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Recession Ebbs, But Misery Piles on for Families in Poverty

Michelle Chen

Now that the Great Recession has supposedly come to an end, can the
poor expect a little relief after months of belt-tightening and layoffs?
Not so much; poor families have been getting poorer as the social
safety net continues to fall apart.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports
that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits have been
steadily losing value in recent years because they haven't kept pace
with inflation in many states. Although some states have adjusted
benefit levels to meet need, in 20 states:

... benefit levels have been cut or have remained frozen under TANF.
Four states have lower TANF benefit levels in 2010 than they did in 1996
(without adjusting for inflation). Some 16 states have the same TANF
benefit levels in July 2010 as they had in 1996.

Moreover, at a time when poor families are suffering most, it appears that many who should be getting aid aren't, especially when compared with more accessible programs like federal food stamps. The causes of the deficit
are difficult to parse, but the trend may reflect bureaucratic
obstacles, confusion about eligibility, and maybe the sense the woefully
inadequate benefits aren't even worth the trouble of applying.

Across all states, a family of three surviving on TANF
assistance hovers below half the federal poverty line, according to the
CBPP, and some states have much lower benefit levels (the (underestimated)
official poverty threshold is $1,526 per month in the continental
United States). That's generally too little to afford the cost of a
two-bedroom family apartment.

The Recovery Act
brought a temporary boost to TANF funds in many communities, but that
won't offset the long-term trend of divergence between inflation and
the eroding value of TANF. Just when working-poor families are
threatened with cutbacks on the local, state and national level on
critical public services like education. Even when you add food
stamps, the combined benefit levels still fall well short of the
poverty line in most states.

And don't expect a bailout for the poor from private coffers. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy,
charitable donations slipped last year at the supposed final phase of
the recession, dropping 11 percent for the nation's 400 largest

In times like these, it might make sense for lawmakers to start
squeezing wealthier sectors of the economy. But even corporations can
claim economic hardship—and use their money and political clout to
fight redistributive fiscal policies on the back end.

Such was the case in New York City last week, when a bill to mandate that employers provide workers with paid sick leave was derailed when Council Speaker Christine Quinn sided with the business lobby. The widely supported, carefully crafted measure
would have provided a modest cushion of income support to strapped
families coping with medical crisis. But opponents mauled it as an
excessive burden on employers.

Lifeline government programs like TANF and food stamps occupy a shrinking corner
on a dwindling plate of resources for working-class households.
Meanwhile, the recession that's supposed to be finished keeps dishing
out misery, and the poor are getting seconds whether they like it or

We know things are bad. We know it's worth the fight.

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