12/16/2009 11:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Patching Together the Welfare Quilt

As the Great Recession continues to batter families throughout the country with fresh gales of destructive force, many have lamented the erosion of a reliable government safety net. In surveying this trend, authors like Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich invoke the familiar metaphor of a uniformly woven fabric reduced to tatters and incapable of bearing the weight of the current economic crisis. A more accurate symbol of the American welfare system, however, might be a worn patchwork quilt, threadbare in some places while temporarily reinforced in others. Whether its coverage is adequate or not is largely a matter of positioning; while one segment may bring warmth, another may scarcely withstand the chill.

Unlike earlier incarnations of public assistance in which the federal government devised a uniform scheme of income support, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides funding to the states to design and administer their own programs, leading to considerable variation in coverage from one region to the next. The consequences of this geographical lottery are well illustrated by TANF's Family Violence Option (FVO), which allows states to exempt victims of domestic violence from employment and child support requirements that undermine their safety or penalize them for their status.

When properly implemented, the Option permits recipients to schedule court dates, undergo counseling, and attend to other needs arising from their circumstances without being sanctioned for noncompliance with work requirements. In addition, it also relieves DV survivors of the obligation to solicit child support payments from their abusers, who too often respond to such requests with renewed violence. At a moment when the stresses of the economy have yielded a significant increase in family violence around the country, its provisions are more necessary than ever.

In spite of this urgency, however, the vast majority of eligible victims do not benefit from its protections, placing them at risk of being unfairly sanctioned for noncompliance and deprived of a vital source of income. In its new report Shortchanging Survivors: The Family Violence Option for TANF Benefits, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reveals the degree to which the absence of federal regulation of state welfare programs presents a range of obstacles for DV survivors in need of income to avoid homelessness and rebuild their lives.

Not only can states decide to forego the Family Violence Option altogether, they can also limit the circumstances in which they implement it; while parents in San Francisco, for example, are eligible for waivers to address the consequences of past abuse, their counterparts in New York City may only receive exemptions in cases of ongoing violence. Even in states with generous family violence policies, only a tiny fraction of TANF recipients wind up accessing waivers.

At first glance, these discrepancies stem largely from a lack of uniformity in how TANF caseworkers around the country screen their applicants for domestic violence. On a deeper level, though, welfare offices are saddled with an inherently contradictory mission: supporting women in their efforts to escape abuse while simultaneously attempting to decrease caseloads. After all, even the best intentioned caseworkers are unlikely to possess the time and initiative to build the rapport necessary to elicit frank disclosure of abuse, much less convince wary applicants of the benefits of such disclosure.

Fortunately, some TANF offices have developed models that draw on the resources of a variety of service providers in order to ensure that applicants not only learn of the FVO but are actively encouraged to avail themselves of it. In San Francisco, for example, survivors who apply for benefits may choose either to engage in a DV service plan in place of employment or to participate in a work plan that includes domestic violence services as one of its activities. Local TANF offices also partner with seasoned DV advocates who conduct screenings, provide on-site safety planning and counseling services, and train caseworkers.

Instead of proceeding as a model for other cities, however, San Francisco TANF offices are now struggling merely to hold their ground as California embarks on a course of massive budget cuts, a stern reminder of the drawbacks of turning public assistance into a hodgepodge of state efforts.

Perhaps the pre-recession economy could withstand the limitations of this patchwork approach. At a moment of record budget shortfalls, however, the federal government can no longer rely on the states to salvage their respective welfare programs with the aid of a darning needle and some scraps. Without the uniformity of coverage that enhanced federal support and guidance can provide, more and more families will be left out in the cold.