My Blog Turns Eight, Looks Back to Its Birth and Forward

December 6, 2016

Today is my blog’s eighth birthday. I’m amazed that something I started in a fit of pique has lasted so long and become so valued part of my life.

People sometimes ask me how the blog began. So first about that fit of pique.

My late husband and I had a joke about one of our temperamental differences—or rather, a way I’d joke about myself. I’d say, “Jesse, you know I’m the soul of patience, but …”

If I hadn’t become impatient, I wouldn’t have started this blog — or at least, not when and with so relatively little forethought. The leader of a local (now defunct) virtual community agreed to publish posts I’d written to gain more grassroots support for policy decisions an organization I volunteered for was advocating.

But the person who administered the blog took her own sweet time to publish them — no matter how time sensitive. So one day, when another deadline had passed, I said to myself, “Well [expletive deleted], I’ll start my own blog.”

I knew from the get-go that the blog had to do more than replicate action alerts. And I wanted it to do more anyway. I didn’t know quite what, but as title suggests, I carved out broad swathe of territory.

Like many children, the blog has had growing pains, as long-time followers may have noticed. My posts were originally short and easy to write because I generally borrowed from a single source to gin up support for (or against) a single issue.

Over time, I’ve tried to provide more information because that’s what I myself want when I read a post, news article or column about a policy issue. I’ve tried to include links to original sources—again, because that’s what I want.

And I’ve tried, when possible, to show the nexus between developments at the federal level and my local level, the District of Columbia. The challenge in part is that developments at either level link to others — and they to others.

How do I — or anyone for that matter — who chooses to look at poverty in America through a policy lens resist simplistic (if heartfelt) rhetoric or deep dives into the weeds that obscure the main issue? Still haven’t come up with an answer that snaps into place whenever I start drafting.

Well, so much for the strictly me. Here, very briefly, is what I see when I look back to my first posts — and forward to likely fodder in the upcoming year.

The Great Recession had just set in when I started blogging. The District, like all states, faced a pressing problem because tax revenues were dropping and needs for safety net services rising. And like all states, but one, it had to keep its budget balanced every year.

So the District decided, among other things, to eliminate a small pending increase in cash benefits for families in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. That occasioned my very first post.

The District only recently put a multi-year increase in place. So full benefits are now somewhat higher than they would have been, if the DC Council had done nothing further.

But, in the meantime, the Council, with the former mayor’s hearty approval, set a rigid 60 month lifetime limit on TANF eligibility. So what’s better for some very poor District families is offset by what’s worse for thousands of others.

Another early post flagged the likely impact of the Great Recession on the national poverty rate and summarized a handful of remedies the federal government could put in place.

We all assumed — rightly — that Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress would swiftly agree on a legislative package to jump start the economy and expand the federally-funded safety net — in itself, an economy booster.

So we had hope and reasons to believe we’d soon see positive changes. And we did — not only in temporary stimulus measures, but in new and improved programs we thought we could count on for the long-term and rules for existing programs that would benefit lower-income people.

Well, the Great Recession is behind us, though we still have more poor people than we did before it began—largely because we’ve got more people living in the U.S now. We’d have about 38.1 million more in poverty were it not for Social Security and our major safety net programs.

District policymakers apparently will do something to extend TANF benefits for at least some families headed by parents who can’t conceivably earn enough to pay for basic needs — and perhaps for all children who’d otherwise be plunged into dire poverty.

They’re intent on making more housing affordable for the lowest-income residents. They’re making progress toward providing homeless families with smaller, more habitable shelters—and enabling more to remain safely housed.

They’re providing shelter year round for those who can’t, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves unless they have a legal right to shelter because they might otherwise freeze to death.

Not saying all is well, but we have sound reasons for hope insofar as our local officials have the freedom and resources to effect progressive change.

What then to say about prospects for low-income people nationwide? We’ve got a host of predictions — some reflecting proposals likely to become blueprints for legislation, others based on pronouncements and past actions by Trump’s top-level nominees.

I can’t help feeling that we’ll watch the safety net unravel, while knowing it needs strengthening. Can’t help feeling we’ll see other programs that also serve basic human needs undermined — or altogether eliminated.

Neither the District nor any state or other local government can compensate for the multi-pronged attack we’ve good reason to expect — even for just the prospective federal funding losses.

I tell myself to absorb the spirit of the many organizations that have already proved they’re ready to keep fighting on behalf of the disadvantaged people in our country. They’re working together, as they often do, to educate us with less expertise and to help us join the fight in effective ways.

