This article is part of the series “Welfare Reform: 20 Years Later,” a collaboration between Slate and Marketplace. You can listen to Marketplace’s podcast on welfare, “The Uncertain Hour,” here.
I met Laura Grennan on a cold morning this past winter in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In a gray sweatshirt, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Grennan was pushing her daughters in a double stroller. Angel is her 2-year-old, and her 3-year old is named Isis—like the Egyptian goddess, Grennan is quick to explain. “I love Egyptian mythology,” she says, “so I just picked the name out of a hat, and I thought it was beautiful—until, of course, all the news of the terrorist group came out.” She sighs. “But we work around it.”
“Working around it” is something Grennan, 30, has had to become very good at in her life. Grennan grew up in foster care. Moved around a lot. Dropped out of high school. By her mid-20s, she had found some degree of stability—gotten her GED, held a series of jobs she liked. “I’m kind of a Jill-of-all-trades,” she says. She’s worked in an eyeglasses lab, done retail, and most recently, taken tickets at a “witchy tour” in her hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. She had been bringing in a steady, if modest, paycheck for several years by the time she and her husband were expecting their first child.
Then came what Grennan calls “the downward spiral.” “It’s one thing and then you lose another thing and then you lose another and it just keeps going.”
The downward spiral started two years ago back in Massachusetts. It involved moments of crisis both dramatic and mundane, bad luck and bad timing. She and her husband, who was disabled and struggled with addiction, were staying with a friend until he gave up his apartment and they had to move out. At first they moved to a motel, but they soon couldn’t afford it—by the time Grennan was seven months pregnant, she could no longer work on her feet at the “witchy tour” all day and left her job. They moved to Oklahoma, where her husband’s father owned a piece of land that included a dilapidated mobile home. They tried to fix it up, but by last fall, Grennan says she realized that neither the mobile home nor her marriage were going to make it.
Now she and her daughters are in Tulsa, living at a Salvation Army shelter, “just because we were really running out of options of where to go,” she says. “We don’t have a whole lot of family who could help us out, even for a month or so, so I could get back on my feet.”
There is one other place you might expect Grennan and her daughters to go in this situation: the local welfare office. For many decades in this country, that’s where families often turned when they were desperate—no money, no family to ask for help.
And in fact, Grennan did go down to a welfare office in Tulsa to look into applying for cash assistance, which has been known formally as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, since the welfare reforms of 1996. Grennan says she told a caseworker that she needed to apply for the program. “He turned around and said, ‘No, you don’t need to. You want to.’ ”
As someone who’s been working since she was 15, Grennan says the comment stung. “The judgment—the look. It made me feel like I was 5 years old and I just broke a glass or something.” She recalls looking at the caseworker and saying under her breath, “Trust me, I don’t want to be on any type of assistance if I don’t have to be.”
On top of the shame in that moment, there were all the hoops to jump through to apply for TANF: hours waiting to see a caseworker, orientation classes to attend, a series of job-readiness evaluations. And so many forms: forms to document Grennan’s weekly job searches, forms to document that she would have child care while searching for jobs. (The kids go to a subsidized Head Start program.) Grennan says that after she scrambled to gather all the paperwork she needed to apply for TANF, she called her caseworker to complete the process before the deadline he’d given. “I called him three times. He didn’t have voicemail so I couldn’t leave him a message,” she says. Faced with having to start the application process all over again, Grennan instead gave up on TANF and the $200 to $300 a month it would have provided for her family.
“I’m really trying to get a job—on my own,” she told me. I asked her what kind and she raised an eyebrow. “I’m at this point willing to do almost anything.”
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People like Laura Grennan—who are poor but not on welfare—are common in many parts of the U.S. today. Nationwide, welfare goes to just 23 out of every 100 families who live below the poverty line, according to the latest data from 2014. That’s compared to 68 out of every 100 poor families in 1996, the year welfare reform was passed.
