The Depressing State of Our Safety Net

As we head into a midterm election where odds are high that Republicans could take back both the House and the Senate, here’s a grim reminder of the long-term horrors that can be wrought when a Democratic president governs in the shadow of an unusually rabid right-wing GOP Congress. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research just released a new study (PDF) based on recent Census data showing that despite the nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, almost 90 percent of poor women with children are struggling through the recession without any financial assistance. The numbers range from 60 percent of poor women not receiving aid in DC to fully 96 percent in Louisiana who aren’t getting a dime. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which is supposed to help such women, has been so utterly gutted that it is virtually useless as an anti-poverty measure, and precisely when one is desperately needed.

For this we can thank former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, who teamed up back in 1994 to “end welfare as we know it,” as Clinton had promised during his campaign. You may recall that welfare, as TANF used to be known, was the bête noir of many white southern Republicans, and a lot of white southern Democrats, too. Welfare used to be a classic entitlement program that increased automatically in times of need (like now), and decreased when people were able to go back to work. It served as a critical buffer not just for women but for their children during hard economic times. But Gingrich and the GOP Congress linked arms with Clinton, who was looking for a bipartisan success, to turn the program into a block grant with a fixed budget that wouldn’t change regardless of need, and its mission was overhauled to focus on putting women to work. When Clinton signed the bill, several outraged members of his administration quit in protest, claiming that the bill was so draconian that it would leave poor children begging in gutters.

That didn’t happen, at least not right away, thanks to a thriving economy during the Clinton years, which led supporters to declare reform a huge success. But the real impact of the “reform” is becoming crystal clear now that the economy is deep in the tank. Since the bill was signed, the TANF block grant has lost 27 percent of its value, a budget cut that would have been virtually impossible if the Republicans had proposed it head on. Meanwhile, as Gingrich and Clinton claimed that the block grant would free states from burdensome regulation and allow them to experiment with innovative ways to serve the poor, states spotted a windfall. Welfare reform created perverse incentives to drop poor women from the rolls, especially when state budgets are in trouble. As I highlighted almost two years ago in this story, the state of Georgia dropped nearly 90 percent of the women off its TANF rolls between 2004 and the end of 2007, even as unemployment soared by 30 percent, and then diverted millions of dollars in federal anti-poverty money to other parts of the state budget. Thanks to this, only 18 percent of all children in Georgia living below 50 percent of the poverty line—that is, on less than $733 a month for a family of three—were receiving TANF in 2008.

It’s a big change from the days of welfare when most children living in deep poverty were getting some sort of federal cash assistance. But these are the sorts of nasty compromises that can come when Democrats attempt to make nice with rabid anti-government Republicans who never return the favor.

Meanwhile, the IWPR study has other depressing news about the state of the nation’s safety net:

Health coverage and food stamps reach more women in poverty than TANF, but still leave many uncovered: nationwide, nearly one?third of women in poverty are without either public or private health coverage and 62 percent of poor women do not receive food stamps. The variation across the states is much greater in health coverage than in nutrition support. In Massachusetts, the best state, only 8 percent of poor women are without health insurance, while in Texas, the worst state, 50 percent of poor women have no health coverage. For food stamp benefits, 44 percent of poor women lack that support in Maine, the best state, while 77 percent go without that assistance in California, the worst state.

Democrats in Congress have been trying to remedy this situation by, among other things, reauthorizing an emergency TANF jobs measure that was included in the stimulus bill in 2009. The measure provided subsidized jobs for a quarter-million unemployed parents and teenagers, but Republicans have repeatedly blocked their attempts to send some help to those most in need. The original stimulus money runs out at the end of the month. Given the Republicans’ election-season focus on reducing the deficit in the middle of a recession (and the fact that Gingrich himself is helping lead the charge from the sidelines as he contemplates a run for president), the odds are good that there won’t be any more where that came from.


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