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.
It’s by no means clear, however, that those parents then transitioned into living wage employment and are now earning enough to meet their children’s basic needs. The graph on the left compares the number of children in Oklahoma who live in families where no parent had full-time year-round employment (red columns), with the number of children enrolled in the state’s TANF program (green columns). The gap between children in families without steady income and children receiving state aid is more like a gulf, with more than 250,000 needy children with no safety net.
The recession exposed terminal weaknesses in that safety net. For twelve consecutive months in 2009, during the worst recession in American history, the state hemorrhaged jobs. Between 2008 and 2010, an additional 41,000 Oklahoma children lived in families where no parent had full-time year-round employment. The state TANF program took on just 2,081 additional children on average during that period – barely making a dent. Even families who have been able to access TANF assistance are likely to struggle financially. The average benefit is $205 a month, a paltry sum even considering Oklahoma’s relatively low cost of living.
There are very few other places for parents to turn for financial assistance. On average during the recession, less than a third of unemployed workers in Oklahoma filed for unemployment benefits, and not even all of those are ultimately eligible for a monthly benefit. Participation in the state’s only other major safety net program, ‘SNAP’ or food stamps, has increased dramatically. Since 2008, over 200,000 additional people began receiving food stamps with an average monthly benefit of $128 per person. Food stamps now provide 1 in 6 Oklahomans with groceries.
Yet, for unemployed or underemployed parents with children, help with groceries each month is not a sustainable or comprehensive solution. Despite a gradual uptick in job creation, when accounting for growth in the working-age population, Oklahoma is still more than 90,000 jobs short of full employment. The economic crisis did not end with the recession. Working families have seen real earnings stagnate while the cost of basic necessities like food and fuel have skyrocketed. Continued high unemployment among certain populations and in certain regions and the limited availability of jobs that pay a living wage amplifies the need for basic public assistance in Oklahoma – a need that is increasingly unmet.
Part of the problem is that the federal block grant provides a fixed amount of TANF funding to the states regardless of the level of need, the changing economy, and inflationary pressures which raises the cost of living over time. The new funding structure also allows each state significant flexibility in how they use TANF funds. Oklahoma is one of only two states that uses less than 10 percent of their grant for basic cash-assistance.
State support for low-income parents is clearly inadequate, and its effect on children is hard to ignore. Oklahoma is consistently ranked as one of the worst states in the country for kids and nearly 100,000 of the state’s kids live in extreme poverty. High poverty rates mean hunger, poor health, and dampened educational achievement. For the sake of the poorest and most vulnerable among us who are now left with neither welfare nor work, it is time to get serious about restoring the safety net and creating broad-based prosperity that benefits all.