A Chance to Rework Welfare-to-work

By Michelle Chen Aug 01, 2009

A few months ago, we looked at the recession as a potential wake-up call for the political forces that brought us welfare reform during the Clinton Era. Now that epidemic levels of joblessness and homelessness are creeping into the “middle class”—and exploding stereotypes about poor Black single mothers lacking “personal responsibility”—a welfare system that blames the poor for their plight seems tragically out of sync with today’s economic reality. Maybe someone in Washington is paying attention. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has identified potential green shoots in Recovery Act that could undo some of the damage that poor communities of color have suffered under punitive welfare policies. The stimulus enables states to revamp Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs through measures that could both expand access and reorient assistance toward more systemic supports. Some examples:

Provide a back-to-school clothing allowance or extra help with heating or cooling costs with a cash payment to low-income families, such as children receiving food stamps, children receiving TANF, and/or children receiving Medicaid/CHIP. Expand or start a subsidized employment program. Consider teaming up with both private employers as well as community institutions and the public sector. Consider teaming up with efforts in the Weatherization Assistance Program to improve the energy efficiency of homes. Expand funding for emergency assistance to help struggling families through a crisis, such as help to pay past-due rent or utility bills (to avoid evictions and shut-offs); to repair cars needed for work, school, training, or to look for work; and to make a needed modification to a residence for a person with a disability. Partner with emergency providers in the community such as homeless shelters or food banks to expand short-term, non-recurrent help to families with severe needs. This could include providing a TANF-funded extra food package for families with children on a non-recurrent basis.

States could broaden assistance by extending support to working poor families outside regular TANF parameters–for instance, by assisting more families who are trying to stabilize after leaving welfare. Or they could invest in shorter-term relief like foreclosure or eviction prevention, to help struggling families avoid falling over the edge. The Center notes that fiscal crisis could prompt a loosening of welfare-to-work mandates, which have over the years encouraged states to push families off welfare rolls as soon as possible. States ordinarily face penalties if they don’t funnel a certain number of welfare recipients into jobs, but the federal government can loosen the mandates in times of economic distress. The anemic job market could spur states to demand federal relief (and in turn, help debunk the racist boostraps mentality driving welfare-to-work policies). Seizing the opportunity to repurpose TANF funding, Los Angeles County has drawn down federal money to launch a major subsidized employment program. In New York, community groups are urging lawmakers to use the stimulus to invest in the creation of sustainable jobs for low-income people, as opposed to the dead-end welfare-to-work jobs that have been criticized as a way to “warehouse” the poor. At the end of the day, the stimulus infusion is temporary and could easily dry up well before the recession runs its course. But with enough grassroots pressure from impacted communities, the temporary federal boost could lead to a permanent shift away from the racialized, degrading policies that set the stage for the ongoing crisis. Image: Just Harvest Welfare Justice Project