State TANF Spending Raises Red Flags As Republicans (Again) Ponder New Block Grants

January 17, 2017

The latest reports on Temporary Assistance for Needy Family’s spending are a timely reminder of what happens when states receive insufficient federal funds and a lot of flexibility in what they can do with them.

Basically, we expect TANF to do two things — serve as a safety net for poor families with children and enable the parents to get jobs that pay enough to make them more self-sufficient. Not necessarily enough to cover all their family’s basic needs, but at least enough to make cash benefits unnecessary.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzes the annual spending reports, translates these expectations into three core purposes — cash assistance, work activities and child care.

The last of these supports the second in that it frees parents to participate in a job training program and/or other activities that will prepare them for work, look for a job and, in the best of cases, actually work for pay.

The latest analysis, for 2015, gives us new numbers that tell the same old story. States, as a whole, spent barely more than half their share of the federal block grant, plus the funds they must spend to get it on these core purposes.

The remainder went for all sorts of things — some closely linked to a core purpose, e.g., Head Start and Pre-K, some to programs and services that don’t benefit only poor families, e.g., child welfare.

States may have used TANF funds to expand such programs, the Center says. In other cases, they merely used them cover rising costs — or even to replace what they’d been spending out of their own funds.

What they invested in core purposes varied enormously. For example, seven states spent less than 10% of their TANF funds on cash assistance, while eleven spent more than 30%.

Twenty-eight states spent less than 10% on work activities and related supports, e.g., transportation. Only five topped 20%. And twenty states spent less than 10% on child care. while nine spent more than 30%.

One might think that states spent less on one core purpose so they could spend more on another. Not altogether so. Two states — Arizona and Texas — spent less than 10% on each of the core activities.

We know how Arizona managed to free up so much of its TANF funds for other purposes. By 2015 it had cut its TANF time limit three times, kicking families out of its program after they’d participated for 24 months. That’s 36 months less than the time limit on their using federal funds for all participating families.

Arizona has since cut its time limit to a mere 12 months, gaining even more funds to cover budget shortfalls — a predictable need because the state has been cutting taxes for years.

The state realized further savings by reducing cash benefits below the low level paid when TANF replaced welfare as we knew it. The maximum a parent with two children can get now is $202 a month — about 12% of the federal poverty line.

An extreme case perhaps, but not altogether unique. The Center reports that Louisiana spent only 11% of its TANF funds on core purposes. Its very low cash benefits — $230 a month for a three-person family — went to only four of every one hundred poor families in the state.

Tempting as it is to trash on these states (and some others), the fault lies with the federal law, which permits states to economize at the expense of their very poor residents.

In a way, it virtually forces them to do this by holding the block grant at the same funding level as when TANF was created in 1996. It’s lost more than a third of its real-dollar value since. So states that want to do the right thing would have to spend far more of their own funds than the partial match the law requires.

We don’t see that in the spending figures. We instead see that states have used TANF as a slush fund — the term that a prolific conservative critic of the program recently used to rebut claims that welfare reform succeeded.

That claim is hardly new. It’s survived a barrage of evidence to the contrary. That’s because proponents in our Congress don’t actually seek to strengthen the safety net and put very poor people on a pathway to steady, decent-paying work.

Nor, for that matter, do they aim to give states flexibility so that they can develop more effective ways to do this. One need only recall the outcries from the right when the Department of Health and Human Services invited states to request waivers in order to test alternatives to the regular TANF work activity rules.

The House Republicans’ block-granting plans are all about cutting federal spending on non-defense programs, especially those that make up our safety net.

This is why we’re bracing for legislation to block grant SNAP and/or Medicaid. Republicans need to find significant savings as offsets for the tax cuts they’ve promised, plus those they’ll achieve by eliminating the Affordable Care Act.

TANF is a harbinger of things to come — unless supporters can galvanize grassroots opposition. This seems to me doable, though difficult.


House Agriculture Committee Finds a Lot to Like in SNAP

January 12, 2017

When I learned that the House Agriculture Committee planned a top-to-bottom review of SNAP (the food stamp program), I thought it was a setup for legislation along the lines the right-wing majority had already teed up.

