One of the projects that has somewhat consumed me over the past several months is an analysis of the policy changes made–unilaterally, I might add–by the Department of Children and Families in Kansas, in the areas of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and childcare assistance, in particular.
Poverty, especially among women with children, is not new. A newspaper story from 1870 in New York (1870!) describes a woman who lost her job because she didn’t have childcare (in Framing Class). We should have figured this out by now.
Instead, doomed to repeat our history, Kansas is really distinguishing itself in the area of welfare ‘reform’.
Among the policy change highlights over the past few years of economic support policies in the state (I have to pull myself back from using sarcastic quotations in multiple places in each sentence here):
- The most restrictive ‘child-under’ exemption in the country, requiring mothers to return to work only two months after giving birth
- Childcare ineligibility for any parent working less than 28 hours/week, forcing many moms to turn down job offers, because they can’t report to work without financial support to pay for childcare
- A sort of preemptive job search requirement, insisting on at least 20 hours per week of job search activity and at least 20 contacts with potential employers, before TANF applicants can even receive benefits (often, over a period of 7 weeks)
- Significant increases in sanctions, including lifelong, whole-family bars for any fraud (meaning that a child could be denied benefits because, say, her mom’s boyfriend was found to have committed fraud when part of another family, even years before)
- Recalculation of families’ incomes, resulting in the denial of SNAP benefits to thousands of Kansas citizen children (you’ve heard about this one before)
- Return of federal grant dollars for SNAP outreach, because (seriously, they said this) the state isn’t ‘in the business of recruiting’ people to be on welfare
- Institution of a 48-month time limit for TANF
- Redesign of the Kansas Vision (SNAP) card, to be bright red and labeled “Food Assistance”
Significantly, few of these policy changes can be explained purely in economic terms. As I’ll outline more tomorrow, Kansas has TANF dollars left over and, indeed, some of these policies result in fewer federal dollars flowing into the state.
Instead, these policies are mostly about cutting poor mothers and children loose, insisting that they go it alone, in reckless denial of the very real consequences for children when their families lack the support they need to cope with economic and social realities. We’re approving only about 25% of TANF applications today, compared to almost 50% a few years ago.
I have no idea what a parent who is denied TANF does to survive.
There are tangible policy changes (including, in some cases, restorations) that would make a difference in these families’ lives, helping these mostly single mothers to provide for their children’s needs the way that they want–and we need–to.
I am glad that United Community Services, who commissioned this report, similarly to their investigation of the changes that resulted from the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF in 1996, gave me the chance to be part of the investigation, analysis, and dissemination of these findings.
But, here, I’m reacting not as an analyst, and not even as an advocate, but as a mom.
Because, while people often shake their heads when they find out that I have four children and multiple jobs, wondering aloud how I do it, the truth is that I have it really easy.
I don’t want to contemplate–because I can imagine–what it feels like to not have enough food for your children, or to worry that you’ll lose your housing, or, probably worst of all, to walk away leaving them in an unsafe place so that you can work.
I would bear the stigma of asking for benefits, willingly, just like so many low-income moms do, because our kids deserve help. I would bang my head against the constraints of a system that wasn’t designed to really work for me, because no pain could equal that of having to deny my children what they really need.
I feel, then, a solidarity with moms in poverty, albeit one limited by the obvious socioeconomic chasm that divides us.
I have never once envied the mom buying groceries with food stamps in front of me, as though she has something that should be mine. I have never once wondered why the mom with a young baby isn’t rushing back to her minimum wage job, because that sounds so obviously unappealing. I have never once thought that the proper ‘lesson’ to teach poor children is that they will pay if we don’t approve of their parents’ behavior.
What we have in common is a commitment to our children, no matter what.
And that’s who reacts, when I see charts like these:
Caseload reduction in Kansas’ TANF program: Translation–we’re kicking people off and denying others the chance to even get on
TANF-to-poverty ratio: Translation–fewer and fewer poor people can count on income supports
The mom in me.