21. Recession Causes States to Cut Welfare

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Mother Jones, January 15, 2009
Title: “Brave New Welfare”
Author: Stephanie Mencimer

Associated Press, March 26, 2009
Title: “States consider drug tests for welfare recipients”
Author: Tom Breen

Student Researcher: Samantha Barowsky, Southwest Minnesota State University
Malana Men, Sonoma State University
Faculty Evaluator: Douglas Anderson, PhD
Southwest Minnesota State University

Many states are in the midst of an aggressive action to push thousands of eligible mothers off Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), traditionally known as welfare. Families are being denied aid so that savings can be redirected in state budgets.

Nationally, the number of welfare recipients fell more than 40 percent between 2001 and June 2008.  Louisiana, Texas and Illinois have each dropped 80 percent of adult recipients since January 2001. The state of Georgia had a 90 percent drop, with fewer than 2,500 Georgian adults receiving benefits, down from 28,000 in 2004.

In Georgia last year, only 18 percent of children living below 50 percent of the poverty line—which is less than $733 a month for a family of three—were receiving TANF.

In 2006, the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence conducted a survey to find out why so many women were suddenly failing to get welfare benefits. They discovered that caseworkers were actively discouraging women from applying. Welfare caseworkers were reportedly telling applicants that they would have to be surgically sterilized before they could apply for TANF. Disabled women were told they couldn’t apply because they didn’t meet work requirements. Others were warned that the state could take their children if they applied for benefits. Women are increasingly vulnerable to sexual assault and exploitation—sometimes by the state officials or caseworkers assigned to help them. Arrests of women for prostitution and petty crime went up as more and more families were denied welfare.

Students completing college degrees were misinformed that they would be denied aid once the turned twenty, regardless of graduation status. Students as young as sixteen were told that they must work full time or lose benefits.

Texas reduced its caseload by outsourcing applications to a call center, which not only wrongfully denied some families, but lost applications altogether.

In Florida, one innovative region started requiring TANF applicants to attend forty hours of classes before they could even apply. Clients trying to restore lost benefits had once been able to straighten out paperwork with the help of caseworkers. In 2005, officials assigned all such work to a single employee, available two hours a week. The area’s TANF caseload fell by half in a year.

Because of the recession, many Americans turn to the safety net of government assistance programs such as food stamps, unemployment benefits, or welfare. In an effort to discourage applicants, lawmakers in at least eight states want recipients to submit to random drug testing.

In March 2009, the Kansas House of Representatives approved a measure that mandates drug testing for the 14,000 people getting cash assistance from the state.  In February, the Oklahoma Senate unanimously passed a measure that would require drug testing as a condition of receiving TANF benefits. Similar bills have been introduced in Missouri and Hawaii. A member of Minnesota’s House of Representatives has a bill requiring drug tests of people who get public assistance under a state program there.

During the Clinton era of welfare reform, states were given a fixed amount of money regardless of need.  The TANF block grant was a $16.5 billion grant in which Georgia share alone was $370 million a year. States could divert the funds to any program vaguely related to serving the needy.  Since states receive the same amount of federal funds regardless of how many people received assistance, states were encouraged to deny benefits.  “Even if caseloads go to zero, they get the same amount of money,” notes Robert Welsh of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

States have used the surplus TANF money to expand childcare, job training, and transportation to help recipients find jobs. The Government Accountability Office found in 2006 that many states were moving federal welfare funds away from cash assistance to the poor, or even “work supports” like childcare, to plug holes in state budgets.

TANF is a gateway to education, drug rehabilitation, mental health care, child care, even transportation and disability benefits—tools for upward mobility.
“Welfare is the only cash safety-net program for single moms and their kids,” notes Rebecca Blank, an economist at the Brookings Institution, “One has to worry, with a recession, about the number of women who, if they get unemployed, are not going to have anywhere to turn.”