March 19, 2009

Considering TANF

We're happy to have Joni Podschun, Advocacy Associate at So Others Might Eat, once again guest posting on Beyond Bread. Joni's been working hard on a new report, and we asked her to share some of her insight with us. She'll be posting more in the future, so let us know if you have questions for her! And thanks to SOME for lending Joni to our blog.

A recent piece in Mother Jones about TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) continues to attract attention. Deservedly so: the article (“Brave New Welfare,” by Stephanie Mencimer) is revelatory and heartbreaking in its assessment of the state of TANF, the modern welfare program.

Much of the article’s focus is in Georgia, where the number of residents receiving TANF benefits has fallen by 90% since 2004. Georgia is perhaps the most extreme case in the nation, but the article reports that caseloads in all states are falling “even as unemployment has soared and other poverty programs have experienced explosive growth.”

If the number of people who actually need TANF was truly falling, we’d be celebrating. But the truth is that these falling numbers come despite a great rise in need. And the Mother Jones article reveals that the drop in caseloads is in fact a result of a deliberate effort on behalf of the state agencies to push needy families out of the TANF program, so that the funding can be redirected elsewhere.

This is particularly troubling given the fact that TANF is the primary safety net for single mothers who have exhausted all other means of support. It is also, as the article puts it, the “gateway to education, drug rehab or mental health care, child care, even transportation and disability benefits—tools for upward mobility.”

This isn’t mentioned in the MJ article, but caseloads have just started to rise again in DC, along with a dozen other states including Maryland and Virginia. Nationally, TANF enrollment has still not climbed as fast as SNAP/Food Stamps. (The SNAP program is now at record levels, with 31.8 Americans enrolled.) This is due to many factors, including stigma, misinformation, a five year time limit on program eligibility, and other policies that deter enrollment.

Overall, the TANF program in DC is more stable and robust than that portrayed in “Brave New Welfare.” The deterrence and diversion tactics seen in Georgia are unheard of in our city. Around here, anyone who is eligible for the program typically gets enrolled without too much fuss. Sometimes it’s difficult to get an appointment or there may be long lines, but applicants are not turned away or lied to as they are in Georgia. While we’re a long way from perfect implementation, we also have progressive programs and policies, such as home visit programs (like one launched last year at Bread for the City) that reach out to disconnected TANF recipients in order to help them overcome barriers to work like limited education, substance abuse, physical and mental health issues, and domestic violence.

And yet, as the economic downturn threatens to push more D.C. residents into poverty, the TANF program needs to be revisited and strengthened. Over the summer and fall, SOME and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute conducted focus groups with TANF recipients and interviews with frontline workers—including clients at Bread for the City—to learn their experiences with the TANF program. We are writing a report now that includes the information that we collected, as well as recommendations based on what has worked in other states.

Many of the 16,142 D.C. families on TANF—including about 29,000 children—are among the first to be affected by economic crisis. In these difficult economic times, the city must do all in its power to support them as they work toward their goals and make sure they have the tools necessary to weather the economic storm.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Greetings BB & Ms. Joni,

I am Karen J., a DC resident, parent and non-profit employee for a leading child & family services org. I really appreciated reading your article. I'd like to have some discussions with you actually regarding the work that you all are doing.

I too have a monthly blog spot by which I offer training & service resources, film, book, & educational information, etc., on the scope of human and social services. While blogging is new to me, my history of frontline human/social services work is in my genetics!!!! I train and coordinate trainings now and would like to set a positive blaze to the providers and recipients of human/social services. As a past participant, it's really urgent for the mass public to recognize the development that's so needed by both participants and providers. But off of my soap box - I've subscribed and will definitely be connecting. Peace and Blessings till next time!! KJ