Recession Ebbs, but Misery Piles on for Families in Poverty

Michelle Chen

Now that the Great Recession has supposedly come to an end, can the poor expect a little relief after months of belt-tightening and layoffs? Not so much; poor families have been getting poorer as the social safety net continues to fall apart.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits have been steadily losing value in recent years because they haven’t kept pace with inflation in many states. Although some states have adjusted benefit levels to meet need, in 20 states:

… benefit levels have been cut or have remained frozen under TANF. Four states have lower TANF benefit levels in 2010 than they did in 1996 (without adjusting for inflation). Some 16 states have the same TANF benefit levels in July 2010 as they had in 1996.

Moreover, at a time when poor families are suffering most, it appears that many who should be getting aid aren’t, especially when compared with more accessible programs like federal food stamps. The causes of the deficit are difficult to parse, but the trend may reflect bureaucratic obstacles, confusion about eligibility, and maybe the sense the woefully inadequate benefits aren’t even worth the trouble of applying.

Across all states, a family of three surviving on TANF assistance hovers below half the federal poverty line, according to the CBPP, and some states have much lower benefit levels (the (underestimated) official poverty threshold is $1,526 per month in the continental United States). That’s generally too little to afford the cost of a two-bedroom family apartment.

The Recovery Act brought a temporary boost to TANF funds in many communities, but that won’t offset the long-term trend of divergence between inflation and the eroding value of TANF. Just when working-poor families are threatened with cutbacks on the local, state and national level on critical public services like education. Even when you add food stamps, the combined benefit levels still fall well short of the poverty line in most states.

And don’t expect a bailout for the poor from private coffers. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, charitable donations slipped last year at the supposed final phase of the recession, dropping 11 percent for the nation’s 400 largest charities.

In times like these, it might make sense for lawmakers to start squeezing wealthier sectors of the economy. But even corporations can claim economic hardship — and use their money and political clout to fight redistributive fiscal policies on the back end.

Such was the case in New York City last week, when a bill to mandate that employers provide workers with paid sick leave was derailed when Council Speaker Christine Quinn sided with the business lobby. The widely supported, carefully crafted measure would have provided a modest cushion of income support to strapped families coping with medical crisis. But opponents mauled it as an excessive burden on employers.

Lifeline government programs like TANF and food stamps occupy a shrinking corner on a dwindling plate of resources for working-class households. Meanwhile, the recession that’s supposed to be finished keeps dishing out misery, and the poor are getting seconds whether they like it or not.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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