Welfare recipients have always been easy targets. President Ronald Reagan reviled them as "welfare queens" who supposedly drove Cadillacs and lived large on the government dole (a story that was entirely apocryphal). Heaping abuse on the recipients of the federal welfare program, since renamed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), continues to be a popular staple of conservative rhetoric. A Missouri legislator recently introduced legislation, dubbed the "don't get sick" bill, to punish poor families by taking away their TANF benefits if a child misses more than three weeks of school. Last week, a Tennessee legislative committee passed a bill that would slash TANF benefits to families whose children get bad grades. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott is still trying to force that state's TANF beneficiaries to undergo drug tests that two federal courts have deemed unconstitutional. Scott isn't alone. To date, 16 states have tried to force TANF recipients to undergo drug testing, despite little evidence of widespread drug abuse among the single moms in the program.
The focus on TANF recipients is vastly out of proportion with the size of the program, which has been steadily shrinking since it was "reformed" in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and turned over to the states to administer. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the cash benefits doled out under TANF are now so meager that they barely make a dent in the fortunes of the recipients. In Tennessee, where legislators were so eager to use TANF as a "stick" to get poor kids to do well in school, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $185—barely enough to lift a poor family above 10 percent of the federal poverty line. Missouri's benefits clock in at $292 a month, literally the same amount offered in 1996. Thanks to inflation, the real value of those benefits has fallen more than 30 percent, leaving recipients at barely 18 percent of the poverty line.
Nationally, the picture is equally grim. In 37 states, according to CBPP, the purchasing power of TANF benefits is now at least 20 percent less than it was in 1996, when welfare reform kicked in. This is a big deal. At one time, welfare benefits at least might cover the rent for a poor family. Now, there's not a single state in the country where monthly TANF benefits for a mom with two kids will cover the fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment. Welfare moms are clearly not living large in the program, despite what state legislators seem to think. If they want their threats to cut TANF benefits over bad grades or missed school days to carry any weight, they're probably going to have to raise benefits first.