02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What About Welfare?

By ending the welfare entitlement in 1996, the Democratic party shed the burden of representing the stigmatized poor. It's hard to remember how much this issue influenced politics in the 1980s and 1990s -- but it did. In fact, that accomplishment must be pretty high up the list of factors that made Barack Obama's election possible. With women and their families continuing to get the welfare boot under the new policy, we are now reaping what that reform sowed -- without the rapidly growing jobs base of that era.

In Obama's weekly speech, he reiterated his concern that, "there are millions of Americans trying to find work even as, all around the country, there's so much work to be done." Accordingly, the proposed stimulus package includes $43 billion for unemployment benefits and training, and $39 billion to help displaced workers pay for health insurance. It would also suspend taxation of unemployment benefits. These emergency actions are to help people who had jobs but lost them. What about people who didn't have jobs to lose?

The present plan includes tax cuts that will benefit even those too poor to pay taxes (by giving them a refund). It will increase funding for food stamps. And it includes $4 billion for child care services for low-income families and Head Start. Those items should really benefit the American poor. The plan also extends the Earned Income Tax Credit, which increases the incentive for poor people to get jobs. That worked when there were jobs -- in the 1990s, after welfare reform started pushing people off the dole by the millions.

But what about when there are no jobs for women being term-limited (love that verb!) off welfare? Unemployment benefits are being extended, but there is still no moratorium on term limits for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families: Women (and their children) are being booted off according to the same rules -- two years continuous support, or five years of lifetime support. (They are especially unlikely to land jobs repairing and building schools and bridges).

Since 1996, the welfare program for these poor families is not an entitlement. That means that the amount of money allocated is set in the Federal and state budgets, not determined by the number of people who need it. That sets the program apart from Social Security or Medicare, which are driven by the number of people who qualify. The stimulus package does include $2.5 billion to increase the TANF block grants in response to the increased need - but nothing about extending time limits for women already in the program. Poor single women who have been taking care of children, without the benefit of paid jobs, are at great risk.

Tens of billions of dollars are going to people losing paid jobs. But poor women taking care of their poor children don't have a paid job. When they get welfare, they get stigmatized and stingy support, but nothing like valuation for the job they're doing. Yet their plight hasn't yet appeared high on the list of priorities. Is a moratorium on TANF time limits too much to ask?

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