The recession and record unemployment levels have sent thousands of families seeking public assistance to put food on the table. But as the need for help has grown, by as much as 20 percent in some states in recent years, many cash-strapped states are slashing benefits for the poor, who weren't getting too much help to begin with. A new study by the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities finds that states are making huge cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families(TANF)  program, or what used to known as welfare, leaving the vast majority of poor families with no place to turn.

According to CBPP, in at least seven states, TANF serves just 10 extremely poor families out of every 100. And those who receive benefits are about to get far less cash. The state of South Carolina, which saw its TANF caseloads grow by 30 percent between December 2007 and December 2009, recently cut benefit levels by 20 percent, so that a family of three now receives only $216 a month, down from $270 a month.

The reasons for the drastic cuts are fairly simple. Welfare used to be an entitlement program that responded quickly to dips in the economy. The budget went up automatically with the need, and decreased when the economy got better and people were able to go back to work. But in 1996, thanks to Republicans in Congress, including then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Democratic president Bill Clinton, welfare became a block grant. That meant the federal government gave the states a fixed amount of money every year, and removed many of the strings attached so that the states could spend the welfare money more freely. The idea was sold as one that would turn the states into laboratories of innovation, where they would move lazy, poor single mothers from welfare dependency to work. Critics, including Clinton administration officials who quit when Clinton signed the bill, warned that the block grant would lead to great suffering and hardship among poor families that would disproportionately affect children during a recession.

As it turned out, lots of women left the welfare rolls during the late 1990s, when unemployment fell to record low levels, and states diverted a lot of the extra TANF money to other programs that often had little to do with helping poor families. Republicans declared it a huge victory. But now that the economy has hit the skids, the real impact of the "reform" is starting to become clear. The federal TANF block grant hasn't been increased in 16 years despite the economic downturn. Thanks to inflation, its real value has fallen 30 percent, a budget cut that would have been politically impossible had Republicans proposed it outright.

The block grant is sneaky that way. Which is one reason that Republicans, urged on by conservative groups like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, are promoting a block grant conversion for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. Turning Medicaid into a block grant would mean that Republicans wouldn't even have to propose budget cuts because they'd happen automatically thanks to inflation, as the value of the block grant decreased over time, regardless of demand. But given how welfare "reform" is turning out for the country's neediest, Democrats might want to think twice before embracing this sort of "innovation.

A speech on the Middle East was destined to ruffle feathers and spur a rush of insta-analysis and insta-complaining. And that's what happened with President Barack Obama's address on Thursday. For Obama's GOP foes, the speech, of course, had to mark nearly the end of the world—or, perhaps literally, given Israel's role in the Book of Revelation. (Anyone notice the speech came days before the Day of Judgment?) NBC News' First Read daily newsletter this morning included a useful summation of the over-the-top response. It notes that, once again, Republicans are trying to turn a middle-of-the-road Obama position into a sign of the apocalypse. Don't they get tired of that? (That's a rhetorical question.) Here's First Read's take:

*** Throwing Israel under the bus? For longtime chroniclers of the Middle East peace process, the most surprising part of President Obama’s speech yesterday was the reaction to his call for the eventual Israel-Palestine borders to be based on the 1967 lines. Israeli PM Netanyahu said it was "indefensible." Romney fired off this statement: "President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace.” Pawlenty followed by saying it was a “mistaken and very dangerous demand." Why was this reaction surprising? Because, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg writes, the 1967 lines have been the basic Middle-East-peace idea for at least the last 12 years. "This is what Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were talking about at Camp David, and later, at Taba. This is what George W. Bush was talking about with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert."

*** The ’67 borders have become the new individual mandate: So in that respect, you could compare the 1967 lines to the individual health-care mandate or cap-and-trade -- ideas that weren’t really controversial before Obama proposed it. Also, note the difference between the tough Romney/Pawlenty statements and GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s. In his statement, Rubio began by praising the president, and then he said this on the ’67 borders: "Unfortunately, the President’s reference to Israel’s 1967 borders marks a step back in the peace process, as the U.S. must not pre-determine the outcome of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians." That’s a fair point -- Obama was negotiating publicly in his speech by mentioning the borders. But it’s hard to see how the president was throwing Israel "under the bus" when he also used his speech demanding that the eventual Palestinian state be "non-militarized" and questioning the Hamas-Fatah agreement. "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama asked. That's a "get out of negotiations" card for Israel, but apparently no one heard THAT? A truth about people who are passionate about this Middle East debate: They only hear what they don’t like.

