A couple of months ago, speaking to a large, diverse audience in Cleveland, Ohio, Jonathan Kozol joked that as a Jew, when he has the opportunity to address church audiences, he takes great pleasure in reminding Christians about the meaning of the words of Jesus. On a hot summer night in 1999, when Kozol presented the keynote at a United Church of Christ General Synod—taking his text from John, 21: 15-17—here is what he preached: “When Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep,’ he didn’t say, ‘only the sheep who dwell in the green pastures.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose mothers please us by acceptable behavior.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose fathers have good jobs and mothers come to PTA.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose parents make smart choices.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep who have two parents in the pen.’ He just said, ‘If you love me feed my sheep.'”
Kozol was, of course, speaking about welfare reform, the then three-year-old law that “ended welfare as we know it,” replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and redesigned public assistance as a program to shape the behavior of poor parents. TANF conditioned welfare on parents’ willingness and ability to secure work outside the home, but it neglected to consider the needs of America’s poorest children.
As welfare reform reaches its 20th birthday in 2016, here is how Peter Edelman evaluates what he describes as The War on the Poor: “The welfare reform of the 1990s left millions of Americans near destitution… We should know by now that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF—the so-called ‘welfare reform’ enacted in 1996—is a failure. For every 100 families in poverty in 1996, 68 received cash assistance. Now it’s only 23 in 100. Less than 1 percent of our population—just 3.1 million people—receives TANF now. Cash assistance has all but disappeared nearly everywhere… TANF is a success by one indicator: It drastically cut government aid to the very poor.”
While Aid to Families with Dependent Children “was a direct federal entitlement” by which “the money flowed through to needy eligible recipients… TANF, by contrast, is a block grant with fairly broad authority, so states are free to divert income-support money to other uses loosely connected to children and families, like financing child-welfare protection agencies. In other words, they can use the TANF block grant for what amounts to general budget relief.” States control who qualifies for TANF assistance by establishing their own eligibility rules, by setting time limits on how long any one person can qualify and by curtailing eligibility for mere minor infractions. “Because states have complete discretion over who will get help, two relatively generous states—California and New York—account for close to half of the nation’s welfare rolls. The other 1.7 million recipients are divided among the remaining 48 states and the District of Columbia. No wonder 7.5 million people have no income other than food stamps (now known by the acronym SNAP) at any given time.” Funding for TANF has, Edelman reports, “been stagnant since the law was enacted.”
Edelman faults AFDC for allowing states to set the level of benefits, “But it had one positive characteristic that was very important. There was a legal right to receive it… That’s why for every 100 families in poverty, 68 were getting help.” In the 2008 recession, writes Edelman, the need for guaranteed public assistance became palpable: “The importance of having a legal right to public assistance became visible in a dramatic way during the recent recession. SNAP, to which people still have a right, soared from 26.3 million food-stamp recipients before the recession to 46 million at the depth of the recession (and is still near that figure.) TANF went from 3.9 million to 4.4 million recipients. The difference, of course, was that there is no right to receive TANF. The states were free to turn away anyone they wanted. And most of them did.”
Right after the 1996 welfare reform, the economy picked up and mothers were able to find employment: “In a time of prosperity, TANF’s shortcomings were less visible. Indeed TANF could only seem successful during a period of full employment….” But today we can see that, “In the fast majority of states the only ‘success’ of TANF has been saving money that very low-income people desperately needed… Except in a very few states, welfare is indeed dead.”
The economic problems of very poor families directly affect children’s experiences at school, and in fact, the test-and-sanction policies of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants have most deeply punished the school districts that serve our nation’s poorest children. This blog recently explored the connection of extreme poverty to school achievement here.