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Social supports, not time limits, will reduce poverty

Marion Barry is right: generational poverty endangers communities and families. However, enforcing a time limit for welfare benefits is not the way to build strong communities or support families.

Photo by wallyg on Flickr.

Councilmembers Marion Barry (Ward 8) and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) recently introduced a bill to limit Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (also known as TANF and hereafter referred to as welfare) recipients to 60 months of welfare benefits.

After those 60 months are up, families would also be ineligible for other public benefits such as Medicaid, child care subsides, or food stamps.

It's a lot easier to blame the victim than to take the time and resources to fix the problem. Mr. Barry told the Washington Times that one of his neighbors gets "$400 or $500 worth of food stamps but won't get up in the morning and fix breakfast" for her children.

Yes, there are differences in parenting styles by social class, but to assume that low-income parents are less caring, concerned, or invested, or unskilled caregivers is not true and unfair. If anything truly puts families and children at a disadvantage, it is growing up in poor neighborhoods without access to jobs, good schools, or child care providers.

Barry and Alexander's proposed legislation also fails to understand the dynamics of welfare usage. Most families do not intend to use welfare as their only source of income, but rely on welfare to make ends meet. Instead, most families that enter welfare exit relatively quickly to take low-paying jobs. Families able to maintain full-time, year-round work are much better off than before.

Others, however, end up returning to welfare. Not surprisingly, the most vulnerable are single mothers with little work experience or education. The wealth of research done since the 1996 welfare reform act indicate that there are numerous barriers that may affect a recipient's ability to transition from welfare to work, including physical disabilities or health limitations, availability of child care, mental health problems, health of behavioral problems of children, substance abuse, domestic violence, involvement with the child welfare system, housing instability, low basic skills, and learning disabilities.

Similar to the nation, welfare and food stamp usage in the District has fluctuated over the last ten years. The number of individuals on welfare was 46,576 in 2000, fell to a low of 42,300 in 2008, and rose to 45,136 in 2009. Since 2000, food stamp usage has increased by more than 20,000 individuals, from 80,510 in 2000 to 107,618 in 2009. It is clear that welfare and food stamp usage have gone up recently because of the recession, not an increase in long-term users trying to abuse the system.

Without supports, the families that Barry aims to help won't be able to overcome a multitude of barriers. Just like how education loans/grants, mortgage tax credits, etc., help middle class families achieve a higher standard of living, social support programs like welfare, food stamps, and child care subsidies present a potential solution for low-income families.

Instead of placing limits on welfare, the DC council should support the TANF Opportunities and Accountability Act of 2010 sponsored by Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Michael Brown (at-large). The bill would invest in job training and educational programs as well as develop a better system to track welfare recipients in order to better understand when and why families enter and exit social programs.

The welfare system is far from perfect, but as the District faces continued economic turmoil brought on by the recession, this is not the time to limit access to important social safety nets. District food banks, shelters, and other social services are already strained and woefully unprepared to face coming economic hardships as the economy tries to build itself back up. Families that have not been able to leave welfare are some of the most disadvantaged families without any means of support other than social programs.

If Barry and Alexander are serious about reducing poverty and thus reducing welfare usage, they must propose more innovative policies with a multi-pronged approach that involves families, neighborhoods, educators, and employers.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own. 


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What happened to provide child care subsidies to TANF recipients who receive vocational training or college in pursuit of attaining a self-sufficient level of income? What happened to requiring TANF recipients to volunteer in order to receive their monthly checks, Medicaid, and food stamps when available jobs don't match their skill level?

What if DC put money into training people to apply their talents to their community's needs as entrepreneurs? What if DC gave such people technical assistance in the form of business incubation and mentoring, along with seed money?

You don't declaw a cat then send it out into the streets. So, DC can't just dump TANF recipients off of its rolls to clear the books without preparing these people to fend for themselves. Preparation during the term is the only way that term limits can work...So, let's start really preparing people for economic self-sufficiency.

Job training is useless if there are no jobs available.

by AMamiMus (Real World) Solutions on Nov 18, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

I have no idea what Barry's actual motivation is on proposing a bill that would have a huge effect on many of his constituents.