Has any GOPer yet said that Obama is proposing a "death panel" for Israel? Well, don't suggest this talking point to Sarah Palin. She just might use it.

Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division participate in the Division Review May 18, 2011 at Pike Field, Fort Bragg, N.C. The review is part of All-American Week 2011, in which active duty and veteran paratroopers celebrate the unit’s storied legacy.

Yesterday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) called again for an immediate investigation into whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement intentionally misled local authorities as to whether they could opt out of the controversial immigration enforcement program, Secure Communities. In late April, Lofgren asked ICE to investigate the program for misleading statements surrounding their opt-out policy. "I believe some of these false and misleading statements may have been made intentionally, while others were made recklessly, knowing that the statements were ambiguous and likely to create confusion," Lofgren wrote. In return, she received a promise from Acting Inspector General Charles Edwards that a review of Secure Communities, otherwise known as S-Comm, would begin at the start of the 2012 fiscal year. In a letter she sent out on May 17, Lofgren states that an investigation into the program is "pressing," and that the review should begin immediately (see "Lofgren Letters" at the end of this article for all documents).

A pair of Democratic strategists have challenged right-wing lawyer James Bopp and his new scheme to use members of Congress to drum up unlimited cash for what you might call the GOP's new "super-duper" PAC.

In a letter to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) sent today, Monica Dixon and Ali Lapp, the directors of two new super PACs intended to bolster congressional Democrats in 2012, have questioned the legality of Bopp's new venture, simply called "Republican Super PAC." While federal law caps campaign donations directly to candidates at $2,500 a year, Bopp's plan would harness the fundraising prowess of politicians to funnel donations to Bopp's outfit—the donors could even tell Republican Super PAC to earmark their money for particular race. The key, Bopp told my colleague Stephanie Mencimer, is that "coordination only applies to spending, not to the fundraising." What Bopp's saying is that while PACs like his cannot directly coordinate with candidates or elected officials on TV ads, mailers, or other types of campaigning, it's perfectly legal to ask candidates to raise money for his PAC.

Dixon and Lapp, however, want the FEC to take a look at Bopp's strategy and declare if it's legal or not. Pointing to federal statute, their attorneys say that Bopp's plan "would appear to prohibit [federal elected officials, candidates for federal office, and national party committee members] from soliciting unlimited individual, corporate, and union contributions on behalf of" PACs like Bopp's. In an accompanying statement Dixon and Lapp said: "We are seeking immediate clarification from the FEC in order to ensure that our organizations operate fully within the law and in order to assure operational equivalency between Republicans and Democrats."

Which is to say, if the FEC approves of what the other guys are doing with their super-duper PAC, we should be able to do it as well.

Here's the full letter:

Advisory Opinion Request - IE PAC Solicitations

Jon Huntsman is gaining traction as the notably less-unelectable potential GOP presidential candidate. So far, he hasn't said or done anything (ahem, Gingrich) that hurts his prospects. Unless, that is, you count his remarkably sane comments on climate change.

Time's recent profile of Huntsman, until recently the Obama adminstration's ambassador to China, is most notable for all the policy areas that Huntsman declined to weigh in on (including Afghanistan, Libya, or any specific issue on which he differs from either Obama or his fellow Republicans). But in excerpts of the interview released this week the potential candidate does offer his thoughts on both climate change and the policies with which to address it. And while he now rejects cap and trade, he doesn't dispute the underlying science:

You also believe in climate change, right?
This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community -- though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

It's a refreshing position coming from mainstream (if moderate) Republican, but does it go too far for his partymates? So it seems. The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Chris Horner unleashed a storm of barely readable crazy at the American Spectator lambasting Huntsman's statement. Writing at Commentary, Jonathan S. Tobin demand a Tim Pawlenty-style apology from Huntsman renouncing his climate views. (Lisa Hymas has more on the right-wing response over at Grist.)

Huntsman and Pawlenty aren't the only GOP contenders with green skeletons in their closet. Romney has taken a similar position Huntsman, maintaining that climate change is happening but disavowing his previous support for measures to address it. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, prefers to pretend that whole climate kumbaya moment on the couch with Nancy Pelosi never happened.

But Huntsman also has an additional problem. He doesn't think that gay people are the scourge of the earth and perhaps may even be entitled to some basic rights, which could turn out to be a bigger headache for him than that whole climate thing.