But right now, I’m profoundly disheartened. Yet I know that silence implies consent. So I’ll blog on in hopes of a cheerier future blog birthday.


Time to Celebrate the Child and Adult Care Food Program

March 22, 2012

Did you know we’re celebrating National Child and Adult Care Food Program Week? I’ll bet you thought it was only National Poison Awareness Week. Odd bedfellows these.

Anyway, National CACFP Week it is. So I thought I’d try to find out more about this lesser-known, by important part of the federal nutrition safety net we’re supposed to be celebrating.

Discoveries …

Like most, but not all federal nutrition assistance programs, CACFP is a so-called entitlement.

In other words, funding for the program is based on the costs of meals and snacks recipients serve rather than whatever Congress decides to approve in any given year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes the funds as grants to state agencies — usually state education agencies — according to a formula that’s way too complicated to summarize.

The state agencies then enter into agreements with child care providers, Head Start programs, recreation centers, emergency shelters day care facilities for seniors and adults with disabilities, etc.

The programs have to serve meals and snacks that meet nutrition standards set by USDA. These help ensure that children and vulnerable adults get some reasonably well-balanced nutritious meals and/or snacks on a regular basis.

Programs for children have to be located in high-poverty areas, i.e., where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, or enroll a certain percent of children who’d qualify.

Family income for free school meals must be no higher than 130% of the applicable federal poverty line and, for reduced-price meals, no higher than 185% of the FPL. CACFP thus focuses on children who are definitely low-income.

Though CACFP can subsidize meals and snacks for a variety of programs, child day care centers are the single largest type supported.

In December 2011, for example, CACFP subsidized nearly 143,000 meals. About 68% of them were for children in day care centers. Most of the rest — just under 32% — went to children in home day care.

The Food Research and Action Center reports that about 3.3 million children — mostly preschool age — benefited from the program in 2010.

This is about 3% more than in 2009 and a whopping 40% more than in 1996, the base year FRAC uses.

All told, child care providers served well over 1.8 million subsidized meals and snacks in 2010 — 77% of them at no cost to the parents.

An additional 66.7 million meals and snacks helped feed adults in day care centers — all but about 9.5% of them free.

But enough with the figures. Bottom line is that CACFP clearly plays a key role in our safety net.

Low-income children and adults get fed when they might otherwise go hungry. And every meal CACFP subsidizes is one less meal that families have to stretch their food stamp benefits to cover — or pay for out of their own pockets.

At the same time, as USDA says, the program helps make day care affordable since providers would surely have to charge higher rates if they had to pay full cost for all meals. In this respect, it helps make working affordable, as well as eating.

CACFP also supports after-school programs that help low-income youth succeed in school, broaden their horizons, get some healthy physical activity — and stay out of trouble while their parents work.

Kids are hungry by mid-afternoon. Snacks are essential — maybe a full meal too, especially for youth in programs that run till early evening. Also for those who won’t find dinner waiting, no matter what time they get home.

Feeding these hungry, growing kids is a large expense for hard-pressed public schools, parks and recreation departments and nonprofits.  But at least CACFP can now subsidize suppers as well as snacks nationwide — thanks to the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

So, yes, let’s celebrate the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

And remember the good it does whenever we’re told that safety net spending must be cut to reduce the deficit because we can’t possibly touch defense or, heaven forfend, raise taxes.


Let’s Recall Poverty Before the Safety Net

January 16, 2012

Huffington Post blogger Dan Morgan looks back nearly 50 years to tell us what poverty was like in his early reporting days.

This is an important, timely post because it reminds us of how poor people lived — and died — before the creation of today’s safety net.

Here in the District of Columbia, Morgan found “people living in basement apartments with dirt floors. Many were hungry, cold and short of coal for stoves. Some children were staying home because they had no shoes.”

Found a penniless woman with no coat to brave the cold weather for a trip to the social service agency. A blind man who made the trip, but was living with his nine children in an unheated place because the agency wouldn’t — or couldn’t — help him buy fuel.

In California, Morgan met a family that had lost three babies to dehydration while picking cotton there in 1936.

Still dreadful conditions 20 years later, he writes, when Michael Harrington chronicled farm worker poverty in that agriculture-rich state.

Morgan cites some evidence that safety net programs have lifted Americans out of poverty.

For example, the official poverty rate for seniors dropped from 28.5% in 1966 to 9% in 2010, at least partly because the federal government started indexing Social Security retirement benefits to cost-of-living increases.

