Archive for 2012

What welfare? No safety net for Oklahoma's poorest children

by | July 9th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (7)

Welfare as most people imagine it doesn’t actually exist anymore.  Public discourse conjures images of lazy people scamming the system and living large off their monthly government check.  It’s a popular, but wildly inaccurate narrative.  Welfare reform in the mid-1990s gutted funding for cash-benefit assistance and radically downsized what had been the nation’s central anti-poverty program.  This post shows that the new welfare, dubbed ‘Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ (TANF), is simply unavailable to the vast majority of very-low income or chronically unemployed Oklahoma families with children.

When poverty-assistance was reformed in 1996 to emphasize ‘welfare-to-work,’ TANF programs were intended, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes “to help move adult cash-assistance recipients into the paid labor market and to provide a safety net for families when they cannot work.”  In 1996, Oklahoma’s TANF program averaged about 37,000 cases each month; today, it’s averaging about 9,000.  Clearly, welfare reform succeeded in reducing rolls and limiting parents access to cash-assistance and other benefits.

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Post-session review: So whatever happened to…

by | June 18th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, OK Policy | Comments (0)

Of the 1,934 bills filed this past legislative session, only a small fraction of those saw any significant action by legislators.  Most bills are never heard by a committee, and almost all of them fall short of a hearing on the floor of either legislative chamber. This post reviews the bills from this session that OK Policy provided commentary and analysis on, some in-depth and some in passing, and reveals how far they made it through the legislative process.

As we previously noted, there were far fewer bills this session targeting immigrants than in previous legislatures.  HJR 1088, sponsored by Rep. Terrill would have denied bail to a person who has entered or remained in the country illegally. It was not heard in committee.  Another Terrill bill, HB 3014, was a draconian proposal to implement English-only restrictions. It was similarly denied a committee hearing.

Out of a wave of bills targeting the poor and people receiving public benefits, only a handful were successful.  HB 2388, a bill to drug test welfare recipients that we criticized early on, was substantially revised (for the better, for the most part) and eventually passed both chambers.

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A step sideways: Bill to drug-test welfare applicants gets a make-over

by | May 17th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (0)

A bill to clarify drug-screening procedures for TANF applicants has passed both chambers of the legislature and been signed by Governor Fallin.  TANF, or ‘Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,’ is a temporary public benefit that provides cash assistance and other support to very low-income parents with children.  We’ve expressed grave concern about previous incarnations of this bill, and we still believe that targeting a tiny public benefit program reflects misplaced priorities and perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes about the poor.  However, the much-improved final version of HB 2388 corrects key flaws from the original bill and its authors, Sen. David Hold and Rep. Guy Leibmann, should be commended for making common-sense changes.

The final version of HB 2388 improves upon the original proposal in two fundamental ways.  First, the final version of HB 2388 doesn’t actually require drug-testing as a mandatory condition of receiving TANF benefits.  Instead, it codifies existing drug-screening procedures, explicitly mandating a process the TANF program was already using to identify applicants with substance abuse issues.  For at least a decade, DHS has contracted with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to conduct screenings of TANF applicants through the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) tool.  The screening tool is administered by substance abuse professionals and is highly accurate in identifying both alcohol and drug abuse.  If, after administering the screen, case workers suspect drug-use, they can request a chemical drug test for the applicant.

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A Rock and a Hard Place: 'Asset-tests' and Oklahoma's poor

by | May 1st, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (0)

The federal ‘Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations‘ (FDPIR) program provides food assistance to low-income Native American households living in Indian Country.  Many households participate in FDPIR as an alternative to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly the food stamp program, because they do not have easy access to SNAP offices or grocery stores.  The agency that administers the tribal food program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), recently proposed new regulations that would eliminate the program’s ‘asset test’, currently set at $2,000-$3,250.

continue reading A Rock and a Hard Place: 'Asset-tests' and Oklahoma's poor

Five reasons not to drug-test welfare applicants

by | February 29th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (12)

Two bills that would require applicants for TANF benefits to submit to and pay for a drug test, HB 2388 and SB 1073, have cleared their first committees and are moving through the legislative process.  TANF stands for ‘Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ but the program bears little resemblance to ‘welfare’  as most people imagine it.  Welfare reform in 1996 drastically downsized and radically altered safety net cash assistance programs.  Proponents of the bills argue that: (1) drug users shouldn’t be allowed to access public benefits and (2) that denying benefits through drug testing will save the state money.  Both of these arguments are flawed.  Here are five simple reasons not to drug-test welfare applicants [click here for our fact sheet]:

1. It’s unconstitutional

A Michigan law that is nearly identical to the Oklahoma proposals has already been ruled unconstitutional by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The court ruled in 2003 in Marchwinski v. Howard that Michigan’s policy of broadly subjecting all welfare applicants to a drug test violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.  An analysis by the Congressional Research Service concluded in 2008 that state laws requiring drug tests as a condition of benefits, without suspicion of drug use, are susceptible to constitutional challenge.  In fact, this is precisely what just happened to Florida’s new law, which is suspended pending the outcome of a legal challenge.

