One Safety Net Time Limit Down, More Sweeping Limits in View

June 12, 2017

Here in the District of Columbia, the Council has just made history by eliminating the time limit it had imposed on all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families participants. No state has done this, DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Executive Director notes in an emailed budget wrap-up.

And proudly because DCFPI played a major role in developing and then advocating for a policy that will ensure very poor families some cash assistance, activities that may get them jobs so they no longer need it and child care so they can meet those activity requirement

The Council’s unanimous vote for a policy more protective than what the Mayor originally proposed is maybe the biggest high point of this budget season.

Meanwhile, we see proposed nationwide safety net program limits of a whole other sort — some retreads, but others new inventions, though champions of so-called entitlement reform have been laying the groundwork for a long time.

SNAP Benefits Limits

The law that created TANF also set a time limit on eligibility for SNAP, but only for able-bodied adults without dependents They usually can receive benefits for only three months in any given three years unless they’re working or participating in a work preparation program at least half time.

Generally speaking, however, SNAP benefits have no time limit. People with incomes low enough to qualify can receive them until their incomes break the threshold.

The Trump administration, as you may have read, would shift 25% of SNAP costs to states — $116 billion during the first 10 years. States could reduce the value of the benefits they provide, notwithstanding ample evidence that current benefits don’t cover the costs of a healthful diet.

But they would also have to adopt new restrictions. These collectively seem to save the federal government an additional $77 billion or so. They would, among other things, revise the way the Agriculture Department sets benefit levels.

As things stand now, they’re based on household size. The more members, the larger the benefits, though they’re smaller on a per person basis due to assumed economies of scale.

So, for example, a two-member household can receive as much as $357 a month, while the maximum for a four-person household is $63 less than double that.

On the flip side, a household with only one or two members will receive no less than $16 a month. Most beneficiaries in this group are elderly and/or disabled.

The Trump administration would deny them any minimum benefit. More than 1.9 million people, most of them living alone would have to spend more on food — and perhaps more importantly, lose the incentive to remain enrolled and thus readily eligible for more assistance if needed.

Returning to the household benefits scale, we find an unadjusted per person increase for each member beyond the eighth. The administration would cap benefits at the six-member rate. Larger households would have to feed about 170,000 people who’d now be factored into their benefit.

This flies in the face of several trends. One is a significant increase in multigenerational households, i.e., those with at least two adult generations. The younger of them or even both may have children in the home too.

We also have unrelated families living together — in some cases, one allowing another to double up rather than rely on their community’s homeless services, in others, more permanent arrangements based on shared rent and other household costs.

Why any policymaker should seek to discourage them when they’re obviously beneficial and cost-saving in various ways, e.g., as an alternative to nursing home care, as a source of child care so that a parent can afford to work.

The answer, one infers, is to cut SNAP costs by about $180 million a year — food insecurity and out-and-out hunger increases notwithstanding.

Disability Benefits Limits

The Trump administration also seeks to cut both Social Security programs for people with disabilities.

For Social Security Disability Insurance, its budget would have Congress establish an expert panel to identify ways to keep workers with disabilities out of the program initially and/or get them out later.

It would also test its own strategies. This, one could guess, is because the expert panel might not recommend changes as radical as those the budget counts on to save about $58.7 million during the first 10 years.

It’s nevertheless the case, as I’ve said before, that experts have proposed various return-to-work proposals that could work for SSDI beneficiaries, as well.

What’s altogether other is the benefits limit the administration proposes for Supplemental Security Income — modest monthly benefit for elderly, blind and otherwise disabled people with little, if any other cash income.

Families can receive a benefit for each of their children severely disabled enough to qualify. As with adults, the amount reflects a complex income calculation, but benefits for each child are the same.

The Trump administration would retain the full benefit for one eligible family member, but ratchet benefits down for the rest. This effectively reduces the income that supports all family members — and $9 million in federal safety net spending.

