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Poverty Rediscovered and so Quickly Forgotten

by Fred Block

The destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina briefly raised hopes that this nation might, once again, confront and care about the forgotten poor living in our midst. But judging by the actions of the Congress, it seems that amnesia has already returned. The recent deficit reduction package signaled that the poor have again been forgotten. Its just business as usual on Capitol Hill; less money for the poor and new tax cuts for those who don’t need help.

The deficit Reduction bill includes reauthorization of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) the 1996 welfare measure that ended the entitlement to benefits. (The legal status of the entire bill is still in dispute because the House and Senate passed slightly different versions of the legislation, and the House leadership has refused to acknowledge the problem.) TANF was supposed to offer all kinds of support to get welfare recipient of the rolls and into paid work. But it soon became clear that TANF was meant to reduce the welfare rolls, but not poverty.

In 1994, for example 63% of poor children received benefits from the earlier welfare program--AFDC. By 2004, the new program, TANF, provided smaller benefits to only 36% of poor children. Nationally, total annual assistance to the poor through TANF, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit dropped by more than $19 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars as a result of the new program.

Since TANF eliminated any legal right of poor families to get help, the changes were most dramatic in states that had historically been reluctant to provide assistance to the minority poor. In Louisiana, for example, $168 million in assistance was paid to 245,000 recipients in 1994. By 2004, there were only 42,000 recipients receiving benefits of only $57 million. (The change would be even greater if the dollars are adjusted for changes in price levels.)

But despite the decline of assistance, there was no exodus from poverty in Louisiana. Those who left the welfare rolls continued to be poor. It was just that fewer dollars of assistance flowed into impoverished neighborhoods, such as the 9th Ward. Whatever the intentions of policymakers, the results were disastrous for children whose parents had little income from work or from government assistance.

Similar problems existed in many other cities, but the storm briefly swept away the blinders that keep middle class Americans from witnessing the kind of concentrated poverty that exists all over this country. The crowds at the Superdome demonstrated the Administrations belated response to the emergency. However, they also revealed decades of indifference, years of neglect.

The Republican majority in the Congress seems unmoved and unrepentant. With almost no debate, the recently passed measure dramatically increases the work requirements for those remaining on the TANF rolls. States must quickly get 50% of those remaining on the rolls into paid work-related activities. This is an expensive mandate that most states won’t be able to meet, but there is an escape hatch. States get credit towards this goal for any decline in the rolls. As a result, a state that cuts the rolls another 50% in 2006 won’t be at risk for any penalties.

Congress and the current administration have not been satisfied with the substantial benefit cuts that poor families have already endured. They want the cuts to go even deeper, depriving even more families of help. The idea that we would leave no child behind looks more and more like an empty campaign slogan.

Advocates for these tough welfare policies insist that they are needed to discourage out-of-wedlock childbearing and welfare dependency. They insist that lazy and sexually irresponsible teenagers and adults must learn that society will not reward them. But it is the children of poverty who bear the brunt of these punitive policies. It is the children who grow up in households with no resources, no stability, and no prospects.

These policies hardly qualify as reflecting a compassionate conservatism. They are also at odds with our mostly deeply cherished values. Perhaps this is why the Congressional leadership has not bothered to tell you what they have done in our name.

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