The Common Good
January-February 2002

Going for Broke

by Nathan Wilson | January-February 2002

As the economy heads south, it's the poor--as usual--who bear the brunt.

For some time to come, Americans will be reflecting on how our way of life has been altered by the horrific Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While more-cumbersome air travel might top the list of life changes for some, the effects on those living in poverty may be much worse.

Little media attention has been given to the countless victims who were not the executives, traders, or senior management, but who were the janitors, service employees, and minimum wage workers. Families who lost their primary source of income in the wake of Sept. 11 are struggling to pay rent and utilities, put food on the table, or provide for their families’ basic clothing and insurance needs. Families are facing homelessness, turning to food stamps, and working multiple jobs to get by.

New York’s City Harvest, a large downtown soup kitchen, reports a weekly service increase of 55,000 people since Sept. 11. University Settlement House on the Lower East Side in New York has received a four-fold increase in requests for aid. And the damage is being felt far beyond New York. Homeless shelters in Michigan are reporting increased numbers of people; unemployment benefit requests in Nevada have jammed phone lines; jobless claims in New Orleans for the month following the terrorist attacks jumped 30 percent. In Minnesota there are more families receiving welfare—some 42,000—than any time since October 1999.

In addition, while we have yet to see comprehensive statistics that quantify domestic poverty since the attacks, it is known that more than 750,000 workers have been laid off since Sept. 11. These layoffs include former welfare recipients recently returning to the workforce as well as employees with long tenures at their companies. Many others are now living from paycheck to paycheck in an economy that is vacillating between slowdown and recession, with economists predicting that as many as 1.5 million more jobs could be cut over the next three quarters.

UNTIL NOW THE nation’s "welfare reformed" social service system has more-or-less kept up with demand because unemployment rates remained low. But this recent accelerated rate of layoffs will test like never before the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program.

For the TANF program to continue, Congress must pass and the president sign before Sept. 30, 2002, legislation that reauthorizes the program. Reauthorization could simply involve extending the funding period. More likely, Congress and the president will consider key policy changes, such as what counts as income when determining eligibility, what acceptable work activities are, how many hours per week one must engage in these activities to receive assistance, how long a recipient should be given to find a suitable job, and how to hold states accountable for the program. These policy changes likely will be overshadowed by larger budget concerns, including a projected 2002 federal deficit of more than $100 billion—a deficit that may extend (if not grow) for years to come, not least because of the military actions against terrorism. Whereas last August Congress was beginning to get its collective head around "shrinking surpluses" for TANF, it now has to consider massive deficits.

TANF is far from the only legislation before Congress this next year that will affect low-income families. Congress must also reauthorize the food stamp and child care programs and consider the future of welfare-to-work legislation that has been central to welfare reform.

The changing employment scene, coupled with the national legislative and political uncertainty, will force faith-based organizations and anti-poverty advocates to work even harder to ensure that the needs of low-income families are effectively addressed. Let’s not let America’s forgotten families become part of the collateral damage from terrorism and the anti-terrorist actions. Instead, let’s seize this time as a call to action—for the poor and the wealthy alike—to change the world so that more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health care, protection from violence, and a genuine voice in what happens in their communities.

Nathan Wilson is director of communication and public policy for Call to Renewal in Washington, D.C.

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