DC Safety Net Programs Stronger Than Most, But That’s Not Saying Much

October 11, 2010

You’re probably all familiar with the old vaudeville routine. “How’s your wife?” “In comparison to what?”

It came to mind as I read a new brief from the Institute on Women’s Policy Research that gives us hard facts and figures (mostly the latter) on how public benefits served poor women during this now officially-over recession.

On the one hand, the major benefits programs IWPR looks at — health insurance, food stamps and TANF cash assistance — reached only a fraction of the women in need. On the other hand, the District of Columbia did considerably better than most states and better than any of them with TANF.

Here’s a brief comparative summary.

Health Insurance. At first glance, health insurance programs look much stronger than the other two benefits programs. However, IWPR reports the total number of poor women who had health insurance in 2008.

Nationwide, 20% of those with coverage had it through their employer or a union or purchased it themselves. Only 28% had coverage through Medicaid or some other publicly-funded program specifically for poor people.

That said, more than 68% of poor women had some form of health insurance. Or flipping it over, as IWPR does, 31.7% didn’t.

Coverage at state levels varied widely. The District ranked second, with 9.6% lacking coverage — bested only by Massachusetts, whose health care reform program inspired major elements of the federal reform package. Texas ranked last, with 50.3% of poor women on their own for health care costs.

Food Stamps. According to the IWRP report, close to 62% of poor women didn’t get food stamps in 2008. The District delivered this main form of nutrition assistance to only 41.1% of its poor women residents.

Twenty states did better — led by Maine, with 56.4%. Not much of an achievement, but reflects some effort to overcome the challenges posed by outlying rural communities there. Not a mitigating factor for the District, of course.

TANF Cash Benefits. The biggest safety net holes here. No surprise given the major flaws in the program — insufficient federal funding, other incentives to reduce caseloads, inflexible work requirements, enthusiastic uses of financial sanctions and the lifetime eligibility limits adopted by most states.

Nationwide, a shocking 88% of poor women with children received no TANF cash benefits in 2008. The District ranked highest in the percentage supported, but all that took was reaching 39.7%. Far better than the 21 states that served fewer than 10%. But again not the kind of figure you’d like to celebrate.

The IWPR brief uses figures from the 2008 American Community Survey. As you may know, the Census Bureau has just released the 2009 ACS figures. Maybe, just maybe a reanalysis would produce less dismal results.

But what we’ve got here clearly indicates that major components of the safety net are letting large numbers of poor women and children crash to the ground. And try as I might, I don’t see the political will to save them.