But the "we need to expand welfare even more" argument is really going to fall on deaf ears. If in the span of a decade, the welfare rolls barely budged - and this in the same decade that saw an explosion of jobs, wealth-creation, and opportunities - then clearly welfare has become a permanent, multi-generational way of living, rather than a short-term assistance program.

At what point does the general public know longer have a responsibility to provide funds for individuals who clearly have no interest in being self-sufficient or socially responsible?

I'm sure Barry has something up his sleeve with his newfound views on this. But given the budget misery, the days of never-ending mooching off the public dime have to come to an end. Unhappy welfare recipients are always free to seek residence elsewhere and seek more generous public freebies.

by Fritz on Nov 18, 2010 12:55 pm • linkreport

Instead of placing limits on welfare, the DC council should support the TANF Opportunities and Accountability Act of 2010 sponsored by Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Michael Brown (at-large). The bill would invest in job training and educational programs as well as develop a better system to track welfare recipients in order to better understand when and why families enter and exit social programs.

Can't we do both? Add time limits, and use the money saved to invest in job training and educational programs.

by jcm on Nov 18, 2010 12:57 pm • linkreport

I would feel better about this bill if the schools in DC were consistently good. As it is, there are too many graduates whose career prospects are limited by a substandard education. I would like to see some sort of carrot now, before they bring out the stick.

by SJE on Nov 18, 2010 1:00 pm • linkreport

It's a lot easier to blame the victim than to take the time and resources to fix the problem.

On a national scale, or even a regional scale, I agree with what you say. Unfortunately, on a local scale what we end up with is a migration of folks into DC from everywhere else to take advantage of our generous benefits.

I think the social safety net should be strengthened at the national level. But to make it the policy of the District to unilaterally pour an endless stream of money into providing no-strings-attached benefits for all comers is idiocy.

We're never going to satisfy the national need, and all we'll do is get folks on their feet so they can emigrate to the suburbs and start paying taxes in Maryland in Virginia. Sounds like a recipe for success: import as many of the region's desperately poor as possible, and export middle-class taxpayers.

Seriously, if you're interested in helping the poor, advocate for a regional fund that's paid into *equally* by MD, DC, and VA, where benefits are paid out on the basis of number of needy. That's the only way you'll see support for rich social services in DC survive the gentrification of DC.

by oboe on Nov 18, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport

Did all of you who think unlimited welfare is okay just move here?

by bloggos on Nov 18, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

Ms. Laughlin, the stories that I read about this stated specifically that along with a 5-year limit, DC will be taking Maryland's significant lead on advising how to restructure the welfare benefits program. I particularly remember reading that Maryland's program immediately assigns a worker to aide with training and professional development of whoever has applied for welfare benefits. This person stays with the person or family in question along the way to make sure that they are able to get off welfare as soon as possible.

Nobody is blaming the victim here, in fact, we're blaming ourselves for the generational poverty. Do you think you could try to get all the concepts surrounding this proposal in check before bashing it? I am absolutely NOT a Marion Barry fan (far from it), but I find this proposal intriguing, and perhaps long overdue. If DC can find a way to take Maryland's lead (with only 20,000 families on welfare out of a population of 6,000,000, compared to 17,000 District families out of a population of 600,000), then I think I will find a way to support this proposal.

by Eric on Nov 18, 2010 2:35 pm • linkreport

Cheap debating tactic #43: When losing an argument, accuse the other side of "blaming the victim"

by baddc on Nov 18, 2010 3:09 pm • linkreport

Good eye-catcher: Marion Barry is right

by Jasper on Nov 18, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

Anyone that has real concern about the effect of generations of TANF recipient's know's how detrimental it has been to people's drive in the long haul. I agree that you have to create places for people to elevate themselves, job training, GED preparation etc. I agree this move should have been made a long time ago, we would have a lot less gentrifying going on, because folk would be able to afford to stay put, however it wasn't so let's get it done now, but that doesn't mean you get caught up on who mentioned it first, it's pointless. We have to figure a way to get it done for the greater good of the city and it's inhabitant's, work on getting past this throw away mentality that we seemed to have developed. Everybody count's in a civilized society, so let's invest in ourselves, contrary to some belief, these folk aren't going anywhere so let's stop compounding the problem, let's work on a solution together.

by another native on Nov 18, 2010 9:18 pm • linkreport

@ Another native

The problems is and has always been people wont work together because you have everybody split between four groups

1 Get rid of it
2 Don't give a damn either way
3 Want to really do something and fix it (smallest group)
4 Keep things the way it is.

