New Census Report Proves Again That Anti-Poverty Programs Work

September 19, 2016

Only so much number crunching a lone blogger like me can do. So I’m behind the curve on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure report, issued the same day as the report using the official measure.

As in the past, the SPM shifts poverty rates up and down. The overall poverty rate, for example, is higher — 14.3%, as compared to the official 13.5%. The child poverty rate drops from 19.7% to 16.1%, while the senior poverty rate rises from 8.8% to 14.3%.

These differences, as well as others derive from numerous differences between the measures. For example, the SPM includes the children who aren’t part of the official measure’s poverty universe.*

This is relatively minor, compared to other differences — thresholds among them. Instead of those I’ve nattered about, the SPM begins with consumer spending on four basic needs, plus a small additional for others.

It then deducts for work-related expenses, e.g., transportation, child care, and for child support payments and medical costs that individuals themselves must pay. (Those medical out-of-pockets largely explain the higher senior poverty rate.)

The annual threshold adjustments differ too — and in a way that may make yearly changes in the SPM poverty rates “confusing,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says. It specifically cautions against comparing the new SPM figures to last year’s.

I’ll confine myself then to what we can glean from another major difference. For the official measure, only pre-tax cash income counts in determining whether a household and the members it recognizes were poor.

The SPM deducts for taxes. It also includes income derived from the refundable tax credits and the cash-equivalent value of a some safety net benefits that the federal government funds either entirely or in combination with states.

What we can see, because of an analysis the Bureau provides, is what poverty rates would have been without one or another of the safety net benefits — both cash and cash-equivalent. It folds in Social Security retirement and disability benefits, though they’re not for low-income people only.

As always, Social Security proves the most effective anti-poverty measure we’ve got. Without the benefits it provided, about 26.6 million more people would have been part of the poverty rate, boosting it to over 22.6%.

Well over a third of all seniors would have been poor — nearly triple the rate with those benefits factored in.

The Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit again come in second. They lifted about 9.2 million workers and their dependents over the poverty threshold, including 4.8 million children. Their already-high poverty rate would have been 22.6% without the credits.

Not all low-income workers benefited, however. Current law denies the federal EITC to both young and elderly workers. And the credit is very small for age-eligible adults who don’t have children — or who do, but not in their homes for more than half the year.

In short, an anti-poverty measure that works, but could work better. One could say the same for other safety net benefits the SPM report accounts for.

SNAP (the food stamp program), for example, as I’ve often said. Yet even with its current limits, it lifted roughly 4.6 million people, including nearly 2 million children out of poverty last year.

Results for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which I’ve also often gone on about, were pathetic — a 0.2% nick in the poverty rate.

An even more pathetic impact from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which neither the administration nor Congress seems much interested in funding.

We don’t see a large boost over the poverty thresholds from federally-funded housing subsidies either — a generously rounded up 2.5 million fewer poor because of it. In this case, we do have an actively interested administration — and what seems moderate support from majorities in Congress.

But the SPM thresholds take account of what people must spend for housing. And, as everyone knows, housing costs have been rising virtually everywhere.

So federal budgets would need to do more to keep those costs from driving up poverty rates than merely ensure that as many households have vouchers as they do now — or the same chance to live in public housing.

The Census Bureau reports each of the anti-poverty programs separately. So we can’t see how many people were lifted out of poverty by, say, SNAP plus a housing subsidy.

The Center on Budget rolls all the programs together and concludes that they cut the poverty rate almost in half last year.

It also notes, as have other analysts, that households surveyed tend to under-report the benefits they’ve received — mainly just because it’s hard to recall exactly how much one gets, perhaps from multiple sources and usually over some period of time.

At a minimum then, the safety net benefits, plus Social Security lifted about 38.1 million people over their poverty threshold — more seniors than younger people, but still about 7.9 million children.

CBPP warns that cuts in the programs would plunge more people into poverty. That’s, I think, what any fair-minded person would conclude from the SPM analysis.

It shows, with hard numbers, that our major anti-poverty programs work, notwithstanding the constant drumbeat from the right about how they’ve failed. It also shows they could work better — some perhaps if just more amply funded, some surely if also reformed.

* The SPM report adjusts the official rates to include the missing children. So one finds a higher overall poverty rate and higher child poverty rate there.