It’s not the first effort to cut SSI funding. The House Republican Study Group tried to get the program block granted in 2012. The House Budget Committee decided to instead adopt the same cost-cutting approach we find in Trump’s budget.

Both have justified it by alleged economies of scale, e.g. the fact that housing for three people doesn’t cost a third more than housing for two.

But we’ve reliable research  showing that even the maximum benefit didn’t cover the extra costs of raising a severely disabled child. Sixty-two percent of families with just one with SSI benefits suffered at least one material hardship.

To borrow from Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, the folks who’ve shaped Trumponomics and translated it into specifics seem to think “that it doesn’t suck enough to be poor.”

 


A Slice of the Trump Budget’s Shrunken Pie for the Needs of Low-Income People

May 26, 2017

Well, we finally have the full version of Trump’s proposed budget for upcoming fiscal year. And we’ve all seen and/or heard news reports, op-eds, social media takes and the like.

They generally have one of two focuses — new cuts, both total and by cabinet-level department or cuts to certain specific programs.

These tacks are basically the same as when the administration released its skinny budget preview, except that we now have a shift prompted by a range of cuts to safety net programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations.

I expect to deal with some of both, but for the time being, I’ll stick with a large perspective on a subset of programs intended to serve human needs — the non-defense discretionary programs, i.e., those annually funded as Congress chooses and the President approves, as Presidents generally do.

We have a broad range of these, of course. They include, bur aren’t limited to programs that support:

  • Some healthcare services, mainly for veterans.
  • Sufficient, healthful diets for mothers and their young children, plus food for nonprofits to give low-income people and/or serve as meals.
  • Public education, mainly for low-income children and those with disabilities.
  • Other opportunities to achieve financial self-sufficiency and security.
  • Child care so that parents can participate in such programs and afford paying jobs.
  • Safe, stable housing that leaves enough income to help pay for other needs.

The Coalition on Human Needs chose 185 such programs and tracked their funding from 2010, the year before Congress passed the Budget Control Act, through the budget the federal government’s operating under now.

All but 32 had been cut, either directly or for want of adjustments to keep pace with inflation, it found. Nearly a third had lost at least 25%, even though the Obama administration and wise heads in Congress agreed to temporarily modify the spending caps the BCA imposed.

Seems that Republicans over on the Senate side aim for another bipartisan agreement to suspend or at least modify the caps, lest they have to ax spending below the too-low levels already in force.

What’s sure as dammit, as the Washington Post reports, is that they’ll not try to push through the extraordinarily harsh cuts the Trump administration proposes as-is.

Most of the new news rightly focuses on the billions of cuts to so-called mandatory spending programs — also sometimes called entitlements.

They’re mandatory because the laws that authorize them require the federal government to spend as much as necessary to cover the costs or its share of costs for the benefits of everyone eligible to receive and enrolled to get them.

Truth to tell, I’m torn between delving into these unprecedentedly sweeping proposals to gut the safety net and giving them short shrift because they’re DOA. So I’ll end here with just a few examples of the proposed NDD cuts and consequences.

The Trump budget would deny affordable housing to more than 250,000 of the country’s lowest-income individuals and families who could otherwise have vouchers to cover all but 30% of their income for rent.

At the same time, it would reportedly increase tenants’ rent responsibility to 35% of adjusted income and impose a $50 minimum on those who had no or virtually no countable income at all. Income regardless, tenants would have to pay for their household utilities, which current law folds in with rent.

Public housing, which subsidizes rents at the same rate, would lose another $18 billion — nearly 29% more than it’s lost through this fiscal year. The stock available has been steadily shrinking due to lack of funds for repairs and renovations.

For these, as well as other reasons, we have and foreseeably will have some 550,000 people who’ve become officially homeless or very soon will unless they get some one-time or temporary help with rent.

Some have been homeless for a long time or repeatedly because they need not only an affordable place to live, but services to help them with physical and/or mental disabilities.