You cant really change anything because everyone is thinking of themselves and the bottom line is always how does this effect me not helping others and if it helps me by helping them I will do it.

by kk on Nov 19, 2010 12:36 am • linkreport

@Fritz, @oboe--Fritz comments that "I'm sure Barry has something up his sleeve with his newfound views on this"--perhaps he's caught on to the regional cycle that oboe points out: the folks that he's helped out got back on their feet and moved out of the District, where they can no longer vote for him, and meanwhile, the folks near him who are in the greatest need are newcomers who so far haven't offered him the type of political support necessary to earn a favor. It's like starting a patronage machine all over again, from scratch, every few years, and I'd bet that it's tiring.

by thm on Nov 19, 2010 12:48 am • linkreport

Just a couple more thoughts: this conceit that somehow the District is an island unto itself has been extremely beneficial to the suburbs, and very damaging to DC. As a supporter of urbanism, the underlying assumptions strike me as reprehensible.

The political borders that make up the outline of DC are completely arbitrary. And the homeless and the very poor are extremely mobile--at least when we're talking about locally. So the argument you hear from suburbanites that DC's problems are DC's problems don't hold any water.

When you can show me the sort of built-up social-services infrastructure anywhere in MD or VA that's comparable to what you see around the old DC General site on the Anacostia, or around the area of N Capitol and M Streets, *then* we can talk about how DC isn't doing enough for "DC's poor". Because they're not "DC's poor". They're the region's poor.

And personally, though it's unfair, what bugs me the most is not the fact that DC is littered with methadone clinics, mass shelters, and various other huge monuments to regional misery and dysfunction. It's that, in addition to bearing the full load of warehousing the poor--with all the negative externalities--we're expected to bankrupt ourselves funding this stuff as well.

Activists like the author of this post won't bat an eye talking about how "DC needs to do more to help it's poorest residents" while utterly and completely letting the surrounding jurisdictions off the hook, morally and financially. But just imagine the outrage if we made the argument that Wards 7 and 8 need to do more to help their poor residents (after all, there's 20% unemployment!) but that the other Wards of the city had zero responsibility to contribute to the solution whatsoever. After all, the poor folks live across the river, don't bring us into it.

We have no problem spotting how morally reprehensible that argument is, yet somehow this finger-wagging at District residents--because they've failed to eliminate all poverty and substance abuse in the Middle-Atlantic Region--feels completely natural. I don't understand it.

by oboe on Nov 19, 2010 9:44 am • linkreport

Why if every other jurisdiction in the country has some limits, can't we? It's nuts and it's part of why DC has a growing number of folks who want to take advantage of its services. Look, I'm no reflexive conservative -- I moved to DC to help others -- but wouldn't there be more money for job training and to pay low-income workers if there was less handed out through our not at all Temporary TANF?

by wdc on Nov 19, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

From Barry (via DCist):

"Who are the opponents of this transformation? 99 percent of the [welfare] recipients in Washington are African-American and HIspanic," said Barry, then making a comparison to "Appalachia," where, according to Barry, more white people are on welfare. "The biggest opponents of this are white people who for whatever reason or another, don't understand our desire to be free and to be self-sufficient...At the hearing, ninety percent of the people who were opposed were white people. I don't want to make this racial, but I'm saying their values are different than our values."

Even a blind pig tells the right time twice a day.

by oboe on Nov 19, 2010 1:03 pm • linkreport

I completely agree with oboe.

I need to go lay down for a while.

by Fritz on Nov 20, 2010 9:02 am • linkreport

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