Sunday, September 2, 2012

Welfare to Work and a Plea for Wisdom

Happy Labor Day.

I’m thankful today for jobs I’ve had – for the chance to work, to grow, to contribute. I’m thankful for my husbands’ good jobs, that my kids have work, that we have health care, homes, food to eat.

And I’m prayerful for all the people in my life who aren’t able to say the same: who have never had jobs that allowed them to thrive, who have never had room to stretch and grow, whose health care is uncertain, whose days are devoted to counting change, juggling bills, wishing there were a few dollars more so the kids could go on the next class field trip.

I was tempted to repost my Labor Day post from last year. The issues I discussed are relevant to current political discussion.

But this past week there's been much discussion on another labor related issues: welfare to work and the new state waivers. I've been hearing that "Obama gutted welfare reform," listening to people repeat “Obama said people on welfare don’t need to work.”  I've been praying for greater wisdom, on the part of leaders and voters, about the complex, troubling world of the poor, and I've been wishing that all of us, rich, comfortable, opinionated, wise in our own well-being, could spend a week or two exploring the reality of poverty in these United States.

First, we’d learn, fast, that survival is complicated. Start with the acronyms. Ever heard of TANF? That’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Note the “Temporary.” TANF is the program prompting all the discussion. It grew out of the Welfare to Work legislation of 1996, but is so overburdened with record keeping, reporting requirements, conflicting conditions and consequences that many states find themselves putting more energy into documenting compliance than in effectively helping people find jobs. Here in Pennsylvania, people I know who have attempted TANF compliance have found themselves logging hours in a room with some crumpled want-ads, with no real hope of finding work, caught in a perpetual study hall with nothing to study, while their children are watched by neighbors or running free on city streets.

Which partially explains why 29 Republican governors signed a letter back in 2005 asking for waivers allowing state governments more flexibility in helping people move into the work force. Governors Rick Perry of Texas, John Huntsman of Alabama, Jeb Bush of Florida, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts were among those who signed the letter. Then President Bush ignored the request, but the issue was raised again last summer with a detailed proposal from Utah Governor Gary Herbert of Utah.

Those requests were met last month with a ruling authorizing increased flexibility, dependent on states continuing to meet or exceed the original goals of TANF: “helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.” As the explanatory memorandum from the Department of Health and Human Services makes clear:
 “The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is interested in more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs that offer opportunities for earnings and advancement that will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits. . . HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.”
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
The fact that governors who requested waivers are not strongly and vocally supporting this decision seems the height of dishonesty. Anyone who wants to see an end to regulation, stronger states rights, less federal government interference, should be applauding this change, rather than spreading misinformation and turning a malignant spotlight on those who find themselves in need of help.

Let’s pause, though, and ask: how much money are we talking about here? And how many people? People talk about welfare queens, as if there are people taking their ease while public assistance pays the bills. Current TANF allotments in most states are less than half the poverty level. In Pennsylvania, a single-parent family with two kids can expect $407 per month. Not enough to pay rent on even a studio apartment in any but the poorest neighborhood, so the single moms I know are camped out with their kids in one bedroom in someone else’s house, or scraping together whatever help they can find to perch precariously in inadequate, aging housing, hoping the sole toilet doesn’t break.

According to TANF regulations, no family can receive assistance for more than five years, total. And if a parent tries to go back to school to make a slightly better job possible, current TANF regulations allow exactly twelve months of assistance before that parent needs to get out in the work force.

Add in SNAP (that’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – previously food stamps, now a digitized card, like a credit card), and a family on assistance is still far below the poverty level.
Since the Welfare to Work legislation took place, the number of families receiving aid has declined by 60 percent, even with increased unemployment and significantly increased poverty.

While Welfare to Work rules have encouraged significant numbers back into the workforce, it has also resulted in more and more families in extreme poverty, with less and less help for food, rent, and other necessities.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
What happens when families are “sanctioned” because a parent fails to comply with the job search requirements? Or when the sixty month window expires? Assistance ends. Even though there are few jobs available. Even though the jobs open to someone with a GED and one year of training often pay minimum wage, no benefits, an no control over hours.

So back to my wish. For those with strong opinions about welfare and “the lazy poor”, of those not interested in poverty platforms, I wish we could all spend a week trying to figure it out: how to get to the welfare office by bus with a child or two in tow. How to feed a family on a few dollars a day, with limited transportation, limited space for storage. How to look and smell clean when there's no money for the laundromat. How to prioritize when there's not enough money to meet even the top priorities of housing, food, clean clothing.

We’d learn that life is confusing, with piecemeal offerings of help, confusing requirements, changing deadlines. We’d learn that hard choices are constant: get the brakes on the ancient van fixed, or buy the calculator needed for school? Pay the phone bill, or stock up on toilet paper?

Forget sports teams for the kids, summer camp, music lessons, braces. The questions are more immediate: milk or orange juice? Sneakers that fit, or a second-hand winter coat?

Yes, if you want, we can go back to the underlying question: isn’t it their fault they’re poor? These single moms: didn’t they make some bad choices?

Here’s a question of my own: where were you living when you were sixteen? Who was helping you think things through? Who was making sure you had a bed to sleep in? Who was holding you when you cried?

The 2009 film Precious, based on the first-person account of a young urban mom, did a great job of capturing the reality of many who struggle. Not an easy film to watch, but maybe it should be required viewing for all of us, politicians, pundits, person in the street.

This issue of work, welfare, and what we say about the poor is personal to me. My own family was on welfare when I was sixteen: food stamps, rent and medical assistance. We lived in a single parent household, with my grandmother as sole guardian. She was working long hours at a low wage job, working so hard she had a heart attack. Fortunately, she lived. Not every story ends so well. The issue is also personal to me because of my years of involvement in a poor Philly neighborhood, and my many friends with painful stories of their own. Until we find better ways of intervening in cycles of dysfunction, sexual violence, neglect, mental illness, drug dependence, we will not solve the problem of poverty.

Yes, there are people who continue to make unwise choices, and some who game the system, but the people I know who benefit from TANF are longing for a chance, struggling to survive, wishing they could find good jobs, worrying about their kids. They would benefit from more creative, more flexible programs. They are badly hurt when assistance to the poor becomes a political football and their needs and hopes are buried in partisan maneuvering.

What do I take from this?

  • Our politicians need to be honest about programs and policies. If they endorsed a policy because of its merits, they should say so, rather than be silenced by party politics, or bullied into opposing something they know would help.
  • Arguments about putting the poor to work should acknowledge our current climate: even people with years of experience, with extensive training and supportive networks, find it hard to find jobs that support their families. There are better ways to help families in need than insisting ill-equipped parents waste time looking for non-existent jobs rather than take the time needed to improve parenting and literacy skills and train for real long-term employment.
  • Compassion for the poor requires knowing people who struggle, trying to understand the realities they face, and finding practical ways to share the burdens. Without that compassion, our opinions are sounding gongs, or clashing symbols, and do far more harm than good. 

“This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” Zechariah 7:9-10
This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith: What's Your Platform.

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