Two other examples based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. You can see them in this nice infographic from the Half in Ten campaign.

But Morgan’s main point is that safety net programs have changed the quality of poverty.

In other words, poor people, by and large, don’t suffer the same acute, life-threatening deprivations as they did before we began building the network of programs that make up today’s safety net.

Morgan focuses on what may be our biggest success — federal nutrition assistance programs.

“Clinical malnutrition,” he writes, “has given way to what government and private agencies call ‘food insecurity.'”

“Poor nutrition, not malnutrition is the biggest problem” now, says anti-hunger expert and advocate Joel Berg.

And indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 figures, children in only 1% of American households sometimes didn’t get enough to eat because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them.

WIC alone, Berg estimates, has prevented 200,000 babies from dying at birth.

“Progressives,” Morgan concludes, “should not be timid about extolling this achievement. And conservatives, above all, should welcome it” because safety net programs “enable millions more people to participate in the great American market,” e.g., by using food stamps to buy groceries, vouchers to pay rent to private landlords.

Many conservatives do appreciate the safety net, Morgan says. But, even by his own showing, many don’t.

For example, he quotes Newt Gingrich, whose latest tome notes that the 2009 poverty rate was about the same as when the War on Poverty began. “What did we get in return?” Newt asks — a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

We hear the same thing from the Republican Study Committee, which counts a large majority of House Republicans as members.

“Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare,”* it says. “Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.”

This is the send-up for its broad-gauge attack on virtually the whole range of federal programs that constitute the safety net.

And RSC member Paul Ryan, who chairs the influential House Budget Committee, has personally championed radical safety net cuts.

As we head into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget season, both the administration and Congress will be looking for ways to reduce non-defense spending by $54.7 billion.

“The safety net will be a fat target,” Morgan warns.

Some major programs won’t get hit by the automatic cuts the failure of the Super Committee will trigger. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe, since Congress is perfectly free to change them — or the law that partly protects them.

Other programs are wide open, as the Congressional committees and subcommittees parcel out the mandated reductions.

We often focus on defects in the safety net — people who aren’t served, people who are but not sufficiently. This is still important.

But, taking a leaf out of Morgan’s book, I feel we urgently need to show how much good safety net programs do — and to revive the history of what poverty in America was like before them.

* This figure comes from the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — a not always reliable source. The RSC is also indebted to the Foundation for its uniquely expansive definition of “welfare”.


TANF Safety Net Keeps Fraying

December 19, 2011

Safety nets are supposed to catch people when they fall so they don’t crash to the ground. So too with what we call safety net programs. We’ve created them so that people don’t land in desperate poverty.

We’d thus expect safety net programs to catch more people when the economy tanks, as it did in late 2007. We’d expect them to provide enough aid to serve their basic purpose, i.e., ensuring that needy people have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, essential medical care, etc.

By this modest measure, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has egregiously failed — no surprise, given past performance.

A new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms this with two updated perspectives on the TANF safety net — what portion of poor families with children is it catching and how much is it helping those caught to meet their basic needs.

TANF Enrollment

TANF was created in 1996 to replace AID to Families with Dependent Children —  a program under which the federal government provided states with matching funds based on what benefits were costing and need.

“Welfare reform” converted this scheme to a fixed-sum block grant, plus a Contingency Fund states could draw on during hard economic times — until the Fund ran dry.

At the time, AFDC was providing cash assistance to 68% of poor families with children. Participation rates have been steadily falling — and not because fewer families were poor enough to need aid.

TANF did expand slightly — by 13% — after the recession set in. But in 2009, only 27% of families in poverty received any cash assistance from the program.

Cash Benefits

TANF cash benefits started out low — an average of about $395.50 a month for a family of three.

As of 2008, 28 states and the District of Columbia had increased the nominal value of the benefits they provided, but fewer than half enacted increases big enough to even keep pace with inflation.

Since then, inflation has continued to make dollars worth less. But most states have frozen benefit levels. Six states and the District have actually cut them.*

A perfect storm of reasons for this — mostly attributable to federal policies. Most important perhaps are the year-after-year failure to increase funding for the block grant and rules that allow states to use TANF funds for more politically-popular programs.

Add to these two recent decision by our penny-pinching Congress.

The first was to let the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund die, thus denying states more of the extra funding the Recovery Act had provided to help them cope with recession-related pressures.