Making TANF More Than Very Temporary Assistance for Some Very Needy Families

September 1, 2016

My last post dove into the thorny thicket of the work participation requirements that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law and rules impose on states.

Both the WPRs and the escape hatch for states that don’t meet them help explain why TANF has generally failed to do more than very temporarily assist some very needy families.

Both the House draft bill and the Senate bill I’ve focused on would address these and some other problems. But they’d leave one untouched (or virtually so). Here then is more about what they’d do — and not.

New Purpose(s)

You’d think that a work-focused program for needy families would have poverty reduction as a purpose. But TANF doesn’t. The closest the law comes, as I remarked before, is reducing dependency.

The House draft would make reducing poverty a purpose — not generally, but by moving more parents into the workforce, with better prospects there than has often been the case. The Senate bill would add something similar, but link it to reducing both child poverty and deep child poverty, i.e., the percent of children in families with incomes below 50% of the federal poverty line.

Both new purposes provide a partial basis for the outcome measures and related reports the bills would require. They also serve as a rationale of sorts for the tighter limits on state spending that both impose.

Shift in Success Measures

The current law holds states accountable for having their enrolled TANF parents engaged in work-related activities. And it effectively rewards them for getting families out of their programs. They needn’t concern themselves with results.

And the fact that we know very little about what happens to families after they leave TANF, however they leave, shows that most don’t. They’ve no compelling reason to invest in the tracking and analyses that would require.

Both the House draft and the Senate bill would give them one. They’d have to develop outcome measures and publicly report results.

Both bills specify the employment rates and earnings of former TANF parents. The Senate bill includes indicators related to the rest of the new program purpose it would establish. States would also have to track and report child food insecurity.

They’d still have some flexibility. So we might lack comparable data. And some outcome measures could give states another incentive to “cream” their caseloads, as CLASP experts have warned.

But what we don’t know can — and does — hurt poor families with children. So we do clearly need outcome measures reflecting what our welfare program ought to do.

Curbs on State Spending

States have enormous flexibility in how they may use their share of the TANF block grant, plus their maintenance of effort, i.e., funds they must spend to get their share. We see the results in the annual reports they must file with the federal agency that administers TANF.

They all spend some money for cash benefits, programs to get parents into the workforce and child care, which both parents preparing for work and those who’ve found it need. But nearly half spend less than 50% of their combined TANF funds on these. Ten spend less than 25%.

Major advocacy organizations have recommended a minimum spending level for the aforementioned three items — commonly referred to as core activities. The House drafters left the question of minimum spending open. The Senate bill sets a 60% minimum level, phased in over a five years. So still a lot of flexibility, but considerably less.

The bill also restricts block grant spending to aid for families with incomes no greater than 200% of the federal poverty line. The House draft does something similar. Tells us something about where this anti-poverty money is going.

Federal Funding Shortage

Neither the House draft nor the Senate bill remedies a problem that’s partly responsible for others — the continually shrinking value of the block grant.* It’s been flat-funded ever since Congress created it.

This, as I (and many others) have said, means it’s worth about a third less now. Likewise states’ required MOEs. At the same time, many have more needy families.

Not, however, in their TANF caseloads. Even states that resist other perverse incentives, understandably feel they can’t afford to provide all poor families with the benefits and services that would even just lift them out of poverty.

Nor to pay all the caseworkers truly individualized plans would require, though both the House draft and the Senate bill set new standards for these.

The President’s proposed budget — DOA, of course — would increase the block grant by $8 million over the next five years. That would require states to increase their MOE spending.

The block grant increase, however, would only “partially address its erosion in value,” the Department of Health and Human services says. And we’ve got about 5.2 million more poor families now than in 1996.

But even a fully restored block grant, with all funds channeled to families below the poverty line would seem less than needed. How much less is hard to say because we can’t know how much inflation will again erode it. Nor how many families will need assistance in upcoming years.

The proposed budget does, however, look ahead to the next recession — or recessions. It would build a reserve for infusions during economic downturns, with a trigger to release them.

So extra help for states and the needy families they should serve would no longer depend entirely on the whims of Congress. The premature demise of the Recovery Act’s Emergency Contingency Fund shows why an automatic, economy-sensitive alternative is preferable.