But the report the Committee recently issued is remarkably even-handed—and very informative. It does flag problems, including some that right-wingers have cited in attacks on our safety net generally. But they don’t support a major overhaul.

In fact, they bolster arguments against the sort that House Speaker Paul Ryan and fellow travelers have proposed. Here are a few of examples.

SNAP Gives States a Lot  of Flexibility

The report details the many choices SNAP affords state agencies. Most have to do with administration—how often they’ll require beneficiaries to prove they’re still eligible, how swiftly they’ll adjust benefits when income changes, etc.

But some are choices that can make more low-income people eligible, within the confines set by federal law. States may, for example, opt for so-called broad-based categorical eligibility, which opens the door to families whose incomes, before allowable deductions (but not after) exceed the standard cut-offs.

This, says the report, is the most significant of all state options. It does, however, note that states may also opt to exclude the value of certain assets that would otherwise disqualify them—the value of a car, for example, money in the bank.

This too makes more people eligible — and more able to both weather emergencies and achieve greater economic independence.

SNAP Affords Ample Room for Civil Society Organizations

Ryan says that the federal government has “crowded out civil society,” discouraging community-level organizations from engaging in efforts to help the poor.

The report emphatically argues that combating hunger in our country requires the participation of federal programs, as well as a range of local and state-level organizations.

It cites examples of the ways that charitable organizations and federal safety net programs work together, e.g., nonprofit food banks, supported in part by the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

And it quotes testimony from a food bank CEO on the need to keep federal nutrition programs strong so that the dollars from private donations can support innovations.

SNAP Is Not a Hammock

The report embraces the unobjectionable view that work is the best pathway out of poverty. But it cites data showing that nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants can’t be expected to work—because they’re too young, too old or too disabled.

Household-level data do suggest that more of the remaining participants could work, but didn’t during an average month in 2015—or rather, could work if the labor market had enough jobs available and they the skills to qualify.

The report could have veered into time limits at this point. It instead finds two areas where states could improve their programs within the law as-is.

First, some need to do a better job of enforcing SNAP work requirements, it says. The requirements it refers to aren’t those that have caused many thousands of able-bodied adults without dependents to lose their benefits.

They’re applicable to all unemployed adults who aren’t exempt for various reasons, e.g., because they’re responsible for caring for a disabled family member.

These presumptively employable adults must register for work, accept a job if offered and not quit voluntarily without good cause or reduce their working hours below 30 per week. So there’s no penalty if they can’t find a job offering a set minimum number of hours.

The report also strongly suggests that some states — or counties within states — don’t have SNAP employment and training programs, though all receive E&T funds.

“Most,” it says, quoting testimony, “have consisted of a referral to a job search program.” So it’s agencies that need to shape up, not SNAP beneficiaries.

The report provides examples of effective programs and hopefully cites pilots the current Farm Bill is funding.

It strongly implies that effective programs combined with “reasonable requirements, strongly enforced” will suffice to engage SNAP participants in activities leading to gainful employment.

“There is little evidence that harsh provisions are necessary,” it says, again quoting testimony.

On the other hand, the report does suggest that SNAP, combined with other safety net programs can discourage participants from working their way up the income scale because what they gain in pay is offset by what they lose in benefits.

To this extent then, it adopts Ryan’s view that the multiplicity of “welfare” programs, each operating under its own rules creates what’s often referred to as a cliff. For him, this proves that they’re a “poverty trap.”

The report instead notes that states may convert the cliff into downward slope by providing transitional SNAP benefits when families leave Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because they’ve found paying work.

And it includes one important data point that argues against the view that SNAP participants choose to remain poor or near-poor rather than lose their benefits. Specifically, most participants remain in the program for, at most, two years.

The Ag Committee Chair clearly aimed to build bridges between his conservative and progressive colleagues in preparation for the next reauthorization of SNAP.

“You will find nothing in this report that suggests gutting SNAP or getting rid of a program that does so much for so many people,” he and the chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee tell us in their prefatory statement.

At least some of us won’t find everything we’d like to have seen. For example, the report touches only tangentially on the adequacy of SNAP benefits, though it includes a section on promoting healthful eating.

But it does, as the statement says, show “there is common ground to be found both in understanding the needs of the population SNAP serves, and in working collaboratively to improve SNAP.”

 


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.