The second, more recent denied 17 mostly poor states supplemental funds they’d been receiving since TANF was created and, at the same time, cut back what had already been approved for the regular Contingency Fund.

I don’t want to let states — or the District — off the hook here. They’ve been choosing to economize on TANF cash benefits for a long time. Even in tough economic years like these, budgets are choices.

Nevertheless, the federal partner has been shirking its share of responsibility for maintaining the TANF safety net — and allowing states to shirk theirs as well.

End result is that:

  • TANF cash benefits are worth less now than in 1996 in all but two states.
  • They’ve declined by at least 20% in 34 states and the District.
  • No state provides benefits that lift a family of three out of extreme poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.
  • In 29 states and the District, benefits for the family are below 30% of the FPL.
  • They’re below 20% in 14 states, nine of which have lost their supplemental grants.

This unfortunately may not be the worst of the bad news.

As CBPP earlier reported, a number of states have already projected budget shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2013.

They could face gaps they hadn’t expected due to the automatic spending cuts the debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal will trigger — or cuts Congress may pass to avert them.

* Unlike most of the state cuts, the District’s cut applies to families who’ve participated in TANF for a total of more than five years. And it’s progressive — first 20% less, then 25% less till there’s nothing left. The DC Council deferred the second round of cuts, but they’re scheduled to resume in 2013.


Congressman Ryan Defends His Radical Budget Plan

July 15, 2011

Recently listened in on a telephone interview with Congressman Paul Ryan, architect of the House of Representatives’ Fiscal Year 2012 budget plan.

One never knows, of course. But I’m inclined to believe that Ryan genuinely believes what he says.

In any event, we need to take what he says seriously because it shows how the Republican leadership wants to refashion social policy — and how it will justify the changes.

So here, in a nutshell, is what Ryan had to say about safety net programs and my comments thereon.

The House plan saves the safety net. This is Ryan’s over-arching argument. Our nation faces a fiscal crisis, he says. If we don’t address it, we’ll have to make drastic austerity cuts like what we’re seeing in Greece.

The House plan makes “gradual, sensible reforms.” They avert “real pain” because the alternative will be “cutting everyone indiscriminately.”

In other words, cuts to safety net programs are inevitable. We can opt to phase them in now or be forced to make them in one fell swoop later.

The former is better because only across-the-board cuts are painful. Why targeted cuts aren’t painful to the people they affect is a mystery.

Unsaid, but clearly implied is the notion that the federal government can’t afford to sustain safety net programs as they’re designed today. This should not be surprising since Ryan rules out any deficit reduction plan that involves raising more tax revenues.

Also unsaid, but clearly implied is the notion that safety net programs are a major factor in the upward-trending deficit. Not, so far as I know, a conclusion the data will support.

Experts of all political stripes are concerned about the rising costs of health care. These, of course, affect federally-subsidized health insurance programs, but the programs aren’t the driver.

Safety net programs help too many people. Ryan says we need to focus safety net programs on people who need help the most — and away from those who need it least.

In other words, eligibility standards for safety net programs should be made more restrictive. They’re now including people who should be left to cope on their own.

Ryan doesn’t say what the standard of need should be. One has to assume that it would be well below the federal poverty line to yield the kinds of savings he seems to feel are needed.

We’d then live in a society that accepts hunger, homelessness, untreated illnesses, etc. as just sad facts of life — something we can’t collectively do much about because it’s more important to have lower top tax rates.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families should be the model for all safety net programs. All “welfare” programs, it seems, should be time-limited. Their reason for being is to “get people back on their own two feet.” Too frequently they become “a web that entraps people into a life of dependency.”

I’ve animadverted before about House Republicans’ seeming romance with TANF.

More generally, the notion that safety net programs undermine initiative, hard work and the like is becoming a virtual truism — and not among Republicans only.

Here in the District of Columbia, for example, our dyed-in-the-wool Democratic mayor, among others, has used it to justify time-limiting TANF benefits.

What’s striking to me is the assumption that people who need public benefits are, without exception, just down on their luck. They can all, with some training and other services, become entirely self-sufficient.

I can’t help thinking that Ryan and his ilk don’t know much about people who receive public benefits. Many of them, after all, are working but can’t earn enough to full support themselves and their families.

That takes a lot of money these days — even in places that aren’t as high cost as, say, the D.C. metro area, where a parent with two kids would need at least $63,430 a year just to pay for basic living costs.