The Trump budget, however, would cut the grants local communities receive for shelters, permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless I’ve just cited and homelessness prevention or when that’s not possible swift support so people can leave shelters for affordable housing.

The budget would terminate the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, another homelessness prevention program — and a lifesaver too, since people, especially the frail and elderly can freeze to death in their homes or die because they depend on medical equipment that uses electricity, as 26% did when the last survey was conducted.

Roughly 6.7 million families would lose the subsidies they need to keep their homes warm if Congress moves from under-funding LIHEAP to excising it from the safety net altogether.

Turning then to those job opportunities. The Trump budget would cut a range of programs that help people prepare for gainful work — adult basic education, including preparation for GED exams, career and technical education programs in high schools and colleges and the diverse programs funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

The Trump budget would cut WIOA funding by 43%, as compared to 2015 funding, the Center for American Progress reports. Nearly 571,000 workers nationwide — close to half of the total then served — could be left to muddle through with only what has failed to net them a decent paying job or any at all.

Pretty ironic — or one might say hypocritical — for a President who’s made such a big deal about job opportunities and, more recently, about how he’ll change safety net programs so they no longer discourage work.

More as the dust clears or perhaps as I find angles you’re unlikely to see highlighted in the plethora of conventional and social media stories, analyses and overt budget-bashing.

Meanwhile, we do have ways we can support the defensive campaigns that will give Congressional Republican pause.

CAP and fifteen partners, including CHN have launched an initiative called Hands Off—and #HandsOff as a hashtag for those who want to tweet about programs they want protected.

They’ve got a website where we can contribute stories about how the programs have helped us and what would happen to us, our families or others we know if they’re cut. With our permission, they’ll share our stories.

Reporters, as you know, are always looking for the personal lead-in or thread.

The coalition, CAP says, will also ensure that members of Congress learn from the stories how their own constituents would be affected. How then they may vote, as it doesn’t say, but needn’t.

Some members lean toward — or out-and-out support — less federal spending, especially on so-called welfare programs. But getting reelected and preserving their majority will trump the Trump proposals handily.


A Litmus Test for Safety Net Policies

May 18, 2017

We all, I’m sure, know how people on “welfare,” i.e. receiving virtually any safety net benefit, are often bad-mouthed.

We know too that the process of gaining benefits and keeping them often subjects recipients to requirements and hassles that we’d never imposed on better-off people.

The humiliations and inconveniences deter some eligible people from applying — a feature, not a bug in some state and local systems.

But exclusion from the mainstream has other consequences, say the coauthors of another of the recently-published poverty reduction papers I mentioned the other day.
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We obviously need reforms to reflect current facts—notably, the make-up of the poverty population. But Professors Kathryn Edin, Luke Schaefer and Laura Tach argue that we need something more to make our investments as effective as possible.

They propose a “litmus test” for anti-poverty policies. These, they say, should foster a sense of inclusion. That will not only accord beneficiaries the dignity they deserve, but help motivate them to act in ways that benefit them, their communities and our society as a whole.

They use the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit as a prime example. Not perfect, as they say, because it benefits only lower-income adults with paying jobs—and, as they don’t say, does very little for those who don’t have children living with them.

But their study of how EITC recipients spent their refunds found that they spend them “remarkably responsibly,” e.g,. to pay off debt, buy things that will last and, in their view at least, contribute to upward mobility.

Edin et al. cite two reasons for behaviors generally viewed as responsible. First, the refunds hinge on paying work — a core American value. So when prospective beneficiaries seek to claim it,, they’re treated respectfully, just as better-off filers are.

The second reason is that they can choose how they’ll spend their annual cash infusion, rather than having the choice made for them, as for example, SNAP (the food stamp program) does.

This, the coauthors say, is empowering. That in itself, one infers, contributes to responsible behaviors.

