The truth of the matter is that welfare in the United States is now, and has been for years, a path to genteel starvation. Even with the addition of SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps) a parent and his or her children will be hard-pressed to scrape by on what the government so graciously doles out.
Ironically there may be some good in that miserliness, at least for some women receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. If no other incentive encourages a woman to get off the program, surely the amount the state pays in benefits should be encouragement enough. In 2012, for example, a single mother and one child could receive a whopping $432 per month in cash assistance from TANF, according to the Congressional Research Service. In addition, she might receive around $350 in SNAP benefits that can be used only to purchase food. Families with more children received more money.
In Bend — indeed, in nearly all of Oregon — these days, I cannot imagine trying to live on that. Yet last month, according to Kim Fredlund, Self Sufficiency Programs director at the state Department of Human Services, some 23,660 Oregonians did just that in January.
It must not have been easy.
Rental housing is expensive and nearly impossible to find in places like Bend and Portland; it isn’t much better in Medford, on the Oregon coast and elsewhere. As for rentals in rural communities, they’re often few and far between, and go for little less than they would in larger communities.
And while it’s possible to feed two people on $350 per month, it isn’t easy. In fact the SNAP program doesn’t promise to feed the family for a month. Rather, SNAP benefits are based on the assumption that they will pay for only about two-thirds of a month’s food.
Meanwhile, a young woman just signing up for TANF may feel as if she’s being punished for her earlier efforts to get ahead.
Oregon allows those signing up for TANF to have only $2,500 in liquid assets, including cash, and another $10,000 equity in a vehicle. If a young woman has saved more than that for college or something else, she’ll have to spend enough to bring her to the limit before she qualifies for benefits. At the same time, a woman can acquire up to $10,000 in assets while on TANF, and if she gets a job, she’ll be weaned off TANF over a period of three months.
From the state’s point of view, the limits make sense. TANF is, after all, designed to be used sparingly if at all. It’s not something women are given just because they’ve had a baby or some other life disruption. Rather, it’s a program aimed at providing a bridge to self-sufficiency, and by definition that means a new recipient is NOT self sufficient.
I have lots of problems with TANF, even though the asset limits make some sense. Benefits are limited to 60 months total in a person’s lifetime, and that sounds good when the labor market is tight and employers are willing to ease standards if need be to fill jobs.
It’s less sensible during recessions and other hard times. I can easily imagine a person using up TANF benefits during a series of hard times and being left at some point with nothing to fall back on. If a person has no family or friends, if he or she is unable to work but not considered disabled, she’s simply out of luck, and that seems mighty harsh.
As an example, it’s really easy to assume the vast majority of homeless people here are homeless because of substance abuse, mental illness or something else. That may be partially true, and it no doubt is. At the same time, however, I suspect some of the homeless here and in other places across the country may be homeless because they cannot find a job that will keep them in housing and provide them with food.
And that, it seems to me, is just not right. Americans are supposed to live in a civilized society, but there’s something mighty uncivilized about laws that say, in effect, if your hard luck extends beyond 60 months, you’re on your own.
Not all Americans were raised according to the rules laid out in “Leave It to Beaver,” with caring parents who not only fed and clothed us but pushed us to do well in school and kept us safe from harm. That’s more true now than when I was a child, I suspect, yet today we’re far more parsimonious with the basics of life than we were at least as far back as the 1960s.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821 or firstname.lastname@example.org