Tag Archives: TANF

“Welfare is the Last Thing I Want for My Child”

“Tammy” and I met at a Safeway in Everett, Washington, a small town an hour north of Seattle, home to one of Boeing’s largest plants and a local military base. When she finished shopping she agreed to sit and enjoy some rare Washington sunshine and tell me her story.

Aside from her prominent lip piercing, Tammy comes across as the small town Missouri girl that she is – shocked and dismayed at the turn her life has taken, and brimming with Midwestern work ethic.

At twenty years old, Tammy has already had more than her fair share of hardship, from homelessness, to spousal abuse, to marriage to a drug addicted male prostitute, to domestic violence from her brother-in-law. She presently lives in a homeless shelter for victims of domestic violence, where she can stay for at least the next 30 days, out of the weather and away from the threats of violence. Her husband, the father of her son, has returned to the streets of San Francisco and a life of meth addiction and prostitution.

Listening to Tammy, I was struck by her tenacity; though she claims that she has given up her dreams and simply wants to provide for her son, and would be ‘thrilled’ with a job at McDonalds, underneath that defeated exterior lies the heart of a young woman who would love to have a brighter future, and is not willing to accept that she just can’t get there from here.

Happy, she is not – more than once she burst into tears, only to gather herself together and carry on with her story. Yet what brings out the rage and the anger more than anything is not her past, sad as it has been, but her future, and the fact that she is now dependent on the government, a concept she loathes, not just because of the scorn she feels directed towards her, but the scorn she heaps on herself.

So what do we do with a young mother on welfare, who has a small child to raise and support? For Tammy, the answer is simple: she wants a job, and with it the self satisfaction that comes from providing for herself and her son.

Does TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) help? It could. It gives her cash support, but it only really works if the second component of the program is in place as well – job training and placement, so that she can move off of welfare and into work.

As for food stamps, housing, and medical care, all of them are bureaucracies that create dependencies that Tammy wants to get away from, and she knows that if she just had a job, she could get off of all those programs as well.

I met Tammy the same month that news came out about the Obama administration’s decision to grant waivers to 26 states, easing the work training and placement requirements in the TANF program – the keystone of TANF when it was introduced during the welfare reforms of the 1990s.

I couldn’t help thinking as I listened to Tammy talk that if someone like Tammy could make the connection between work and getting off welfare, and could see the benefits of work training and placement, why can’t our government see the same thing? And why would we gut the one program that seems to be working for young mothers and children nationwide? As Tammy said “The last thing I want is to be dependent on the government”.


“Welfare Should be Temporary, Not Permanent”

In Decatur, Georgia I was lucky enough to meet several women who are participating in a work preparation class through their TANF program. The program is administered through a private organization that contracts with the State of Georgia to provide work readiness and job search training for TANF recipients.

By all accounts, the women are getting a lot out of the training and there was an energy in the participants I met that I have not encountered anywhere else in my travels. The women I met were all convinced they would soon be off of welfare and into jobs, and felt they were getting the help and preparation they needed to succeed.

While waiting outside one of the classrooms for the women to get out of class, I heard a roar of laughter, and then an instructor came out, and looking a bit surprised to see me, said “I just gave the women a writing assignment, and the question was “What does it mean to be white?””

Given the fact that everyone I saw and encountered in the program (and in Decatur itself), was either African-American, Latino, or of Asian descent, I thought it was a curious question, apparently designed to encourage the women in the program to think about their own pre-conceptions and biases.

According to the instructor, one of the students had piped up “I’m a strong, powerful black woman, I’m black and I’m proud – I don’t know what white women are like, but that’s what I am!”, which had led to the laughter I’d heard when I arrived.

After class ended, “Connie” was the first woman who agreed to talk to me. As you will hear from her interview, she is a poster child for how TANF can and should work – as a temporary program providing cash assistance and job training and placement for women and children in need. Connie had no experience with welfare prior to losing her last job during the economic downturn. She had always worked, and expected to continue to work all the way until her retirement. Unfortunately, with the recession, and a newborn at home, things were taking longer than expected.

What I found most endearing about Connie was her matter-of-fact approach to her situation. There was no feeling sorry for herself, no giving up and deciding to stay on welfare, no slacking off – Connie is a woman with a mission, and the mission is to get on with her life so she doesn’t have to rely on the government.

So isn’t it better for Connie to have TANF as a temporary, short-term solution that helps her get up and out of welfare, than to have her languishing for years on programs that do nothing to prepare her for a life of independence and self reliance? And if so, then why are we gutting the one program, TANF,  that by all accounts is succeeding in it’s mission of getting people off of cash assistance by making it a short term solution with a workfare requirement?