In not-so-short, the next Congress and President will have proposals to work with if they decide, at long last, to reauthorize TANF. They’re fairly modest proposals, but they’d give us a much better “welfare” program than what we’ve got.

* The House draft would increase the block grant by $25 million for each of the five years it covers. This is a fraction of the real-dollar loss to date.


One Thumb Up for Washington Post Piece on TANF Benefits Cut-Offs

August 24, 2016

The Washington Post celebrated the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families with a well-meaning, but disappointing article on District of Columbia families who may soon lose what remains of their benefits.

It’s well-meaning because it focuses on what will happen unless the DC Council passes a bill to extend benefits for at least some of them. And it includes some potent warnings about costs the District will incur if it cuts off their cash assistance, thinking to save money.

But it doesn’t make the best case it could have for the extensions the Council is considering. And it leaves out an important piece of the cost issue.

First off, the TANF mom it chooses to focus on isn’t “the typical District welfare client,” as it claims. She and her partner live in a subsidized apartment. So her family’s receiving far more in safety net benefits than most who’ll lose what they get from TANF.

We don’t know how many TANF families are living with accommodating friends or relatives because they don’t have subsidized housing. But we do know that TANF was recently the most common source of reported income for homeless families the District counted, i.e., those in shelters or limited-term transitional housing.

More importantly, the profiled mother has worked in a series of jobs and has a certificate in emergency medicine technology. She says the couldn’t keep working because she couldn’t afford child care for the toddler she then had.

But if I understand correctly, she could have a childcare subsidy now — and for at least awhile longer if she found a new job. Both her work history and the unpaid work she’s doing now to comply with her TANF work activity requirement strongly suggest she could.

Many TANF parents have what are commonly referred to as severe barriers to work. We don’t have current public information on those who’ve exceeded — or will soon exceed — the rigid time limit the District imposes.

But a study of the caseload before the District set the time limit identified a range of barriers — some not swiftly (if ever) overcome, e.g., physical and mental health problems. At least one — learning disabilities — will last until the affected parents’ children are too old for the families to qualify for TANF.

Others, as I remarked before, could prove temporary if the parents have more time and the opportunities they need — a chance to complete high school or a GED program, for example, or to keep looking for a job so they won’t have to divert their energies and perhaps endanger their health the way some adults in extreme poverty must.

These are among the “hardship” cases that would gain extensions of their TANF benefits under the bill awaiting Council action — and, I should add, a formal response from the Bowser administration.

By far and away the largest number of District residents who’ll suffer extraordinary hardships if they lose their benefits have a work barrier they can’t possibly surmount in the near term because they’re children.

Plunging them into the deepest depths of poverty will put them at high risk of lasting mental and/or physical health damages.  So they’re like to have severe barriers when they’re old enough to work.

There’s a reason to refer to the potentially reprieved parents and children as hardship cases — one the Post article fails to mention.

The District could extend benefits for a fifth of its total caseload, based on a combination of domestic violence and “hardship,” however it defines that, and still use its federal funds for the families’ benefits. Benefits here include not only the cash assistance the article focuses on, but all the work-related services the program provides.

Any discussion of the cost of extensions should include this significant fact, as well as the costs of sweeping all the time-limited families out of TANF. Roughly 5,800 of them, including nearly 10,400 children will get swept out in October unless the Council and Mayor agree to reprieve at least some of them.*

But more families will reach the time limit every month unless and until the District adopts an extensions policy, as virtually every state already has. The cumulative impact is something else I’d like to have seen mentioned.

Ah well, that’s what blogs are for.

* These are figures the Department of Human Service recently provided, not to me or for public consumption. They are substantially lower than figures the department has reported earlier, for reasons as yet undetermined.



TANF Turns 20, Still Failing Poor Families

August 18, 2016

Next Monday is the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The celebration, if we should call it that, has already featured more than the customary annual bashing. And I plan more than that too.

But I do think it’s worth a fresh look at how poorly poor families with children have fared since TANF replaced welfare as we knew it — and why it’s done so little to help enrolled parents move on to steady, decent-paying work.

These two are closely related, of course. And the evidence for both dates back to some time around TANF’s fifth anniversary, when parents with minimal marketable skills and little or no work experience could no longer get jobs because the very tight labor market loosened up.

