‘You can’t stretch so far’: how inflation undermined well-being | Welfare

EEvery month, Mayra Del Toro counts every penny of the $403 she receives from the state of Pennsylvania. It’s the majority of its income – but, with inflation at the highest level since 1981, harder to stretch than ever.

“I only have [what is] necessary for the children,” the 38-year-old mother of five said. “Every penny I take, I only keep in my pocket for necessities – bills, gas and things my kids need.”

Even for a naturally industrious woman like Del Toro – who worked 12 hour days, six days a week in a furniture manufacturing factory and earned the nickname “monster” for her work ethic – making ends meet is become a daunting task. When the pandemic hit, she drove for DoorDash while breastfeeding a newborn, but labor was in full swing and she had to rely on her children to help with deliveries.

So Del Toro has joined a dwindling number of Americans who depend on the only remaining national cash assistance program in the United States, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tanf), colloquially known as Welfare. But, even before inflation hit an astronomical 8.5% in February 2022, decades of subdued price growth had eroded what Tanf payments could buy.

Pennsylvania has not increased monthly Tanf payments to families since 1990.

Pennsylvania is a particularly good example of how lawmakers let the program languish. The maximum welfare payment of $403 — the amount Del Toro receives — hasn’t increased since 1990.

During this period, it lost more than half of its purchasing power to inflation, according to the Coalition for Low-Income Pennsylvanians.

Today, families living in deep poverty are facing the fastest rising prices in generations – with little or no support. The Child Tax Credit, part of pandemic relief measures, temporarily halved the child poverty rate in the United States by distributing $3,600 in tax credits in monthly installments, including included to very low-income families, but Democrats couldn’t agree on renewal terms and the program lapsed. early 2022.

“Tanf grants are not, in most states, sufficient to enable people to meet their basic needs – [and] were insufficient before inflation started to be as big an issue as it is today,” said Donna Pavetti of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Recipients, she said, “are being asked to stretch dollars that have already been stretched — and you can only stretch things so far.”

Rent, gas and food prices are particularly volatile – but ‘basic needs’ such as clothing, shelter, energy and medical care were already rising faster than inflation, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014 report.

“We’re seeing our families unable to make do with this amount of money, and it’s getting worse and worse,” said Louise Hayes, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS).

“Housing assistance programs in Philadelphia are running out of money. There are no programs for diapers or sanitary products, [food stamps are] insufficient to pay for food. Pandemic unemployment assistance, which provided an extra few hundred dollars a week, ran out last September.

“Without that income, families might be forced to stay with abusive men,” Hayes said, noting that Tanf recipients are most likely households headed by single women — many of whom are survivors of domestic violence. .

CLS wants to increase welfare benefits in Pennsylvania for the first time in 33 years. They’ve been fighting for decades, Hayes said, and recently joined a diverse group of direct aid organizations to push lawmakers. “It’s a rock that we’ve been pushing down a hill for a very long time.”

Most US states pay less than $600 per month per family.

The effort dates back almost to 1996, when President Bill Clinton created the Tanf program by totally restructuring welfare. States gained control over most aspects of cash assistance programs, and in return, federal funds shifted from open-ended assistance programs to fixed annual amounts called block grants.

The amount of federal assistance has not changed since 1996, in part because the program has never been indexed to inflation. And state control meant the programs were vulnerable to the local political climate. This is evident in the conservative South, which has the most punitive and lowest-paying programs in the country. In Arkansas, for example, a family of three can receive a maximum of just $204 per month.

Low payouts and invasive eligibility criteria — including drug testing — have scared off applicants over the decades. Nationally, Tanf reaches just 21 families with children per 100 people living in poverty, compared to its predecessor, which reached 68 percent, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Some states don’t even spend the money we give them. Pennsylvania, for example, hid millions of unspent Tanf aid: In 2020, Pennsylvania had $410 million in uncommitted Tanf reserves, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“I have constituents who need these benefits, but this program hasn’t modernized in a way that has allowed it to really meet people’s needs right now,” the state representative said. of Pennsylvania Democrat, Malcolm Kenyatta, who represents parts of Philadelphia. “My family was one of the working poor families that would benefit from this program. I know in a very intimate way what would happen if the government didn’t work – in an intimate way.

Kenyatta is sponsoring a bill to increase maximum Tanf grant amounts, link them to inflation and free up unspent dollars for those in need. Meanwhile, cash aid has come under renewed attack from conservatives and at least one powerful Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin. Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, criticized the government’s income support while promoting a tax hike for 80% of families earning less than $54,000 a year, the New York reported. Times.

Speaking at a recent Heritage Foundation event, Scott said: ‘I’m focused on people who can go to work and I’ve decided to take part in a government program and not take part’, falsely claiming that most recipients of government benefits do not work. .

Cash assistance programs have, in fact, had work requirements for decades. Del Toro is one of the few recipients who was allowed to attend school while receiving benefits. She is studying for a two-year degree in social work at a community college in Reading, Pennsylvania, and hopes to graduate next year. Meanwhile, she encourages other people on Tanf.

“Sometimes they cry and don’t know what they can do,” she says. She tells them, “They can have whatever they want. Just wait and believe. Work for it.

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