NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby on Capitol Hill, has long been a tireless advocate for those whose voices are rarely heard in Washington’s marbled corridors of power. Their small staff of Catholic sisters and lay Catholics, along with the Catholic Health Association and women religious across the country, literally helped save health-care legislation when prospects for passage seemed bleak.
Yesterday, NETWORK released a sobering new report that should be read by any elected official or citizen concerned about our nation’s fraying social safety net. TANF Tested: Lives of Families in Poverty during the Recession paints a bleak picture of what happens when the good intentions of “welfare reform” crash into the realities of the worst economy since the Great Depression. For the past 14 years, NETWORK has tracked the monumental public policy experiment that began in 1996, when “welfare as we know it” (as Bill Clinton phrased it ) was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which imposed a strict five-year deadline on assistance and required recipients to enroll in welfare-to-work programs. Welfare rolls declined dramatically in many states. Centrist Democrats and Republicans declared victory. Advocates who work with the poor everyday witnessed a different reality.
This report is NETWORK’s third close look at TANF, and first since the economy tanked and unemployment soared. More than 800 interviews were conducted at 70 social service agencies, including food pantries, family centers and homeless shelters in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The findings are instructive if unsurprising. TANF’s “work first” emphasis poses major challenges when jobs are scarce. If middle-class college graduates are struggling to find work, a single mother without a high school degree is going to have serious difficulty. Over two-thirds of respondents were not working at the time of the survey, and one-fourth reported being laid off in the past year. Lack of child care and transportation were identified as major barriers to finding and keeping work.
NETWORK staff offers sensible recommendations to strengthen TANF, most notably changing its measure of success from reducing caseloads to reducing poverty. They also call the five-year limit on benefits “unrealistic” – especially during a time of high unemployment. Increasing access to education is also highlighted as a significant need that must be met if those on public assistance hope to improve their chances of finding work.
At a time when the debate on Capitol Hill is dominated by calls to reign in a ballooning deficit and cash-strapped states are tightening fiscal belts, politicos often forget about those barely holding on. “It’s easy for those in Washington to talk about numbers, percentages and graphs,” said Simone Campbell, NETWORK’s Executive Director. “But this is not just about numbers or a mythical safety net. It’s about the real struggles of families.”