Yet some leading Republican policymakers seem invincibly ignorant, as Catholic theology terms it, or willfully so, since they’re still proposing safety net program overhauls based on the TANF model.

A summary then of where things stand now — not for them, but for you who might advocate for a better TANF program, both nationwide and in your state (or would-be state if you live in the District of Columbia).

Fewer Poor Families Aided

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — my main source here, as often for TANF data — shows what’s happened to poor families and their children in several different ways.

We see, for example, that TANF served only a third as many families in 2014 as the program it replaced did in its last year.

We’re reminded that TANF enrollment barely grew during the Great Recession, while SNAP (the food stamp program) responded well to the large increase in households without the income jobs had provided.

Families With Benefits Still in Deep Poverty

CBPP also updates figures on cash assistance — basically, still shrinking as a percent of the federal poverty line, though some states and the District have increased benefits.

The maximum for a three-person family leaves it in deep poverty, i.e., below half the FPL, no matter where it lives.

Adjusting for inflation — and thus purchasing power — benefits have shrunk in all but three states. They’ve lost more than 30% of their value in nearly half.

These figures, recall, are based on the maximum a three-person family can receive. Very poor families may receive less because the parents — and necessarily their children — have been punished with benefits cuts.

The District has made three across-the-board cuts for families that have participated in TANF for 60 months or more. A three-person family up against the rigid time limit now receives $154 a month — 9% of the FPL.

Little Spent to Move Families From Welfare to Work

The assumption behind CBPP’s analyses (and others) is that TANF is supposed to reduce poverty among families with children. That’s not among the purposes the law specifies, however much it should.

But it does name reducing dependency. This means, among other things, enabling parents to get jobs that pay at least enough to push their families over the income eligibility threshold for their state’s TANF program.

The law requires states to have a set percent of parents engaged in “countable” work-related activities for a set number of hours each month. But states can spend whatever they choose on programs and services to prepare parents for work and help them find it.

They, by and large, choose to spend very little — on average, 6.5% of their block grant share, plus the funds they must spend to get it. This is even less than what they spent the year before.

They spent, on average, an additional 16.9% on subsidized child care — obviously a necessity for most parents who must participate in programs to ready them for gainful work.

But those childcare funds may not have benefited only TANF families, current or former. States may transfer up to 30% of their TANF funds to the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

They may use that block grant’s funds, plus (again) what they must spend to get them to subsidize child care for families with incomes up to 85% of the median for all families of the same size.

Needless to say (I trust), that’s a whole lot more income than any TANF family can have. Probably more than most who’ve moved into the workforce too.

A Lot Spent to Shore Up Other Programs

Child care is only one — and not the best — example of how states have used the flexibility TANF law gives them to fund programs and services that don’t help only poor families.

In 2015, states, on average, spent more than half their block grant, plus their own required share on things other than cash benefits, work activities and child care.

An average of 8.1% went for refunds from states’ own Earned Income Tax Credits — arguably a legitimate anti-poverty expenditure. But about a third shored up programs that have nothing to do with work or help for parents who don’t have it.

In some cases, CBPP says, they’ve used their TANF funds to replace what they’d previously spent — or would have had to spend — for programs that may benefit poor families, but not them exclusively, e.g., child welfare services, pre-K.

Much More to This Story

This post, simple as it seems, was hard for me to write because the simple kept getting swamped in exceptions, explanations, etc.

On the one hand, the summary figures obscure wide variations among states. You can see some of them in the CBPP analyses I’ve linked to and in this core-purpose spending map from HHS.

On the other hand — and what you can’t see — is that the federal law gives states more perverse incentives to cut their caseloads than the flexibility to use TANF as a slush fund, e.g., a way to avoid penalties for not meeting their work activity targets.

At the same time, it effectively deters them from letting parents pursue a work activity that would lift a goodly number of families out of poverty — participation in a postsecondary education program for long enough to get a degree or specialized certificate.

And, as I’ve written, who knows how often, Congress has put the squeeze on all states by funding the block grant at the same dollar level for what’s now 20 years. It’s now lost a third of its real-dollar value.

In short, it’s well past time to reform welfare reform. Perhaps we’ll have something real to celebrate next year.


