It has never been easy to be among the poor in America. But for millions of people, life has become harder amid the unemployment of the Great Recession and the country's shrinking safety net. Long-term welfare policies aimed at diminishing cash assistance, coupled with new cuts in federal job training dollars, have left too many with too few options. While politicians from both political parties talk about the real need to rein in the federal deficit, they should be more candid about the cost to individuals and to the nation's economy.
For example, Patty McCaslin appears to be doing everything right but could use a helping hand. As Tampa Bay Times writer Lane DeGregory wrote earlier this month, McCaslin is a married mother with a high school diploma. She works two jobs, and her husband works one. But they have no health insurance — it's too costly — and the premature birth of their daughter left them with $15,000 in medical debts. McCaslin and families like hers would benefit from the expansion of Medicaid and the government subsidies for health insurance that will be available in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the law this spring, and even more Americans would lose heath coverage under the 2013 budget plan passed by House Republicans that would cut Medicaid roles by 14 million, to 27 million.
As Congress looks forward, it might cast an eye in the rearview mirror. A recent New York Times report explored the unexpected, long-term impact of the much-touted 1996 welfare-to-work act passed under Democratic President Bill Clinton. The law gave states more discretion in doling out cash assistance, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Since the recession of 2008, TANF rolls that should have spiked like the rise in food stamp recipients have actually fallen in 16 states as states opted to spend the money elsewhere. The newspaper documented single mothers so desperate for survival they had moved back in with violent boyfriends, turned to petty crime or sold food they'd bought with food stamps.
Another recent New York Times story highlighted the shrinking federal budget for job training that has left thousands of job seekers with no viable means of retraining and many employers without the candidates they need to fill new jobs. Job training funds are now just $1.2 billion, nearly half the peak in 2000.
Meanwhile, states like Florida have cut back on unemployment benefits, reducing the number of weeks of eligibility while imposing onerous requirements on receiving benefits. Plus, last year — in a move a trial court has deemed unconstitutional — Gov. Rick Scott succeeded in changing Florida law to require the 91,000 Floridians who qualify for cash assistance under TANF to first test negative on a drug test.
The depth and breadth of the nation's economic crisis has clearly struck the middle class. But it has been devastating for the nation's poor. Budget decisions cannot be made in a vacuum, and short-term political calculations can have long-term negative consequences that may not be apparent for years. As the presidential campaign progresses and Congress postures about ways to reduce the federal deficit, voters should pay as much attention to the human cost as to the bottom line.