So what happened? Families used to qualify for cash assistance based on need: If you fell below a certain poverty threshold, you were eligible to receive welfare. But the 1996 welfare reform bill turned what had been a federal entitlement program—with spending that waxed and waned to meet the demands on the system—into block grants, with states receiving a fixed amount of federal money each year that they can spend on a variety of programs aside from direct cash assistance.
For a family to qualify for cash assistance now, they’re subject to time limits, work quotas, and other eligibility requirements. (Federal rules impose a maximum of five years, though states can opt to go lower, and require 50 to 90 percent of TANF recipients to engage in 20 to 35 hours of “work activity” a week, depending on the number of parents and the age of the children in the home.)
“There are so many fewer families being served for many, many reasons,” says Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP. “Not every poor family qualifies for benefits. Many have lost benefits because of time limits. Many have lost benefits because of sanctions—they may not have complied with a work requirement.”
But in other cases, like Grennan’s, families just get overwhelmed by the application process. “There are a lot of hurdles,” Schott says. “And there are some states where the benefits are so low and the hurdles are so great that people just have given up.”
The situation is made worse by the kind of comments Grennan came up against in Tulsa: subtle (or not-so-subtle) deterrents in the way caseworkers handle the cash-assistance application process. Discouraging comments, caseworkers not returning phone calls—“there’s all of this stuff inside offices that basically act as diversions,” says Luke Shaefer, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. He tells the story of a woman he interviewed for a study who went to a welfare office to apply for cash assistance. “And the case worker tells her, ‘Oh honey, there are just so many people who need help, we can’t help everyone. Come back next year.’ ”
Every federal TANF block grant dollar a state doesn’t spend on basic cash assistance can be used for a wide array of other programs—from foster care to pre-K to college scholarships—that otherwise would be funded out of the state’s own coffers. That makes it enticing for states to keep people off TANF caseloads, says sociologist Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins, who has studied welfare for most of her career. “States have used their flexibility in many cases to purge the rolls of people who would have been eligible for the program, and instead use the money to plug state budget holes or for other things that governors want to do that are politically popular.”
For example, in Oklahoma, where the number of families in poverty who receive TANF has dropped by more than 80 percent since the 1996 reforms, the state currently spends just 9 percent of its TANF block grant on cash assistance for families. It spends nearly as much—5 percent—on programs to promote two-parent families and prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
I met Sassha McKimble, 19, at one of these family-formation programs in Oklahoma—a class for new and expectant parents. She and her boyfriend, Zakery Vann, had just had a baby and were eager to get some help navigating their relationship. But McKimble says the main draw of the new-parenting class was the free stuff—she had heard that participants received gift cards for baby gear and toys.
Currently unemployed, McKimble had been working at McDonald’s and 7-Eleven before her daughter was born. She had looked into TANF and was poor enough that she would have been eligible. But as she explained, enrolling in this relationship class was much simpler than applying for TANF, and at least it would help cover a few things for her new daughter. When I asked her which would have been more help—a monthly check or this class for new parents—her answer came quickly. “TANF money,” she says. “But the classes help, too.” She was hoping to use the gift card on a bouncy chair for her daughter. As for the state of Oklahoma, McKimble’s choice not to apply for TANF means one less family on the rolls.
Liz Schott of CBPP recalls jokes she would hear in the early days of welfare reform at conferences of state welfare commissioners. “There used to be locker room talk: ‘How big was your caseload decline?’ ” she says. “Caseload decline has been in too many eyes the measure of success, without regard to the outcomes. States get as much credit for cutting a family off with nothing as for placing someone in a job.”
It’s important to note that welfare reform did help move some welfare recipients into well-paying jobs. But others found themselves in a new kind of predicament: A job that pays minimum wage, especially if it’s just part-time (as full-time work is hard to come by in many low-skilled service industries), often means a family is still poor but earns barely too much to be eligible for TANF. As of 2012, the TANF income limit in 28 states was less than half of poverty-level earnings.