Safety Net Programs Lift Many Thousands of DC Residents Out of Poverty

August 4, 2016

I’ve recently blogged on several pieces of the safety net — in all cases, what they do and/or could do for low-income people nationwide. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities drills down to state-level anti-poverty effects for six major federal programs.

Here’s what we learn for the District of Columbia, plus a bonus on the presumptive health effects of two related programs that the federal measure the Center adapts doesn’t count as part of household income.

The federal programs, plus what the District funds lift roughly 82,000 residents over the poverty line each year. Without them, nearly a third would fall below it, as would an eye-popping 47% of children.

Social Security reportedly accounts for an estimated 32,000 fewer poor residents — and a nearly 24% drop in the senior poverty rate.

This probably understates the program’s anti-poverty impacts because it doesn’t capture the number of children who don’t themselves receive Social Security benefits, but live in households where at least one other member does.

The report I recently summarized includes them. If its findings apply in the District, the total number of residents lifted out of poverty would increase by roughly 17%.

The Census Bureau’s better poverty measure consistently shows that Social Security lifts more people out of poverty than any safety net program. The Center, however, finds that housing assistance has a greater anti-poverty impact in the District.*

An estimated 43,000 more residents would count as poor without it, the fact sheet says. A random check of state fact sheets suggests that housing assistance has a far greater relative impact here.

Much as we want more local funds committed to housing for poor and near-poor residents, we can, I think, credit the District’s own housing voucher program for at least part of the difference — not only from individual states, but nationwide.

SNAP (the food stamp program) has the next largest anti-poverty impact in the District. It lifts an estimated 28,000 residents over the poverty line — and benefits roughly five times as many.

Here too, we can partly credit local policies. The District, for example, has opted for broad-based categorical eligibility, which makes more people potentially eligible. It’s also eliminated the cap on assets like money in the bank.

And it boosted Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance benefits when Congress raised the minimum required for a standard deduction from gross income, thus protecting some residents from benefits cuts.

Moving down the list, we learn that Supplemental Security Income lifts an estimated 17,000 residents over the poverty line. They’re all very low-income seniors and younger people with severe disabilities.

But SSI alone wouldn’t lift even a single person over the poverty line. The maximum benefit this year, like last totals $8,796 — $3,084 less than the applicable poverty line.

Last and (to me) surprisingly least, the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit lift an estimated 14,000 District residents out of poverty. The former almost surely has the greater impact, for reasons I’ve recently explained.

And its impact may be greater than the figure that enters into the Center’s total because the source it pulls from apparently includes only the federal EITC. The District, like 22 states supplements that with its own refundable version.

You’ll note that the Center’s analysis omits a well-known safety net program. Good reason fro that. Cash benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families wouldn’t lift any participant over the poverty line.

The District, which recently increased its TANF benefits, will soon provide a three-person family with a maximum of $504 per month — or 30% of the applicable poverty line.

I’m stressing, as I often do, the over-limited cash and near-cash assistance our major safety net programs provide. But we’ve got two brighter spots in the picture.

One is the bonus I mentioned. That’s the health insurance the District provides through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which it’s converted to part of its Medicaid expansion.

Medicaid or CHIP cover an estimated 270,000 District residents, including roughly 58,000 children. That’s slightly over half of all under-18 year olds.

What’s missing here are the low-income residents covered, though with fewer benefits by the DC Healthcare Alliance, a program funded solely by the District.

Alliance participants are mostly undocumented immigrants now, plus some who’ve got the paperwork, but haven’t lived in the country long enough to qualify for Medicaid. Including them would add roughly 14,500 to the total in the healthcare safety net.

The second bright spot is that the safety net programs do more than relieve specific hardships — hunger, for example, and homelessness. They provide a modicum of the stability that everyone needs to focus their minds and energies on gainful work, job searches, training or education.

At the same time, they give children a better start in life. Kids in families with benefits do better in school. They’re more likely to go on to college, some studies show, and for this and others reasons are less likely to join the ranks of poor adults.

Research and advocacy organizations have made this case for a long time. What’s new, to my knowledge, are the state-specific figures that provide a basis for defending Social Security and our major safety-net programs as demonstrably effective anti-poverty measures.