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2012 Session: Prospects look better for immigrants, worse for the poor, loaded for gun enthusiasts

by | February 15th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Capitol Matters, Immigration, Poverty | Comments (3)

The 2012 legislative session convened last Monday and will run until the end of May (click here for a complete run-though of how this works in our handy Legislative Overview). With 1,934 new bills  filed, it takes awhile before we know for certain which priorities will dominate the session. But now that our merry gang of bill-trackers have taken a first look, a few themes have emerged.

One is a subject more notable by its absence than its presence: immigration. Last year, some two dozen immigration bills were introduced, most looking to impose tighter law enforcement and verification restrictions on undocumented immigrants. Most of the bills were killed by House and Senate leadership over the course of session. Ultimately a single bill, HB 1446, emerged out of conference committee but was defeated on a bipartisan vote in the House.

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Poll: 97 percent of respondents object to bad polling

by | August 31st, 2011 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (1)

Photo by flickr user jukebox909 used under a Creative Commons license.

Hardly a day goes by without news of the latest opinion poll surveying the attitudes of Americans or Oklahomans. While many polls are carefully worded and fairly presented, some issue polling is so sloppy or biased that one suspects its only purpose is to promote the political agenda of the pollster or their client. This certainly seemed to be the case with a recent Rasmussen poll of American’s attitudes on poverty, welfare, and immigration.

The poll, which was released to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of the 1996 welfare reform law, seems at first glance to suggest that Americans are unhappy with the nation’s welfare system and believe too many undeserving people are receiving public assistance.  But a closer look suggests that the poll reveals next to nothing about what Americans think.

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Nothing but a strand of the net: One in 37 Oklahomans has food stamps, nothing else

by | January 7th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (0)

The New York Times this weekend ran an important feature on one important and disturbing sign of the impact of the recession – the large and growing population of food stamp recipients that report zero household income:

About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid — no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.

continue reading Nothing but a strand of the net: One in 37 Oklahomans has food stamps, nothing else

Media coverage of the welfare caseload puzzle

by | July 14th, 2009 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (0)

Ron Jenkins of the Associated Press wrote an article that ran this weekend picking up on OK Policy’s recent blog post examining the puzzle of why TANF cash assistance caseloads have been so slow to rise since the onset of the economic downturn. I’m quoted as wondering whether years of policies aimed at keeping people off TANF have weakened the program to the point where it may not be well-equipped to serve those in genuine need:

Because of low payments, red tape in federal law and state policies, “You may have reached the point where people have stopped treating TANF as something that is available,” Blatt said.

He said there are detrimental consequences if that is the case. “If there is no income, that can lead to homelessness and other kinds of problems that are worse. We think TANF is an important part of the safety net, particularly now that we are seeing this steep rise in joblessness.”

Sunday’s New York Times included an op-ed by Barbara Ehrenreich harshly critical of the TANF program for placing enormous barriers to assistance.  While her conclusions may not all apply to the program in Oklahoma, the article offers some important insights into the puzzle of stagnant caseloads. We are continuing to actively explore these issues along with staff at DHS, and will keep you informed as we learn more.

Numbers you can't make sense of–the falling welfare caseload

by | June 24th, 2009 | Posted in Blog, Poverty | Comments (2)

If you look closely at our most recent Numbers You Need summary of Oklahoma economic and fiscal indicators, you’ll find a puzzle. On one hand, economic hardship is evident.

Oklahoma’s unemployment rate continued its rapid ascent in April, climbing to a seasonally-adjusted rate of 6.2 percent. This is its highest level since July 2003…The number of Oklahomans receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps) rose for the twelfth consecutive month in March, reaching an all-time high of 450,057 persons. Similarly, enrollment in the SoonerCare health insurance program increased by 1.2 percent in March and was up by 4.5 percent compared to one year prior.

Contrary to what you’d expect, though, the bad news is not reflected in use of the most basic piece of the safety net. Participation in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federal block grant that helps fund job training, work supports, and, in some instances, short-term cash payments for low-income single parents, is virtually unchanged. There were only 230 (1.2 percent) more people receiving TANF cash assistance in March than a year ago. How can this be when the economy is shedding jobs and every other measure shows tens of thousands of people in need?

We have remarked before on  participation in the cash assistance portion of TANF and noted that we help a considerably smaller segment of the poor population than most other states. We want to know why, in the face of obvious need, we aren’t helping more of our fellow Oklahomans.

continue reading Numbers you can't make sense of–the falling welfare caseload

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