Josephine Moore, a single mother in West Virginia who was on and off cash assistance for more than a decade before welfare reform, has spent much of the last 20 years employed. She has worked cleaning the assembly line of a chicken processing plant and answering phones at call centers for credit card companies and cellphone carriers. But her jobs have rarely paid her enough for her to pay all her bills.
When I visited Moore this spring, at her trailer up a steep dirt road in a depressed coal-mining town, her sleeves were rolled up to reveal a small scar on her inner arm, along the elbow crease. To make extra cash over the years, she and her two adult daughters have sold their blood plasma as often as once a week. “We’d give little bags of plasma, $20 for the first visit and $30 for the next,” she told me. That’s an average of more than $16 an hour for selling plasma—more than twice the minimum wage in many states, and less paperwork than welfare.
The great hope of the 1996 reforms was that pushing recipients off welfare and into jobs would be a first step toward better things, says David Ellwood of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “By getting people into the labor market, we’d be getting them onto the first rung of a ladder, and then they’d be able to go to the second rung, the third rung, the fourth rung,” says Ellwood, who served as co-chair of President Clinton’s Working Group on Welfare Reform in the early 1990s. “And the truth is it didn’t start most people on this path of upward mobility.”
Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, an adviser to congressional Republicans during welfare reform, celebrates the increases in employment for single mothers since 1996. But he shares Ellwood’s concerns about those who were left behind after the system changed. “There’s a group at the bottom that is not doing well,” Haskins says. “They’re disconnected from cash welfare and from employment.” Researchers refer to this group as “the disconnected.”
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In Laura Grennan’s current home state of Oklahoma, just 7 in every 100 families who live in poverty receive cash welfare, compared to 41 out of every 100 in 1996. Jim Struby, who oversees the state’s cash welfare program as director of adult and family services for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, says that he’s cognizant of the gap between need and welfare services. “I don’t know how, in some cases, people get by,” he says.
When I ask Struby about the stories I’ve heard from Grennan and others about less-than-helpful caseworkers, he replies, “We are aware of that issue. We’re aware that out in some of our communities there are workers who discourage participation, or they’re just less than enthusiastic in the eligibility process, to put it diplomatically.” But Struby is adamant that Oklahoma does not actively encourage caseworkers to divert people away from welfare to lower their caseloads. “That is absolutely not the case here,” he says.
Grennan does get about $500 a month in food stamps. Applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is much simpler than applying for cash assistance. And while states can keep TANF block grant funds that aren’t used for cash assistance and apply them to other programs, SNAP funds go directly to recipients or aren’t released at all—there’s no financial benefit for states that lower their SNAP caseloads. Grennan says she’s grateful for her food stamps but points out the many other basics not covered by SNAP benefits. “Like cough syrup,” she says. “Cough medicine is very expensive even for children. So I try to squirrel a little away for a rainy day. But it does get hard when you’re down to your last dollar and it’s, ‘Well, do I go buy a four-pack of toilet paper, or do I go buy cough syrup for my kids?’ ”
And then there’s soap. Tampons. Clothes for fast-growing kids. Bus passes. Diapers. The phone. “God forbid I need to take a taxi because there’s an emergency,” she says. Food stamps don’t cover any of that. To complicate matters, without the cash to cover all those basic little things, Grennan says getting a job is even harder. “It’s really difficult on the employment market. It’s a lot of explaining.” Like when your bus taking you to your job interview is running late, or you don’t have enough money to buy new clothes for an interview, or the callback number on your résumé is dead because you’ve run out of cellphone minutes. As the saying goes: It’s expensive to be poor.
“I know that not everyone’s in my shoes,” Grennan says. “But not everybody is homeless because of drugs or violence or a bad decision. Sometimes the rug really is just pulled out from under you, and that’s what happened to me and mine.”