Perhaps, they say, their litmus test should extend to programs that depend on donations. Some I’m familiar with not only treat their clients with respectfully, but offer programs to empower them.

Perhaps you also know some too — and some that would flunk the litmus test. I and your fellow viewers, I think, would welcome personal stories, other examples, etc. posted here as comments.


New Answers to Who Is Poor in America

May 15, 2017

Recent mail included not only the usual junk, requests for donations and bills, but a magazine from Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. Such a surprise, since I hadn’t ordered it. And such an informative and thought-provoking issue.

It’s a series of what it terms “blueprints” for ending poverty, prefaced by two framing papers. One presents key facts that reforms should reflect, the other a litmus tests for them.

They seem to me more groundbreaking than the blueprints, fine as those are. So I’ll focus on the first—and more meaty — here. Will follow up with the second soon.

More Jobless, Childless Adults

The authors present two facts that indicate a changing structure in U.S. poverty.

They’re often ignored because they’re at the margins of our safety net programs and so would be harder to accommodate than, say, much-needed reforms in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. (Unintentionally confirming this, none of the blueprints addressed them.)

The first is the ongoing increase in jobless poverty — more specifically, the unemployment rate for working-age adults. Many are probably “disconnected,” i.e., not looking for work and so not counted in the reported rate.

It rises during recessions, of course. But in good times, as well as bad, working-age adults who don’t have children living with them — often referred to as childless — have dropped out of the labor market.

More in Dire Poverty

So the poverty population as a whole is becoming “a more deprived and destitute class”—not just poor, but deeply so, i.e., living on incomes less than half the poverty threshold or even the extreme $2.00 a day poverty. This is the second key fact.

But our safety net programs don’t reflect it, for several reasons. One is that they’re work-based. TANF, for example, aims to increase the training that will gain participants jobs. The Earned Income Tax Credit is only for people who’ve earned money by working.

The programs are also family-based. TANF, of course, is only for parents who’ve got children living with them. The EITC favors married couples with children and sets a very low maximum benefit for the childless.

Opportunities Out of Reach

The third key fact differs from the others because it’s not directly a change in the structure of our poverty population. The authors refer to it as the “commodification of opportunity”—a fancy term for several developments that help account for poverty.

They include low and unpredictable wages for both workers in regular jobs who’ve got, at most, a high school education and the growing number in the gig economy, e.g., Uber drivers, temp agency employees.

Two other developments have to do with the composition of the poverty population. One is the growing share who are Hispanic. Another, closely related is the share who are immigrants.

They’re at high risk not only because many are undocumented and so justifiably fear complaining of wage theft. Most who are legally here don’t become eligible for major safety net benefits for their first five years.

And however long they’ve been here, a goodly number have limited job opportunities because they speak little or no English.

Still another and again related development is increasing neighborhood segregation. The authors focus here on research on children who grow up in poor neighborhoods, i.e., the potential next generation in the working-age adult poverty population.

But, in fact, living in a poor neighborhood disadvantages the current generation too —  because of few nearby decent-paying jobs, for example, public transportation to get to them, fewer working neighbors to serve as networks and such high levels of stress as to interfere with job training and searches.

Now comes genuine commodification, i.e., the need to buy what’s needed for a decent-paying job. When TANF began, a diploma from a public high school sufficed for a job that paid more than a poverty-level wage.

As we all know, you now need postsecondary education and/or training for in-demand skills. Both are often costly. So it’s sort of them that has gets and those that don’t doesn’t.

Add to these the difficulties low-income parents have in giving their children opportunities that will pay off in the long run. These include high-quality early education delivered in daycare centers.

And following that, ready access to good public schools, since that generally requires living in a well-off neighborhood, where rents are high or nonexistent because it’s a homeowner community.

The authors intersperse these facts with brief remarks on what policies could do and what some already are. But what’s clear enough is that our anti-poverty plans need some significant adjustments.