The Center didn’t crunch all those numbers now just because it’s got the expert staff to do it. “We’re in the midst of big policy debates,” as a letter I got from its president says. He’s referring to the upcoming elections — for state-level offices, as well as national.

I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate. Will just note what the Center’s fact sheets drive home. There’s a lot at stake for poor and near-poor people in America this November. Some very progressive folks would do well to consider them.

* The fact sheet says that Social Security lifts more District residents above the poverty line than any other program. This is boilerplate that apparently escaped the editor’s eye.




House Republicans Take on Poverty, Have Little New to Say

June 7, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan may not be the policy wonk some say he is, but he’s a smart politician. He’s decided the Republicans have to start being for something, rather than just against everything the Obama administration has done — and Democrats want.

And he’s decided that being for radically less federal spending won’t do — not, as least, unless it’s a seemingly secondary benefit of policies that have something else going for them. Understandably, since reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone hasn’t polled well.

So he appointed House Republicans to task forces, each charged with producing policies that their party can be for. He revealed the first in the “better way” series this morning — the anti-poverty package.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since he’s made a big deal about his concern — genuine, I think — for poor Americans. Nor, I suppose, should the recycled rhetoric surprise us.

What might — it surely did me — is the egregious lack of policy specifics, except for the portion on evaluation. That, as you might expect, takes off from the claim that we can’t say whether most programs for low-income people work, but can say that most evaluated don’t.

The report leads off with an overview of the “welfare system” — not what we think of as welfare, but all federal programs that link eligibility to income levels, including some targeted to communities, not individuals.

Nothing new here, since it borrows from Ryan’s earlier account of the War on Poverty. The framework for what follows is thus that we’ve too many programs, run by too many federal agencies spending too much — and to no effect, since the poverty rate (two years ago) was basically the same as in 1996.

We’ve got a better measure than the official measure House Republicans use. An analysis based on it found that safety net programs the official measure doesn’t count have significantly reduced poverty rates.

The task force, however, uses the official rates as a jumping off point. Like Ryan’s earlier takes, its report asserts that the federal government measures success by how many people receive benefits, rather than by how many “get out of poverty.”

So how then are to we get more people out of poverty? We’ll expand work requirements, of course. All “work-capable” adults must work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits of any sort.

How they’re to find jobs or suitable training opportunities the report doesn’t say — presumably, however, not through more federal funding.

We do, however, find an additional incentive states may use to prod them into finding jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage — a time limit, as well as a work requirement for people who live in public housing or receive any other sort of federally-funded housing assistance, e.g., vouchers.

It’s not only potentially employable adults who’ve got to work. The task force rehashes the old complaint about the number of children who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits because they have severe disabilities.

They receive benefits for too long, it says — on average, 26.7 years, which doesn’t seem all that long to me. However, they won’t receive benefits any more, if the task force has its way.

It would “reform” the program so as to provide “access to needed services in lieu of cash assistance.” No recognition whatever of disabilities that make gainful work impossible — or the fact that parents of SSI recipients must often support them indefinitely.

The task force does acknowledge “challenges” work-able adults face — child care, for example, transportation, stable housing and “help buying groceries.”

What then should the federal government do? “Work with community partners,” i.e. nonprofits and for-profit businesses, “to address hurdles.” Period.

The federal government could, however, penalize states that didn’t get people out of safety net programs swiftly — hurdles notwithstanding. It would give them an incentive by ratcheting down reimbursement rates as people remain in the programs longer. Not a forthright proposal. The report again fluffs.

On a more positive note, the task force recommends providing work-readiness activities for noncustodial parents so as to increase their ability to pay child support.

It would also let states receive waivers from unemployment insurance rules so they could explore better ways to get UI recipients back into the workforce. Nothing to object to here, though one might after seeing those better ways.

More generally, the task force would, of course, give states more flexibility. It alludes to letting them link welfare programs — presumably as block grants, though it uses neither that term nor others House Republicans have come to prefer.

Those voluntary links nevertheless recall Ryan’s Opportunity Grants — those mega-block grants he floated nearly two years ago.

We also find what seems a block grant in the section on education. First we’re treated to the usual trashing on Head Start for failing to produce demonstrable, lasting academic outcomes — broadened, however, to apply to early childhood education programs generally.

Then a suggestion that the federal government could “combine investments,” streamlining and simplifying its involvement. Involvement here seems reduced to sponsoring research and sharing results.

