In the state of Texas, there are almost 4 million poor people, by one recent count, but apparently few are penniless enough to meet the Lone Star State’s qualifications for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. To qualify for TANF in Texas, a single caretaker with two children must have less than $1,000 in assets and bring in less than $188 per month. For a person working full time, $188 a month amounts to an hourly wage of $1.18. Such stinginess helps explain why, according to a report Wednesday from ProPublica, Texas ended its 2020 fiscal year with $281 million in federal TANF funds unspent.
Successfully applying for such welfare funds in Texas is as rare as successfully applying to MIT or Yale.
Texas, one of four states that denied at least 90 percent of its 2020 TANF applicants, had the lowest approval rate in the nation, approving only 7 percent. That means successfully applying for such welfare funds in Texas is as rare as successfully applying for admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Yale University.
This is former President Bill Clinton’s conservative-appeasing welfare reform in action: Individual states, which were given the power to set their own rules for distributing welfare dollars, denying the poor life-sustaining help by drawing up the rules in a way that excludes most people who need help.
To put that another way: There aren’t so few people getting welfare because the demand for aid is so low; there are so few getting it because the supply of aid is being withheld by states choosing not to dispense it. Or, as previous reporting from ProPublica and The Guardian has noted, because those states are choosing to dispense TANF on things other than on welfare: including child protective services, anti-abortion clinics, Christian summer camps and programs to help people addicted to gambling.
Good news! Poverty drops to historic low after Biden reliefJuly 29, 202111:10
Texas isn’t alone in its parsimony. Across the country, the states ended fiscal year 2020 with $5.2 billion in unspent TANF money. The amount of welfare dollars the states have not spent has doubled over the last 10 years as the number of approved applications has fallen by half, ProPublica reports. Our states holding on to $5.2 billion in unspent welfare dollars would be an outrage at any time but is especially awful considering that the fiscal year ended in the middle of a pandemic that exacerbated the country’s already embarrassing and unforgivably high rates of poverty and child poverty.
According to the Census Bureau, “The official poverty rate in 2020 was 11.4%, up 1.0 percentage point from 2019. This is the first increase in poverty after five consecutive annual declines. In 2020, there were 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019.”
William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign, finds the country’s indifference to the poor all the more galling in the context of its profligate spending on weaponry.
The Rev. William Barber finds the country’s indifference to the poor all the more galling in the context of its profligate spending on weaponry.
In an email responding to my questions about the ProPublica report, he wrote, “Alongside this $5.2 billion, there is over $40 billion in federal rental assistance that never reached renters in need. Pandemic unemployment insurance ended on Labor Day, and the last child tax credit payments went out before Christmas, with no additional relief in sight. Yet over $2 trillion has gone to the wealthy and $778 billion was approved for the Pentagon without any obstacles, obstruction, or delay.”
The money to the wealthy Barber refers to is the reported $2.1 trillion that Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies' Program on Inequality and the Common Good, using Forbes data, say billionaires added to their net worth between March 2020 and October 2021. The pandemic has left so many Americans qualified to sing, as Bob Marley once did, “Them belly full, but we hungry.”
Maine, which blames its unspent TANF funds on its Legislature putting a 5-year lifetime limit on welfare eligibility, had enough left over to give $657 to every person in the state living in poverty. Hawaii had enough left to give $2,923 to everybody there in poverty.
Tennessee ended fiscal year 2020 with $790 million in an account meant to help the poor, the most of any state, but to hear that state tell it, fewer applications account for so much TANF money being left over and so few people applied because the need isn’t as great. Sky Arnold, who served as spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Human Services until recently, told ProPublica, “Our economy has been gangbusters in recent years and this is a sign of it.”
If we count the 50 states and Washington, D.C., there are only eight places in America with a higher poverty rate than that of Tennessee. There’s no excuse, then, for that state (or any state, for that matter) drawing up its TANF rules in such a way that its accounts are swelling as poor people are suffering. To its credit, Tennessee is planning to spend more money. Its Legislature recently increased the monthly cash assistance for a family of three from $287 to $377. A spokesperson for Hawaii’s state government says an increase in the amount and kinds of benefits is also being considered there. But these changes come after so many have already suffered.
As ProPublica’s report points out, when Clinton’s welfare bill was being debated in 1996, then Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois warned that if the states were given control of how to spend welfare dollars, they might do what some states are now doing: not spend them. But her amendment to prevent states from carrying over unused funds was rejected.
Flint-hearted public policy has drastically reduced the number of people on welfare with no corresponding reduction in the number of people who are poor.
Which brought us to what we have now: flint-hearted public policy that has drastically reduced the number of people on welfare with no corresponding reduction in the number of people who are poor.
Liz Theoharis, who co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign with Barber, also drew the line, back to 1996. “What we are seeing in this tragic failure are the longer term consequences of welfare reform and policies that blame the poor for their poverty rather than policies that end poverty,” she wrote.
Referring to a single mother of five in ProPublica’s story who was kicked off welfare as she was making $8.50 an hour, Harris added, “Welfare mothers have been at the forefront of exposing the inequities and injustices of these policies for decades. Their demand for a society where all of our basic needs are met — without any question of deservedness or delay — is exactly what we need right now.”
The main argument for welfare reform was that nothing is as bad as a poor family spending a lifetime getting aid from the government. Framing it that way miscasts poverty as a consequence of laziness. But in the same way that prosperity is more a function of advantage than of hard work, poverty is more a function of disadvantage than of laziness. And in a nation that cares so little about dismantling systemic disadvantage, there is something that’s exceedingly worse than a family languishing on welfare: a government granted money to help people who are poor deciding that it’s better to leave hundreds of millions of dollars unspent.