Many low-income people face what experts tactfully term “employment barriers” — severe intellectual and/or physical disabilities, debilitating mental and/or physical illnesses, dependents with same, functional illiteracy, criminal records, etc.

It’s surely right and proper to do all we can to help these people get into the workforce. But adopting a system that will leave them entirely dependent on their earnings — no subsidized child care or health insurance, no housing vouchers, no nothing?

Communities should be free to have whatever sort of safety net they want. Ryan claims that Washington has denied communities “flexibility” and opportunities for “innovation.” This is the other face of his aim to extend the TANF model to other safety net programs.

In point of fact, state and local policymakers seem to have considerable flexibility now when it comes to outreach innovations, service delivery models, program administration and, even to some extent, benefits.

Anyone who thinks the federal government should get out of the standards-setting business altogether should take a look at how states are using the flexibility they’re afforded under TANF.

I, for one, would rather see Washington “lull creativity” than see any state limit safety net programs to 24 months and/or to households at 14% of the federal poverty line.

UPDATE: After I posted this, I learned that the interview is now online. You can listen to it or download the transcript here. Caution, however. The transcript is not 100% accurate.


DC Council Finds Funds For TANF, But Poor Families Will Still Be Homeless

June 2, 2011

So DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown has managed to find $4.9 million for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

This will be used to temporarily halt the phase-out of cash benefits for families who’ve been in the program for more than five years. And a good thing too.

As a number of fellow bloggers have commented, it’s grossly unfair to penalize families for the program’s failures to provide suitable job training and other needed services.

Outrageously unfair to punish children because their parents haven’t been able to find sustained living wage work in our high-skill, recession-battered economy.

Also, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has argued, counterproductive because children who live in poverty are less likely to learn what our public schools aim to teach them. Push more of them into even deeper poverty and you set the stage for another generation of poor parents raising poor children.

On the other hand, the TANF program needs more than protection of current cash benefits. It needs enough funding to boost them.

They’ve remained flat for three years, which means they’ve lost value due to inflation. At this point, a family of three can get, at most, enough to put it somewhat below 28% of the very low federal poverty line.

Here’s one indicator of the results. According to the recently-released final figures from the District’s 2011 homeless count, 83% of literally homeless adults in families had some regular income. And the most common primary source was none other than TANF.

The Council, to its credit, put $17 million more into homeless services, thus making up for most of the shortfall. So at least those TANF families should be able to count on shelter this winter.

It also rejected, in principle, Mayor Gray’s plans to gut affordable housing programs.

As DCFPI reports, the Council’s version of the Budget Support Act, i.e., the legislation needed to implement the budget, allocates a portion of the additional revenues it hopes the Chief Financial Officer will project to restoring the $18 million shifted out of the Housing Production Trust Fund.

An additional $1.6 million of the hoped-for revenues would be used to preserve all affordable units subsidized with Local Rent Supplement Program funds for the homeless individuals and families sponsors intended to house.

The mayor’s proposed budget co-opted 175 of them to house people in the permanent supportive housing program. If all goes well, they’ll be housed without foreclosing opportunities for others.

But the first $22 million of new-found revenues will go to moving remaining expenses parked in the capital budget into the operating budget, where they belong.

Half of the remainder will be used to build up funds reserved for future contingencies. And the first $10.8 million of the rest will fund additional police force positions.

If my back-of-the-envelope calculations are right, the upcoming CFO projection will have to show more than $100 million more in expected revenues for both homeless services and affordable housing to be brought up to current funding levels.

Whatever the projection, the Council can still change its mind.

Council Chairman Brown and some of his colleagues reportedly still want to use some $13 million of the found funds to replace the just-passed tax on interest earned from out-of-state bonds.

This now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach to balancing the budget was in Brown’s version of the BSA. A bare majority of Councilmembers passed an amendment to block it.

But neither the amendment nor any other part of the BSA will be final until the Council votes again on June 14.

The Save Our Safety Net coalition suggests we stiffen the backbones of Councilmembers who voted for the bond tax amendment and try to move others into their camp.

A one-vote margin is never comfortable, especially when it includes at least one Councilmember who, let’s just say, has proved remarkably unpredictable.


Big Myths Used To Sell Food Stamp Block Grant

May 12, 2011

I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.

It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.

The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.

But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.

The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”

Complacency? Ryan and his colleagues obviously haven’t taken a food stamp challenge recently — or tried to support themselves and their families on an income well below the federal poverty line.

The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.

The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.

The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.

Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.

But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.

That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.

They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.

The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”

Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.