution and GMOs are actually good for us (when what they are good for is the bottom line, only) And working to change their mindset, if possible. I’m not sure they are reachable except through their pocketbooks. If we can find a way to make it profitable for them to assist the poor, turn to alternative energy, etc., the monetary powers-that-be might listen. Otherwise, we will only have heartfelt, though condescending, neglect a la Mr. Schwartz and outright neglect by those whose profits rest on the proposition that dealing in other people’s misery is a road to profits (flipping factories, buying and selling debt, etc.) and, therefore, do not wish to help the poor nor to help build a sustainable economic system that’s good for everyone and not only for the very, very few.

  • jillscherb7

    So true. Where the prison industry then makes a profit of their human misery once again.

  • jillscherb7

    Actually, I just want to point out that the nation’s downhill slide has been a very long time coming. It’s not even as recent as Reagan. We all need to know the history. You can go back further, but the Gilded Age is a good place to start in the 1890s. Rise of the oligarchs. With the 20s and then the Worldwide Depression of the 1930s, we had a few (very few) strong government regulations put in place to forestall another such debacle, namely, the Glass-Stegall act. Banks have been chipping away at Glass-Stegall ever since the 1930s and finally got it revoked entirely (this occurred under Clinton). This de-regulation set the stage for the 2008, again, Global Recession, brought on by the risky investments de-regulation encouraged, the new “monetized” global economy that, well, basically flips money, the way we also now “flip” factories the way people used to flip houses, for profit (not to make them better; in fact, in some cases, whole communities die like the factory Romney’s firm was selling off to China, while making current employees, about to lose their jobs, train the Chinese before they were let go, etc. etc. In other words, we’ve been down this road before and we’re going down it hard again, and no New Deal in sight to lift those hardest hit even a little. Actually, some people say WWII did a great deal to lift the American economy as it promoted production. All our production is overseas now. So . . . that won’t work anymore.

    It’s not just the politicians is what I’m saying. That’s who we get to focus upon, who shows up in the media. It’s the people you DON’T see, who are not in the public eye, who hold the strings that control the politicians. Those people are basically the big-time moneybags–banks, Wall Street, private equity firms, etc. Need to zero in on real causes. Politicians are just “vehicles.” Far from representing the “people,” they mainly represent these same monied interests. As long as we now have Citizens United and a Supreme Court in bed with monied interests as well, we are sunk as a so-called democracy. More like an oligarchic empire, I’d say. As to the poor, they’ve been maligned for a very long time using the same arguments over and over ever since the institutionalized 1860s Poor Laws. For a very good book on the primary rhetorical arguments used, and what’s wrong with each of these arguments, see Albert O. Hirschman’s “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Futility, Perversity, Jeopardy.”

  • jillscherb7

    I also hope you get a good job. It’s not much help to know, but even the student loans you have are “part of the problem.” Since we now have the global “monetized” economy, in which most high-level profits are made by flipping debt, factories, and other money/profits, what happens with your student loans over time is that different companies buy and sell them (making a profit off your debt) while you attempt to pay them off. It’s another way of “owing the company store.” If you ever do come into any significant money, paying them off entirely in one lump sum would prevent some of that trading-in-misery going on in the economy.

    I’m sure that’s no help now, though. If you are not already receiving help through social services, you certainly sound eligible. I’m a 70 year-old retired community college professor and low-income senior (with plenty of college degrees and study–in fact, I researched welfare reform rhetoric for a Ph.D. program). The community college job did not pay into Social Security–adjunct faculty are “exempt.” I’ve gotten what help I could, most often not much and not enough. I supplement that help by going to food banks and food pantries and foregoing things like dental care usually. It’s almost a full-time job seeking help. If you haven’t yet done so, I hope you will start soon.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    My husband was chronically ill and never worked very much, so any survivor benefits the kids will get will be very small. Processing benefits were delayed by the government shutdown. My husband died Sept. 25, 2013 and the government shutdown came 5 days later. Social Security was still taking applications but processing the applications was delayed due to lack of staff. I went to college knowing he was ill and knowing I will most likely end up a widow. I finally graduated December 2012. I just wanted to get a career started before he passed away, but I kept applying for various positions and nothing happened. No interviews, just rejection letters. Now he’s gone and it’s too late for me to try to “prepare myself” for being a widow and a single parent. The loan companies are already breathing down my neck. I’m not ready for this. I’ve barely had time to mentally process that he’s gone before I realized how financially screwed we are. I need more than a break, I need a really great paying job with benefits and flexible hours. Working from home would be great. I can’t afford to take any crap paying job or we’ll really suffer.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    I was already getting help from social services because I was a struggling college student with 5 kids and a non-employed, chronically disabled husband on dialysis. I just thought that after college I’d be working and could shed myself of all this financial struggling nonsense. What I have begun to realize is that “middle class” working people are the equivalent to “poverty light” just driving a slightly more reliable (yet unpaid for) car. Middle class people may earn a better salary, but are far deeper in debt to earn that salary. It’s a trade off–one type of poverty for another and neither are sufficient.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    We live in a cheap trailer. We are the stereotypical “trailer trash” family. We have nothing–no money, no savings, no life insurance, no new anything, no vacations or trips EVER. Everything we own is used–purchased at garage sales, thrift stores, auctions, or pawn shops. I have never earned more than $10 per hour my entire adult life. I frequently have things shut off (phone or utilities) not because I don’t want to pay but I can’t afford to pay. Homelessness is never out of realm of possibility, neither is an empty cupboard, refrigerator or freezer. It is a very worrisome, stressful and chronically insecure way of life. You just learn to deal with it because you have no choice–it’s all you know.

  • Bobbie 828

    “I can’t afford to take any crap paying job or we’ll really suffer.” That is what so many people refuse to understand. That people often can not afford to work because the wages are pitiful and exploitive. And – best of luck to you. And so sorry for the loss of your husband. Do hope the SS gets to you soon.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    Thank you. I got a letter saying social security is coming but its only $37 per kid. OUCH! That won’t pay for much.