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Demonizing Those Kicked Hardest by a Failed Economic System

This is the fourth post in TheNation.com's #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues and lays out the questions they want President Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first posts here, here, and here.(Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

When Tim Casey was 6 years old, his father was committed to a psychiatric hospital. His mother suddenly found herself alone with four kids. 

“For the next several years we survived on welfare,” Casey tells me. “And I learned from personal experience how inadequate the welfare system was, and how inhumanely it was administered. I had a real interest as I grew older in trying to do something about that.”

That interest resulted in Casey doing antipoverty work for the past thirty-five years—first in legal aid where he focused on welfare issues, and then coordinating the New York City Welfare Reform Network, where he advocated for adequate and just welfare policies at the city, state and federal levels.

Today, he serves as a senior staff attorney for Legal Momentum, the oldest organization advocating on behalf of the legal rights of women and girls in the United States. He came to the organization in 2001 because it had always defined poverty as “a women’s issue” and was somewhat ahead of the game in that regard.

“There is often a failure to recognize that the poverty rate for women has always been much higher that it is for men,” says Casey. “And instead of proposing policies to address the gender poverty gap, women are blamed, told that they should marry or that they shouldn’t have kids. What we should be doing is looking at structural policies in the US that result in higher poverty rates for both women and men as compared to other high-income countries.”

Casey says those structural problems include the lack of a nationally mandated minimum benefit level for cash assistance (TANF)—instead it’s left to the discretion of states so that we literally have fifty different systems; the percentage of workers employed in low-wage jobs is much higher than in other high-income countries; and there is an absence of subsidized childcare compared to peer countries as well—a particularly difficult barrier for single mothers in the United States who want to work. (Federal assistance for childcare currently reaches about one in seven of those who are eligible.)

“There’s no reason we have to have the high poverty rates we do,” says Casey. “We know looking elsewhere that there are government policies that are effective in reducing poverty.”

Casey works on both litigation and legal advocacy, as well as developing policy reports. One colleague he works closely with is Legal Momentum’s vice president for government relations, Lisalyn Jacobs

For the past twenty-two years, Jacobs has worked on antipoverty and civil rights issues, particularly as they intersect with race and gender. Jacobs says she is drawn to the kind of work that speaks to her identity as a woman of color—including five years at the US Department of Justice, where she helped implement the Violence Against Women Act, immigration-related provisions of the 1996 welfare reform law, and affirmative action; as well as her current efforts to move a stalled Violence Against Women Act through Congress.

She also says her work is “very informed” by her “upbringing as a person of faith.” She describes herself as a “preacher’s kid”—her father was a parish priest and later a chaplain at St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, DC, where Jacobs spent summers volunteering as a youth. Her father was also was very active in civil rights causes in the 1960s, including voter registration in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and joining the March on Washington as well.

“So I have a certain historical attachment to rights work and advocacy, and working from some collective standpoint to try to improve circumstances of various communities,” says Jacobs.

As an example of faith influencing her work, she cites her Congressional testimony regarding the marriage promotion efforts of the Bush Administration that were part of the 2003 reauthorization of the TANF program.

“I testified that as a person of faith I understood the importance of seeing to people’s basic needs,” says Jacobs. "That Jesus said, 'If you love me, feed my sheep.' But here we were considering $1.5 billion for unproven marriage promotion, when we knew there wasn’t enough funding going into the basic underpinnings of the TANF program—people weren’t able to get enough basic sustenance for themselves and their families; or the training and education needed in order to support themselves and their families."

The benefit levels and how people are treated have been so neglected that Casey thinks the welfare system is now not much better than it was when he was a kid in the 1950s. 

“In the late 1960s and early 70s welfare became much more adequate, and the administration of it became much less inhumane,” says Casey. “But since then things have really gone backwards. Especially since welfare reform was enacted in 1996, things basically get worse every year.”

Casey says that now people are “always scrambling to meet some basic need—putting food on the table for your kids, or getting them a winter coat, or paying a utility bill to avoid a shut off.”

Even worse, he says, they are demonized for seeking assistance. 

“Instead of recognizing that most adults who turn to welfare are either working for low-wages, or are temporarily unemployed because there are no jobs, or they need childcare to work and there’s no safe and affordable childcare available,” Casey says, “they are demonized as people who don’t want to work and aren’t good parents, and that also often results in their being treated horribly within the welfare system.”

Jacobs understands why the focus of the presidential campaign has been almost exclusively on the middle class—whom she calls “the most recent people seated at the table of pain in the last four years.” She notes, however, that there were “tens of millions of people experiencing that very kind of difficulty getting a job or keeping a job, or being able to support themselves and their families, before the country went into a recession.”

Casey also says there is “a point that bears constant repeating”—during this presidential campaign and beyond—for anyone who cares about poverty.

“The single mother poverty rate in this country is exceptionally high compared to the single mother poverty rate in other high-income countries,” he says. “And that’s primarily because our social welfare system is much less adequate.”

Here are Casey and Jacobs’s questions for President Obama and Governor Romney:

1) Former President Clinton spoke powerfully at the DNC Convention about the need to stem poverty in this country: “… Poverty… restrict[s] growth. When you stifle human potential it hurts us all.” But the cash welfare program (TANF) hasn’t functioned as an adequate safety net—in essence it is stifling human potential, and by extension a robust economic recovery: the program rolls have stagnated or dropped, even as the need for such support rose; and available benefits are significantly below the poverty line. What are your plans for improving the responsiveness of TANF, and making sure that people eligible for TANF are not discouraged from applying? And what will you do to ensure that those receiving benefits—who are able to work—can receive adequate training so that they are able to transition effectively and permanently into the workforce?

2) Food stamps (SNAP) enrolls 90 percent of eligible children but cash welfare (TANF) only 40 percent. What would you do to increase eligible children’s enrollment rate in TANF?

3) Poverty rates are 30 percent higher for women than men. What would you do to reduce the gender poverty gap?

4) Despite their above average employment rates compared to single mothers in other high income countries, single mothers in the US have higher poverty rates. What would you do to reduce poverty for single mothers and their children?

5) One-fifth of US children are poor. Do you agree that national policy should assure an above-poverty income to all children whose parents are willing to work?

6) As you consider changes to the tax code, what types of tax credits do you envision creating, retaining or eliminating that focus on low-income families (e.g. earned income tax credit, child tax credit, low income housing tax credit, others)?

If you like this post, please tweet using #TalkPoverty and let @MittRomney and @BarackObama know you want answers. Also, take a moment to check out the new #TalkPoverty at the Debates campaign.

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