Unintended Consequences – Raising Babies

“Janet” was the second woman I met in the workfare training class in Decatur, Georgia, and by far the cheeriest. Surprisingly honest, she had no compunction about admitting that children had not been on her agenda, and that was she was caught flat-footed when she realized she was going to have to learn to raise kids of her own.

She is a resourceful young woman, though, and by all appearances has the common sense get-up-and-go to work things out, whether it means sharing housing with family and friends to make it work, or participating in training programs to get ready for the workforce.

While there have been women I’ve met along this journey who had more kids than Janet, something about the way she talked about the impact having kids really struck a cord, and reminded me that birth control and family planning are effective ways of empowering women and keeping them from a lifetime of poverty and dependency.

The TANF program insists that one of the goals of TANF is  to prevent and reduce unplanned pregnancies among single young adults, yet a Google search of TANF and Birth Control yields not a single relevant News item, and overall web results show only a smattering of state-level references to the topic.

And yet, as reknowned reproductive health researchers at the Guttmacher Institute note in their 2012 publication on unintended pregnancy, nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and are heavily weighted towards the states with the highest levels of poverty, including Mississippi, which leads the nation in teen pregnancy.

This is not good news, and it is news that could easily be improved with widespread family planning and birth control use. So why the disconnect, and what can we do to fix it? The cost of birth control is miniscule in comparison to the cost of raising a child – what if instead of incentivizing childrearing by increasing TANF, Food Stamp, and housing payments according to family size (currently the practice in every state in the country) we turned that incentive around and incentivized NOT having children? What if we made over-the-counter birth control available using food stamps? What if every school provided thorough family planning education to help end the cycle of unplanned, unwanted pregancies?

I look at Janet, and I see potential energy diverted to childbearing and childrearing that she didn’t plan; how many more Janets  are out there that deserve a chance at a life that revolves around more than childrearing and welfare dependency?

Mom on Disability Wants to Leave a Legacy

“Julie” was my final interview in Decatur, and weeks later I remain deeply touched by her story.

What makes Julie’s story unique is that she is dying, of a rare and incurable disease, with a life expectancy of two to three years. What makes it more unique is the choices she is making with that knowledge in hand. Rather than sitting back and letting fate have its way with her, she is determined to shape her own destiny until the very end. That destiny, for Julie, means achieving what has become her life’s passion and goal: leaving her child with the memory of a mother who worked, and made her way in the world, and provided for her.

It is not going to be an easy road, because her way is blocked by the very system that should be helping her. Because she is on TANF, she is required to participate in workfare full time. But, because she is sick, she cannot work the full time schedule required of her, and there is no flexibility for women like her who want to work, but aren’t healthy enough to work full time. In her case, her physician has indicated that she should be on permanent bed rest.

Due to her illness, she will soon be put on disability (SSI). Once that happens, she will be forbidden from working at all – in fact, her doctor has already insisted that she can’t work, although she desperately wants to, and can do so, on her good days.

And so Julie has come up with by far the most creative use of disability benefits I have ever heard – and something policy-makers should hear about as they ponder the wisdom of SSI’s impediments to working. First, she is going to take business classes at the local college, so she can learn to run a small business. Then, Julie plans to take her disability payments, save as much as she can, and open her own in-home business.

That way, she can work her own hours, thereby insuring that when she isn’t well enough to work she won’t be fired. That way, her child will be able to see her mother working for their future, and hopefully be inspired to be independent herself. And that way, when she leaves the world  and her child behind, she leaves memories of a mom who worked to make their lives better, in the face of truly daunting odds.

While we can be thankful that there is a safety net out there for people like Julie we should also question its efficacy; if she wants to work, shouldn’t our goal be to help her do that, instead of relegating her to her bed?


I Want My Kids to Say “Mommy Took Care of Me”.

“Kate” and I met outside a subway stop near the Nike store in downtown Manhattan; she was on her way to a job doing hair and makeup for an off-Broadway show. Kate is a single mom with two kids; a seven year old son and five year old daughter. After living in a homeless shelter for two years, they all recently moved back in with her mother, who  found an apartment big enough for the four of them.

My interview with Kate is a fitting end to this summer’s journey, embodying everything I’ve come to expect from those I’ve met along the way. Though she is grateful for the help she has had from the TANF and SNAP programs, and medical assistance and housing, she clearly doesn’t want to be a ‘welfare mom’. Her most telling moments are when she talks about what she wants her children to remember about her when they grow up.

