Monday, February 4, 2013

There is something wrong with some of you people

I plan to write more on this topic in the future, but I ran across an article or a report or a blog entry somewhere over the weekend that stimulated me to a thought, mostly about the headline.  The original headline was "There is something wrong with you people" but I decided that was unfair because it's not everybody, just some of you.  Anyway, a lot of stuff crosses my desk. This was a report from North Dakota about its implementation of the TANF program.

TANF stands for "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families."  TANF used to be called AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  Before that it was AFC, or Aid to Families with Children, which I guess they thought was too loosely defined.  TANF is a cash payment that can be used to buy anything. 

And in that respect, TANF differs from food stamps and WIC, which provide direct but restricted food assistance, and from HUD's Section 8 program, which provides money for housing payments.

But TANF is welfare.

I am lucky not to have any real experience with these programs.  It would be unfair for me to say that this is because I have always been able to provide for myself.  Certainly, when I was a child, it was not true.  But more generally, the way I look at it, I'm lucky to have skills that are in demand from people who have the money to pay me for them.  Not everybody is that lucky.

Whatever it was I was reading, which you could probably find via Google which you can find linked from here, said that around 48% of TANF benefits in North Dakota were spent on items that could be described as "luxuries"--mainly eating out, movie rentals, junk food, and other similar items that aren't strictly necessary for a subsistence level of living, plus ATM withdrawals that could be spent on anything.  The point of the article, I suppose, was to illustrate that money could be saved by cutting TANF payments, if they are just going to be spent on luxuries.

If this were a different sort of blog, you might expect to hear me clamor for a cut in these benefits. But I'm me, and if your reaction is that we need to cut TANF, then I am writing primarily to let you know that there is something wrong with you.  (Sneak preview:  You either don't have or don't have enough empathy, which makes you less of a human being. I recognize that this is a controversial position I'm taking, but it is the result of 20 years of observations.)

Here are a few facts I'd like you to keep in mind:

1. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which comes to $15,080 per year if you are lucky enough to get 40 hours a week. A lot of people don't get that much.

2. Cars are expensive to own and operate, so a lot of poor people don't. Instead, they rely on public transportation, mainly buses, that are less expensive than cars but lack a lot of the advantages that cars offer, namely almost no control over when and where you are going.

3. The nominal unemployment rate is currently about 7.9%, but somewhere between 20 and 25 million people are involuntarily out of work or underemployed.

4. TANF generally requires that recipients work or obtain job training as a condition for receiving benefits.

If you are expecting to live a luxurious life on TANF benefits, you are going to have to look elsewhere.  According to a report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, no state offers a TANF benefit that is more than 50% of the poverty line.  In most states, it's less than 30%.  Across the South, including Arkansas, it's less than 20%.

Put another way, a TANF recipient in Arkansas would have to receive or earn five times what they get in TANF benefits just to be considered poor even by Arkansas standards.

I'm all in favor of teaching a man to fish, but while you're teaching him to fish, he still needs to eat.  More importantly, so do his kids.

But, even more than that, I think that most people don't have a real appreciation for how difficult it is to live on a low income, or just how much work it is to make decisions about how to put food on the table when you don't have much by way of resources.  I am dead-on certain that most people don't view eating at McDonald's as a luxury by any definition of the term.

If you can look at these facts and say that the problem with TANF is that it's just too generous, then there is something wrong with you.

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