We need to repair
our nation’s safety net.
Back in 1996, President Clinton
and Congress ended “welfare as we know it” and substituted it with
TANF, Temporary Aid for Needy Families.
They pushed TANF through in
the middle of an economic expansion. Today, we’re in the midst of
a severe recession, with double-digit unemployment rates afflicting
blacks and likely to soon afflict the overall population.
In this context, it’s hard to
justify the five-year limit on aid that the TANF law imposes. States
may elect to provide families aid for more than the cumulative 60
months, but the federal government limits the number of families
who can be helped, and penalizes states if they offer too much aid.
Before TANF, welfare recipients
could also attend college to improve their skills before returning
to the labor market. TANF limited college attendance and reduced
vocational training to one year.
These TANF provisions don’t
seem realistic in the face of this recession, either.
Congress reauthorized TANF in
2005, but the legislators kept its funding flat through 2010. This
means we have a pre-recession level of assistance available in a
recessionary time. That won’t do.
People who found jobs before
exhausting their 60 months of eligibility may have only a few months
left, even as they are now losing their jobs. Others, who might
ordinarily enter the labor market, have nowhere to turn for a job
and have nothing to fall back on. Still others, who need public
assistance and qualify for it, may not get it because the states
don’t have the money to distribute it.
the middle of an economic expansion, it was easy for our legislators
to engage in a moral argument about public assistance. Some portrayed
welfare recipients in the most contemptuous terms, as lazy and morally
inferior. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla., said they were people “you
wouldn’t leave your cat with.” Today’s recession mocks such scorn.
Millions of people need aid out of no fault of their own. The economy
has simply stopped working.
If numbers are the only measure,
TANF was a stunning success, with the number of families on aid
dropping for 10.3 million in 1997 to 4.3 million in 2006.
But the numbers don’t tell all.
They don’t tell what happened to these people who fell off the rolls.
don’t explain the invisible challenges that people faced because
of the limitations of TANF. And they don’t take into consideration
what will happen to people in times like these, when jobs are not
Today, even the most callous
legislator would have a hard time making a moral argument against
poor people, or those who have lost their jobs because our economy
is tottering on the brink of disaster. Instead, we might explore
the immorality of the Madoffs of the world (people you could not
leave your cash with).
The safety net we shredded more
than 12 years ago would come in handy today as we deal with this
recession. Without it, hundreds of thousands of families face hunger,
hardship and homelessness.
They not only need a safety
net. They deserve one.
This commentary originally
appeared in The
Editorial Board Member, Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett
College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. She wrote this for Progressive
Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international
issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers
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