The federal welfare “reform” law that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program turns 22 years old today. The law, signed by President Bill Clinton, replaced the guaranteed cash assistance for low-income families with children with a federal block grant for states. Ife Floyd of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains how the changes have affected those who depend on aid.
Benefits have lost considerable value in the vast majority of states. Since 1996, they’ve eroded by 20 percent or more in 36 states, after adjusting for inflation. Sixteen states had the same nominal benefit levels in July 2018 as in 1996, meaning that benefits have fallen by 37 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. And four states (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and Oklahoma) have cut benefits in the last 20 years, so benefits there are below their 1996 levels even without adjusting for inflation. In three of those states — Arizona, Hawaii, and Oklahoma — benefits have lost 40 percent or more of their inflation-adjusted value.
In Louisiana, the move from cash assistance to block grant funding has meant a steady diversion of dollars away from programs that serve the neediest families. As LBP documented in 2016, only 11 percent of the state’s block grant funding goes to the “core” goals of welfare reform, and only 4 percent goes to cash assistance.
Many of these programs serve families with incomes well above the federal poverty line. Rather than using welfare dollars to help the very poorest families with temporary assistance and connecting them to work, Louisiana has used its block grant dollars, in effect, as a slush fund for other state priorities that were threatened by a lack of resources after years of Louisiana tax cuts that mostly benefited the wealthy.
Suing for opportunity
Low-income, minority parents looking for more opportunity often try to get their children enrolled in schools in nearby, wealthier communities. Research has increasingly shown that all students, regardless of race or economic status, benefit from classroom diversity. But across the country, some cities and towns have drawn school district boundaries that increase racial segregation. The result, as Dana Goldstein of the New York Times reports, is a wave of lawsuits.
Now Mr. Cruz-Guzman is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit saying that Minnesota knowingly allowed towns and cities to set policies and zoning boundaries that led to segregated schools, lowering test scores and graduation rates for low-income and nonwhite children. Last month, the state’s Supreme Court ruled the suit could move forward, in a decision advocates across the country hailed as important. The case is part of a wave of lawsuits over the quality of schools in more than a half-dozen states. The suits could serve as road maps for advocates in other states amid a nationwide teachers’ movement and a push in some state legislatures for more school funding. The legal complaints have different areas of focus — from school funding to segregation to literacy — but all of them argue that the states are violating their constitutions by denying children a quality education.
Louisiana needs to get in front of the opioid problem
The New York Times reported last week that Louisiana’s opioid deaths rose 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, outpacing the national increase of 7 percent. This statistic is humanized in a piece written by NOLA.com’s Maria Clark that describes the difficulties of keeping up with the opioid crisis in New Orleans:
The staff at the New Orleans Mission say the number of people addicted to opioids and in need of help is surging. The Mission is at maximum capacity nearly every night, filling the 232 beds at its New Orleans location, in addition to the 93 beds at its facilities in Lacombe and Hammond. The toll of the opioid crisis — which resulted in the overdose deaths of 166 people in New Orleans last year — is compounded by the limited resources the city has available to fight drug addiction. Now, New Orleans Mission and Bridge House/Grace House are joining a wave of treatment centers, local governments and others taking legal action against drug manufacturers.
Shelters are not the only thing lacking in New Orleans for those seeking addiction assistance.
New Orleans is not just lacking shelter beds. The are currently only 18 chemical detox beds in the city. Charity Hospital and its post-Katrina replacement, LSU Interim Public Hospital, had 20 detox beds prior to 2012 when they were eliminated amid state budget cuts. University Medical Center doesn’t have any detox beds.
Shifting methods in school poverty data
Quantifying poverty in our nation’s public schools has become increasingly dependent on registration for the free and reduced lunch program. This program, available to students at or below 185 percent of the poverty line, simultaneously provides the school with the percentage of “economically disadvantaged students” that they report on. This metric has become increasingly less reliable, and Matthew M. Chingos of Brookings explains why:
About one in five schools now offer free lunches to all of their students under a “community eligibility” provision. The result is that the share of U.S. students receiving a subsidized lunch has climbed from less than 35 percent in 1990 to more than 50 percent today, even though the share of children who grow up in low-income families has not changed over this period.
This has forced many school districts and states to look at new ways of measuring poverty in our public schools, and some are getting out in front of the problem.
Fortunately, several states are leading the way in adopting new methods for identifying disadvantaged students based on their families’ participation in programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and the foster care system. Districts have been making such linkages to “directly certify” students for FRL without them having to complete a form. States assuming the responsibility for this linkage reduces burden on districts and ensures more uniformity. Most important for ESSA purposes, it means that states including Delaware, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington, DC will be able to shine a light on the achievement of disadvantaged students even in schools where all students get a free lunch.
Number of the day:
4 – The percent of low-income families in Louisiana that receive TANF cash assistance. (Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)