The Poor Need Cash

New Orleans       Other countries are increasingly getting the message:  the poor need cash.  It’s not enough in the lowest income categories to stake a claim on education, training, or jobs, especially low paying jobs inadequate to support families.

Africa’s Tanzania’s welfare scheme is called the Productive Social Safety Net and provides at about $13 per month.  Ethiopia’s program was only in the rural countryside, but has now expanded to the cities as well.  From 2000 to 2015, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa launched an average of 14 new programs per year, up from seven per year between 2001 and 2009.  Brazil saw huge gains with its Bolsa program of cash incentives to the poor.

Admittedly, these programs are meager in comparison with European social service provisions, but even some of the weakest economies in Europe still realize that cash is king for the poor.  Italy is now guaranteeing that its poorest will at least have the equivalent of $10,640 per year by topping off whatever income or benefits up to that and investing almost $9 billion to do so.  Even some policy makers and legislators in the United States are reckoning with the problem of cash for the poor as technology and corporatism try to force customers to handle their point-of-sale costs by eliminating cash.  Cities like Philadelphia and states like New Jersey are concerned that banning paper money amounts to discrimination and are passing laws to prevent cashless stores.

Recently, I have started noticing this more for two reasons.  First, I lost my credit cards going through a TSA line on way to Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, and Ireland recently, and had to depend solely on cash in foreign countries, heightening my awareness.  More seriously, I read a painful and jarring book on my travels, $2.00 a Day:  Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer.  After fifty years of organizing lower income families, the book didn’t tell me anything new as much as it was a vivid reminder at how little some things have changed and even worsened for the very poor during this period, especially after President Clinton’s so-called welfare reform.

One point that was inescapable though was how badly the very poor, living on little or nothing, are desperate for cash and the lengths that they are forced to go in order to obtain it in a period of declining to nonexistent cash welfare benefits.  Edin and Shaefer are truth tellers so there’s no sugar in this coffee.  They compare how much the discount rate is for bartering food stamps for cash in rural areas as opposed to cities.  This is real life, and it hurts.  Yes, it’s illegal to sell food stamps, but it’s a double bind for the very poor, if they have to have cash for utility bills or school clothing, it also means that they have less food with the increased risks.  Their stories of informal labor and “special friends” remind me of my days organizing with welfare rights when the ladies used to talk about the men who “brought them groceries” in exchange for tender favors.  The very poor have to do what has to be done in order to survive.  That’s not a social welfare system but a survival mechanism, and a scandal for the world’s richest country.

Perhaps even more heartbreaking and enraging for me to read was their report that the obstacles to applying for and receiving what is left of cash welfare through the TANF program are now so high in most states that many of the very poor believe that either welfare no longer exists or it is not worth the time and trouble to apply because of the constant rejections.  In the war against the poor that just adds more numbers to the body count.

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Not Welfare Reform, but Welfare Deform

New Orleans   You may have missed the fact that welfare reform was on the priority list for the new Congress as it took office in Washington.  You may not have noticed all the signs at the Women’s March there and elsewhere demanding improvements in welfare benefits for women trying to raise children in the current system.  In fact, you may have missed the mention of welfare in the special New York Times supplement featuring stories about the war on poor women as mothers.

In fact, you may have missed all of these references to welfare report and the drastic need to really reform the welfare deform of the last twenty years, because they don’t exist.  Mothers and others on welfare, including their children, have become invisible except as political fodder victimized by old racist and classist tropes about welfare queens and baby-benefit-machines.   Welfare reform was not a priority for the Congress or raised as a major issue by all of the record-setting women who were newly elected.  There were no signs at the women’s marches demanding welfare reform.  The tragedy and travesty of the modern welfare system for poor women as mothers and the price paid by their children was not mentioned in the New York Times’ supplement.  Except as a punching bag for the right, welfare recipients have become invisible.

All of this was grist for the mill in talking to Felicia Kornbluh, a co-author with Gwendolyn Mink, on Wade’s World about their new book, Ensuring Poverty:  Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective.  The only thing clear about the results of the Clinton-era so-called reform “of welfare as we know it” has been how much money it has saved by governments by denying benefits to welfare recipients.  The title of their book is clear.  This is “ensure” as in guaranteeing poverty, not “insure” with an “i” that might entail protecting against poverty.

The book details the results of these deforms:

  • The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) has shortened recipients’ lives by nearly six months while saving governments $28,000 per recipient over her lifetime.

  • 74% of low-income families with children were NOT receiving TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families which is a 73% gap between average TANF grants and federal poverty definitions.

  • In 2016, states spent just 25% of their TANF funds on cash grants to clients, down 70% compared to the period before so-called reform.

  • The single-mother poverty rate is 35.6% overall with 38.8% for African-American female-headed families, 40.8% for Latina-headed families, 42.6% for Native American female-headed families, and 41.5% for families headed by foreign-born women.

The only way to miss the disastrous impact of these reforms and their ongoing punitive impact, is by not looking.  Kornbluh and Mink argue persuasively that it is has been accomplished in no small part because the intersectionality of race, gender, and income have victimized welfare recipients as women and mothers.  Their feminist analysis is also not kind about the division among feminists that has abetted this tragedy.

Part of their book is the story of the Women’s Committee of 100 that formed during the reform fight to argue for a different path.  The committee was largely spearheaded by Hawaii Democratic Congresswoman Patsy Mink, Gwendolyn Mink’s mother, and both Kornbluh and Mink were counted among the one-hundred.

With all of the current discussion of inequality, it was hard not to ask why we don’t have a Women’s Committee of 100 and a standing army of millions of welfare recipients and their supports demanding real reform now.  The time will never be right politically, but the need continues to be urgent.

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