Women on Cash Assistance Testify on The Hill to Change TANF Policies

By Seth Freed Wessler Feb 26, 2010

In D.C. these days, it’s hard for anyone to yell loudly enough to get heard over the buzz of health care reform. But in the shadow of Obama’s healthcare summit yesterday, about a hundred congressional staffers, reporters and advocates piled into a House briefing room to listen to low-income mothers talk about welfare. Yesterday’s briefing was organized by the Women’s Economic Justice (WEJ) network, a cohort of low-income women’s community organizations. Several current and former cash assistance recipients were there to share their stories and I also spoke in my capacity as a researcher to the serious need for a reform of the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program. The women on the first panel spoke through tears about the failures of welfare reform to help them get out poverty. In the words of one mother, “TANF was my biggest barrier to getting me and my family out of poverty.” About halfway through the first panel, Congressman Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington, stepped in and spoke for a few minutes about the need to change the way we deal with poverty and re-reform welfare. He condemned TANF policies that abandon children and push women into lives of working poverty. TANF (pronounced TAN-ef) was created in 1996 during welfare reform in the Clinton years. It instituted time limits on aid and made cash assistance tied to a person’s ability to find work. The poverty didn’t go away, but the help for families in need sure disappeared fast. In 2008, there were 1.7 million families on TANF, down from 4.8 million families in the pre-welfare reform years. “People are very worried about Haiti right now,” McDermott said, “But you can see many of the same things here.” Diana Spatz, the director of LIFETIME and an organizer of the briefing spoke after the first panel. “We’re not looking for pity here,” she said. “These are realities that we can change by changing this policy.” The briefing, which was conducted again later in the day for Senate staffers, called Congress to restructure TANF to substantively keep families from falling into the depths of poverty. Several women demanded that the program be adjusted to allow mothers to continue to receive cash assistance while they attend college. Others recounted stories that expose the failure of the program to support women facing domestic violence. And several women said that as long as there is no time limit on poverty, there should be no time limit on receipt of cash assistance. Though the Obama administration has announced it will not move to reauthorize the TANF program but, rather, will extend it for a year, the WEJ groups refused to be silent about what is needed to end poverty. For them, reauthorizing TANF is as urgent as health care reform. Check out my recent ColorLines investigation about how the TANF program has pushed families of color precariously close to the edge.