The right has found its newest political weapon against Obama and the Democrats, revving up its attacks on health care waivers even as accusations of political favoritism have proved spurious. Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies—the dark money sister group to Karl Rove's American Crossroads—has released a new attack ad that accuses "union bosses"  of "shov[ing] health care down our throats," then getting a free pass from the new rules imposed by the Affordable Care Act. In a spot more reminiscent of an action movie trailer than a political ad—complete with ominous music, rolling thunderclouds, and melodramatic cinematography—Crossroads GPS presents union leaders as thuggish, Scorcese-style villains who've made covert deals with the White House:

The ad points out that the Obama administration has granted 185 waivers to labor unions, accusing the White House of granting political favors to political allies. In an email accompanying the ad, Crossroads GPS rehashes accusations from prominent Republicans this week that Nancy Pelosi—as well as Harry Reid—were handing out political favors through the waiver process. "Earlier this week we discovered a large number of Obamacare waivers being granted in Nancy Pelosi's congressional district, and in the state of Nevada, where the two top Democrats in Congress reside," said Crossroads GPS communications director Jonathan Collegio. "The HHS [Health and Human Services] Department, which grants waivers, has yet to tell the public on what criteria they grant waivers, but appearances indicate that waivers are being given to the politically connected."

In actuality, the Obama administration has very clearly laid out the criteria for granting waivers, as well as has detailed the individual companies and policyholders who've reveived them them, which the Department of Health and Human Services has  listed on its website. The waivers don't exempt these companies from the entirety of federal health reform: rather, most grant a temporary reprieve from a provision that outlaws health insurance that provides less than $750,000 in annual benefits, giving them more time to adjust to the law.

As I reported this week, such waivers in Pelosi's district came through a third-party company that applied for them en masse without any contact with or assistance from the minority leader's office. Labor unions have asked for an exemption from complying to the new rules in part because collective bargaining agreements have restricted their ability to make sudden changes to their health policies. What's more, some 94 percent of applicants have been granted waivers, ranging from big franchises like Ruby Tuesday's to small local restaurants, dispelling the notion that unions and other Democratic allies have received special treatment.

To be sure, the White House could have done a better job explaining the waiver process. But like Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and Sarah Palin, Crossroads GPS has conveniently chosen to ignore this reality in the name of launching another fact-free political attack.

The South Carolina legislature is debating a bill to halt the spread of Islamic Shariah law in state courts. Because there are no documented instances of Shariah law being forced on the good people of the Palmetto State, the bill has been criticized as superfluous, if not outright discriminatory. The bill's sponsor, GOP state Sen. Mike Fair sat down with Think Progress this week in an effort to set the record straight. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea. Here's Fair explaining the stakes if South Carolina doesn't act:

In Columbia, South Carolina, that beautiful state house right over gotta walk through its gorgeous, but no horns sounding five times a day at times of prayer, which I'm told – haven't been to Michigan in a long time – been told that there are Islamic communities where there have […] in Dearborn, that’s exactly right, where with taxpayer dollars they're doing certain funded, doing certain things to accommodate Islam.

Sounds like he's really researched the issue! The good news is that the United States is in no danger of falling under the spell of a Muslim theocracy. The ACLU, which is a pretty big a fan of separation of church and state, is out with a new report this week that more or less eviscerates the myth that Shariah has unlawfully crept into American courts:

[The report] examines, in detail, the cases repeatedly cited by anti-Muslim groups as evidence of the alleged "Shariah threat" to our judicial system. The report concludes that these cases do not stand for the principles that anti-Muslim groups claim. Rather, these court cases deal with routine matters, such as religious freedom claims and contractual disputes. Courts treat these lawsuits in the same way that they deal with similar claims brought by people of other faiths. So instead of the harbingers of doom that anti-Muslim groups make them out to be, these cases illustrate that our judicial system is alive and well, and operating as it should.

There are lots of problems with the American judicial system. Fortunately, the imposition of Islamic law is not one of them. Or so I've been told; I haven't been to Dearborn in a while, though.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, visits Regional Command West in Afghanistan, May 16, 2011. The command includes Badghis, Farah, Ghor and Herat provinces. International Security Assistance Force photo.

David Corn and Joan Walsh joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Michele Bachmann's presidential prospects and how her candidacy might change the dynamics of the GOP primaries.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook. Get David Corn's RSS feed.