“I want them to rely on me if they need something, not the system, so when they grow up they’ll say ‘Mommy took care of me’, not the government.” She is currently planning to enroll in college and work 2-3 jobs, so that when her TANF runs out she is in a position to support herself and her kids. One impediment is the current job market, which is especially challenging in New York City.

Kate has the determination and drive to make it out of the system, and I would like to imagine her five years down the line, off of TANF for good, with a living wage job and a college degree under her belt. If anything holds her back, it certainly won’t be a lack of determination or work ethic on her part. What may hold her back is being on welfare in the first place.

As a TANF recipient, employers will find out she is on welfare and either offer her lower wages, or not hire her at all because they think she’ll be unreliable and unprofessional.

The stigma of welfare is real in the job market. First, when applying for jobs, because welfare case workers get involved, discussing their clients with prospective employers, thus tipping the hand of applicants and making employers aware of their background. Second, when negotiating for wages; employers know that welfare recipients need to take the jobs they are offered, and there is little incentive to offer them high wages. Third, since welfare recipients are able to qualify for continued housing and medical assistance and food stamps if their wages stay low, there is an incentive on the part of employers to forgo offers of benefits such as health plans and retirement funds that will push welfare recipients over the poverty line. The result is a pool of disadvantaged applicants at the mercy of employers.

Looking back on all the people I’ve met this summer who are struggling and surviving on welfare while wishing and dreaming of a better life for themselves and their families, I’ve given a lot of thought to what our country could do differently for its poorer citizens. For the disabled, for the elderly, for the children, a safety net is clearly called for. But for the rest, who just want a chance at a better life, and who just need a little help to get back on their feet after setbacks, layoffs, unexpected pregnancies, and the like, I can’t help wondering whether our current safety net isn’t in fact a safety ‘trap’ that becomes difficult if not impossible to escape. I’d like to believe we can do better.

“I Don’t Want to be on Welfare”

The sun was setting fast in the Bronx, and by the time “Sylvia” and I settled down to talk at the local park I knew we wouldn’t get much video, but she had a few things to say that I thought we should hear. Unfortunately we had to leave abruptly when a disturbance broke out nearby, so the video is short, but the point is clear – Sylvia wants a job, not a life on welfare.

A Puerto-Rican American resident of the Bronx, until recently Sylvia lived with her baby in her mother’s apartment, along with a couple of her brothers, while her husband lived with his mother in an apartment nearby. Financially, it made more sense for them to live in their mother’s homes and earn separate benefits than it did to try and afford living together.

This is one of the frustrating things about welfare – often, there is a financial incentive for parents to stay single and live apart, rather than move in together and create a household for their children. In Sylvia’s case, she and her husband eventually decided to bite the bullet and move in together, and their benefits have decreased as a result.

Sylvia recently graduated from college with a degree in Web design, but has been unable to find a job. She gets food stamps, WIC, and Medicaid for herself and her son. She and her husband would love to get in to public housing, but the waiting lists in the City stretch into years, and there is a good chance they will be off of welfare completely before their number comes up. As it stands now, they are finally living together but the rent and utilities are eating up the lion’s share of her husband’s part time income.

Sylvia seems as baffled by her situation as I am; here is a young, bright, college graduate with a degree in a highly sought-after field, headed for a life of welfare dependence that was the last thing on her mind when she went off to college. A realist, she is grateful for the money, but welfare dependency rubs her the wrong way – in fact, any economic dependency frustrates her. She doesn’t like to ask her husband for money, even for groceries, and would much rather be paying her own way and earning a paycheck. Her child keeps her busy, but she knows that it won’t be long before school takes over and she’s left with empty days.

What Sylvia is most afraid of is ending up on welfare for life. In her neighborhood, this is the norm – she knows few people who are not receiving food stamps and other benefits, and feels that the cost of living in New York City is so high that most will never be able to afford the leap off of welfare. She is also frustrated by the abuse of the public housing available – as she put it, “I have relatives and friends who have lived in the same public housing for decades, and they shouldn’t even still qualify, but they stay and no one checks up on them, and they are tying up those units for people who actually need it and legally qualify – that’s why there’s no public housing, not because the apartments aren’t there, but because they are tied up by people who won’t give them up and aren’t told to move out.”

Like most of the mothers I’ve met this summer, Sylvia doesn’t want welfare, she wants a job – she knows what a life on the dole looks like, and it is not for her. It seems to me we should be trying to capture that work ethic and put it to good use, instead of providing such Americans a life of subsistence and calling our job done.