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.
The most recent numbers from the Department of Human Services (DHS) showed TANF caseloads increasing in April. Whether or not this is the beginning of a trend, it is still striking that the long-term trend is downward.
Right now we mostly have data and questions. The Oklahoma TANF cash assistance caseload is falling much faster and more consistently than the national caseload. The figure below shows that Oklahoma’s 2007 TANF participation was 76 percent under the 1997 level, compared to a national drop of 62 percent. We departed downward from the national trend twice, once in 2000-02 and again starting in 2006. Monthly data not shown here indicate the Oklahoma caseload continued to fall well into the current recession while national cases leveled off.
Department of Human Services (DHS) annual reports and data from organizations making national comparisons turn up some other interesting facts. Each one raises important questions.
- Applications for TANF in Oklahoma have fallen every year since 2004. Is there less need for help thanks to robust economic growth or is the relatively low benefit level we offer not worth applying for?
- Most poor Oklahomans do not receive TANF cash assistance. In 2007, only 2.7 percent of people below the federal poverty level received TANF cash assistance. Do the majority of poor people not need or qualify for TANF or are we leaving needy Oklahomans out?
- TANF coverage varies greatly across the state. Of people below the poverty line, just 0.2 percent in Grant County received TANF benefits, while 7.1 percent participated in Oklahoma County. Do the needs vary that widely or does the program operate differently in different offices?
- Oklahoma’s monthly benefit for a single-parent family of 3 has fallen from $306 in 1996 to $213 in 2008, adjusted for inflation. Is this enough to make a meaningful difference in a poor family’s life or prospects?
- Oklahoma spends just 13 percent of federal and state TANF money on cash assistance, compared to a national average of 30 percent. Can we show that our spending for child care, transportation, administration, and other social programs is equally or more effective at fighting poverty than cash assistance?
We’ll keep watching the monthly participation reports to determine if the long slide in caseload has finally been arrested. We’ll also be working to collect better information. We won’t be alone in trying to make sense of the numbers and the policy choices behind them. The Georgetown University Law School’s Peter Edelman is focusing on Oklahoma as part of an article about TANF and its future. The DHS research staff is studying the numbers and looking for answers as well. We hope that you’ll comment if you have any insights or opinions and that you’ll stay tuned for further updates.