As the economic downturn hits the Sooner State, we are seeing a steadily increasing number of hard-pressed families turning to the Food Stamp Program (now renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for help in making ends meet. Food stamp participation has risen for ten straight months. In January of this year, 442,299 Oklahomans received food stamp benefits, an increase of 6.5 percent from January 2008.
But rapidly increasing unemployment and stagnant incomes are not having any comparable impact on TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides monthly cash assistance benefits to children and adults in very low-income households. The number of persons receiving TANF payments in January 2009 was 19,394, down slightly (-2.0 percent) from the same month in 2008. The number of adults receiving assistance has increased by 70 from a year ago, but there are 480 fewer children and 240 fewer overall families participating. This suggests a decline in child-only cases, where payment is made for a child but not for an adult (the parent or grandparent may be receiving disability payments or a pension, or may otherwise be ineligible).
The TANF cash assistance program has been withering away for years in Oklahoma. Stringent work requirements, strict sanctions policies, lifetime eligibility limits, and the concerted effort of Oklahoma DHS to divert people away from the program have all played a part. In 1993, at the peak of the old AFDC program, there was a monthly average of 43,086 adults receiving a cash assistance check. In 2001, after welfare reform, the monthly average of adult recipients was 7,730; in 2008, 3,218. Oklahoma has not just fulfilled President Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” With the program now serving less than 3,500 single parents, and showing few signs of expanding as the economy contracts, it may be fairer to say that we have ended welfare, period.
Many people who supported welfare reform admitted that we need to provide short-term cash assistance for single adults who can’t work because they are caring for children, in school or training, or dealing with other barriers to finding a job. The economic downturn is likely to hit young adults with limited education, skills, and experience particularly hard. Whether TANF proves able to provide a short-term safety net for those single parents, and what happens to that population if it doesn’t, are questions that desperately need to be asked.