TANF at 25

TANF at 25

Poverty is expensive, and it charges interest. The trauma and adversity that too often accompanies poverty, especially deep poverty, impacts children throughout life from school readiness, educational achievement and later economic success to physical and mental health. But Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the federal program that could most directly help lift families out of poverty is failing, including in Louisiana. TANF was touted as welfare reform when it was established in 1996, but as Ladonna Pavetti and Ali Safawi of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, the “reforms” of the mid-90s deeply undermined the program’s ability to fight poverty, and now the program itself is in desperate need of reform: 

(…) the law gives states unfettered flexibility to determine benefit levels and policies on eligibility and work, which has resulted in inequitable outcomes: Black children are more likely than white children to live in states with the weakest TANF programs. In short, TANF promised “work, not welfare” but left many families with neither. Here are four ways in which TANF is not the success that some claim: Its work requirements caused a rise in deep poverty. Its work requirements haven’t helped recipients find quality jobs. It reaches few families in need. Its benefit levels are too low and continue to lose value.

Beggar’s prison in Lafayette
It isn’t illegal to ask your fellow citizens for help when you need it, but some in Lafayette still want to put people in jail for it. Despite rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and the 15th Judicial District Court protecting the rights of people to hold signs and ask for money, Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory continues to back a local “criminal mischief” ordinance that criminalizes such activity. Meanwhile, the city refuses to invest sufficiently in programs that help people get on their feet when they fall on bad times. Leslie Turk and Christiaan Mader of the Current have the details, including the ongoing story of one 55-year-old man caught in this web of destructive policies: 

Anthony Wayne Willis sat in a cell at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center for 48 days, leaving July 12 and returning to the street. His last known address was the shuttered Salvation Army shelter. And before that, the Desiard Street Shelter in Monroe. Willis is well-known to Lafayette Police. Over a period of seven months, he was cited 34 times for crimes symptomatic of his poverty and lack of shelter: panhandling, vagrancy, standing on public property. He is back in jail. On Monday, Willis was arrested again, this time on a city ordinance a local district judge declared unconstitutional earlier this year. 

HBCUs forgive student debt
America’s racial wealth gap is staggering, with the typical white family holding nearly 10 times the wealth of the typical Black family. Higher education has often been touted as the road to closing this gap, but racial disparities persist even in the halls of academia, and student debt keeps Black students back. To help address these longstanding disparities, exacerbated by Covid-19, two Louisiana Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) – Grambling State University and Southern University at Shreveport – announced this week they are joining their peers around the nation and using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to forgive some student debt. JC Canicosa of Louisiana Illuminator has the story

“The pandemic has been really tough on our students and their families, and we’ve seen situations where students have a tough time paying tuition and some had outstanding balances,” Grambling President Rick Gallot said in a Monday evening phone interview. “We’re just thankful we’re in a position to be able to provide this relief to our students,” he said. In a written statement, the university says it expects to forgive $1.5 million in student debt. (…)“It’s one of those rare occasions where the money has been directed to impact students who need it most,” he said.

LBP’s Economic Opportunity Analyst, Jackson Voss, provides analysis of the American Rescue Plan Act and how Louisiana can use these funds to build a lasting recovery

Money for roads and bridges
The U.S. Senate is debating a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill this week, which was crafted by a bipartisan group of 10 senators that includes Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy. The bill would bring Louisiana an extra $384 million next year to help repair and upgrade roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure – and $6 billion over the next five years. While investments in our state’s physical infrastructure are long overdue, policymakers should not overlook the investments we need in our people, including good paying jobs, affordable child care and paid family leave, and a sufficiently funded safety net to help catch people when they need a helping hand. Mark Ballard of The Advocate has the story

“The prospect of our state receiving nearly $6 billion from the nationwide allocation of $550 billion gives us hope that our backlog of road and bridge needs will finally get the attention it deserves,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday in a statement. “Equally important, this bill provides funding and policy certainty for five years.” (Sen. Bill) Cassidy said the bill also had money to help upgrade New Orleans’ failing sewerage system as well as flood control measures. Another $371 million over five years would help teetering drinking water systems across the state.

Number of the Day
– Percentage-point decline in Louisiana’s maximum TANF benefit as a percent of the poverty line from 1970 (max benefit of 35% of poverty) to 2020 (max benefit of 13% of poverty). (Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)