The Common Good

Economic Free Fall Without a Safety Net

Earlier this week the New York Times reported that even as many states have skyrocketing unemployment, their welfare rolls are shrinking. As a researcher for a racial justice think tank, I've been traveling the country collecting accounts of how this recession is playing out in the lives of everyday people. Millions who are out of work, losing homes, and struggling to stay afloat are nevertheless denied access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The punitive rules established after 20 years of racially coded frenzy to "end welfare as we know it" have left Americans with no safety net during this deepening economic crisis.

TANF replaces the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (to insert the "temporary") and its creation relied on mythologized images of the "welfare queen" driving Cadillacs conjured by Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. This kind of racial scapegoating, the politics many believe we outgrew with Obama's election, vilified welfare recipients (who have always been mostly white) and led to rules that are so complicated and punitive that many struggling families cannot get the help they need. Now that all of us -- not just people of color -- are in a recession free fall, there is nothing available to catch us. To fix TANF, we will have to put aside racial stereotypes to do what is best for the largest number of people.

When Welfare Reform passed in 1996, our macro economic outlook was optimistic and the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" was ubiquitous. The welfare rolls plummeted and conservative and liberals alike declared success. But unknown numbers of families (we mostly stopped counting) were left underemployed, underpaid, and unable to comply with punitive regulations. According to Robert Wharton, the president and chief executive officer of the Community Economic Development Administration, "Ten years into welfare reform, caseloads may have decreased, but the number of people living in poverty has not". Welfare reform set up countless barriers to access. The most egregious of these are punitive work requirements and five-year maximum time limits for lifetime eligibility.

One of the places I stopped in my travels was Detroit. Michigan has the highest unemployment in the country, passing 10 percent last month. Detroit has been hit even harder. Yet, reports the Times, the state cut its welfare rolls over 13 percent last year. In Michigan rules, like those in many states, public assistance is tied to work. A 30-year-old woman I met, lets call her A, lost her job as a teacher's assistant in a Detroit area public school, and then lost her TANF because she was no longer working. Now she has neither job nor welfare, and she's facing foreclosure with her four children. I heard dozens of examples like this -- people who couldn't find a job, or even a decent volunteer opportunity, without child care, transportation, and needing more help than the new welfare system provides.

A society cannot survive without a safety net, and we don't have one during the worst economic crisis in decades. TANF needs serious reconsideration including a rescinding of punitive work requirements and an end to the time limits that cut people off after five years total enrollment. We need to ensure that families have access to supplementary benefits like food stamps, fully subsidized child care, transportation, and housing assistance, and we need to remove debilitating eligibility requirements that exclude many documented immigrants and people with past involvement with the criminal justice system. To do these things Americans have to be willing to move past their racial stereotypes about people of color and welfare.

The country recently came together in a proud moment to inaugurate our first president of color. We did so by putting our racial divisions aside in the name of collective economic self-interest. Now we need to do the same by rebuilding a system of support for everyone.

portrait-seth-wesslerSeth Wessler is a Research Associate at the Applied Research Center.

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