Welfare reform at 15: a failed safety net

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was enacted in August 1996 to replace AFDC as the national welfare program. A new report from Legal Momentum outlines the crippling of the safety net for the poorest and most in need people in the US:

Program enrollment has declined from four-fifths of eligible families pre-reform to two-fifths of eligible families post-reform. The number of children receiving benefits has fallen from three-fifths of poor children pre-reform to just one-fifth of poor children post-reform. Benefits have plummeted far below the poverty level in every state and to less than five dollars a person a day in most states. “Full family sanctions” are widespread and often imposed erroneously or for trivial reasons. TANF’s “work first” emphasis perpetuates women’s employment in low wage “women’s work.” Many needy persons are arbitrarily excluded from aid by welfare reform’s time limits, family caps, and five year eligibility bans for [undocumented] immigrants.

The shriveled safety net condemns millions of women and children to a poverty so extreme that deprivations such as insufficient food, loss of the home, and loss of utility services are widespread. Inaccessible or inadequate TANF aid sometimes deters domestic violence victims from fleeing their abusers.

The shredding of the safety net has had an especially harsh impact on single mother families, as at any given time between one quarter and one third of single mothers are jobless and potentially in need of assistance.

A vanishing safety net is the predictable consequence of federal TANF policy.

The notion that the poorest in our society are the ones who must pay when the economy suffers as a result of the richest people’s greed is the current norm in US policy. States and the federal government refuse to tax the rich and instead cut vital and already insufficient safety net programs. Legal Momentum’s report is a reminder we didn’t get here by accident. There has been a consistent, concentrated effort to get government out of the business of serving the people.

The impact outlined in the report speaks to a range of issues, from hunger and shelter to domestic violence and an inability to escape poverty. This is the reality when there is no real safety net to support those most in need – inequities compound and build on each other. When I worked on an abortion hotline these are the sorts of issues I heard about all the time – the people I spoke with were also dealing with loss of food and shelter, domestic violence, an inability to find work. When we care so little for people struggling in a fundamentally unjust economy, with gross wealth disparity, poverty becomes a trap with little recourse.

Congress needs to reauthorize or extend TANF by the end of September 2011, and given there current willingness to totally screw over all but the wealthiest Americans I’m worried. As Legal Momentum states, there needs to be a right to aid. Benefits must be raised and must be more accessible.

To my mind this is the whole point of government. We pay taxes into a system that should be there to support us. Otherwise what’s the fucking point? Right now we have a government that exists to support the consolidating of wealth in the hands of the very few at the expense of all the rest of us.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

Read more about Jos

Join the Conversation