Ryan appointed a separate task force to deal with tax reform. We’re nevertheless treated to a rehash of the now-familiar claim that safety net benefits discourage work because recipients lose them as they earn more.

We’ve little evidence that they actually respond to the so-called cliffs by working less — or for less money — than they could. Perhaps they know that they’d almost always do better by working and earning what they can.

Be that as it may, the task force has only two general solutions. One would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. For whom and how it doesn’t say.

The other solution — yet again — is more state flexibility. This supposedly would enable states to tailor benefits packages so that no one lost more than they gained by working.

Most, as the report acknowledges, don’t lose — at least until they’re earning quite a bit. That’s feature, not a bug, of course, in programs intended to help low-income people meet their basic needs. But it’s another dagger to thrust at the safety net.

Bottom line for me is that there isn’t much there there — to borrow from Gertrude Stein. Not, at least, much there there for us who’ve paid any attention to what House Republicans — Ryan in particular — have proposed and tried to justify ever since they gained a majority.




When Is a Hard-Up Family a Family?

December 14, 2015

Not long before Jesse died, we were chatting, as we often did, about issues I was working on — in this case, the District of Columbia’s homeless shelters.

I had to explain to him that if we became homeless and had no place to stay, we would have to live on the streets or spend our nights in separate sex-segregated shelters, then meet up some place or other when they turned us out at daybreak.

He was dumbfounded. It apparently had never occurred to him that we weren’t a family, according to the District’s homeless services policies.

I recalled the moment as I read reports of interviews with the homeless people the District is sweeping out of the campsites they’ve set up. The Department of Human Services, to its credit, has placed some of them in housing units. It wants most of them, however, to go into the shelters — at least, for awhile.

A fair number, it seems, don’t want to go — understandably, given conditions in what are called shelters for singles. Repeated references to bedbugs. Fears of having their belonging stolen. Fights. Bad food.

But it’s not only such shelter conditions. “They split you and your husband up,” said one woman interviewed. “We prefer to have privacy.”

None in the shelter for either — let alone privacy for the two together so they could comfort each other, talk about next steps and, well, do what couples do only when alone in a room with a door.

The problem, you see, is that they don’t have children in their care, just as Jesse and I wouldn’t have if we’d had to throw ourselves on the mercies of DHS.

This isn’t a singular safety net policy. We see it, for example, in states’ Medicaid policies. Twenty-two exclude all childless adults who don’t have disabilities, except pregnant women. All cover parents, though some only those far below the poverty line.

These are state choices, as the variations indicate. But the federal government itself doesn’t view childless couples as families — or for that matter, couples whose children are grown ups.

The only nationwide source of cash income for poor people who aren’t severely disabled is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But couples who have no children living with them don’t qualify.

So-called general assistance programs could fill this gap in the safety net. But the federal government provides no funds for them. So states that had GA programs have exercised their unlimited flexibility to get rid of them or scale them back in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Only 11 provide cash benefits to childless adults who aren’t demonstrably unemployable — because they’re elderly, for example, or disabled, but haven’t yet (and perhaps can’t) surmount the hurdles to gaining Supplemental Security Income.

SNAP (the food stamp program) does provide cash-equivalent aid for childless couples. But as I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can generally get benefits for only three months in any three-year period unless they’re working or participating in a job training program at least half-time.

This restriction applies to childless couples if both spouses or partners have no disabilities unless they’re caring for someone in the household who’s disabled or have a child on the way. And the chances that both can get into — and remain in — certified job training programs are, in many states, virtually nil.

The time limit originated in the same law that brought us TANF — the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

I mention this because it perversely disadvantages couples who’ve chosen not to have children unless and until they can afford to provide for their basic needs, plus the time, attention and opportunities that support healthy, well-rounded development. Seems like personal responsibility to me.

The federal Earned Income Tax Credit also disadvantages childless couples, even when lawfully wed. And it altogether denies the credit — and thus the potential refund — to young childless workers.

Far be it from me to say our safety net programs shouldn’t put a high priority on the well-being of the next generation. But we don’t have to choose between children and working-age adults who don’t have any.

And we surely don’t have to treat homeless couples who don’t have children with them as if they weren’t families.