Webcast Recap

Speakers: Peter Edelman, Georgetown Law Center; Barbara Ehrenreich, Author; Maria Foscarinis, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty; Alice O'Connor, University of California, Santa Barbara; Margaret Simms, Urban Institute

With the onset of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, many have begun to question whether the country's social safety net is strong enough to stand the added strain of double-digit unemployment and soaring increases in foreclosure and homelessness. A recent report, Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net Is Failing Americans and How to Fix It, issued by a coalition of anti-poverty organizations, seeks to shed light on the desperate condition of those living in poverty in the United States and the inadequacy of existing measures to provide assistance. On Tuesday, December 15, 2009, the United States Studies Program convened a panel of experts on poverty and homelessness, including two of the authors of Battered by the Storm, to discuss these issues.

Alice O'Connor opened the discussion by tracing the history of anti-poverty measures in the United States. The Battered by the Storm report, she argued, is only the most recent evidence of a long-term erosion of the principles underlying the initial creation of the social safety net under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1930s, '40s and '60s. The principle that has been lost, she said, is "the idea of economic citizenship and necessity of economic rights" embedded, for instance, in FDR's proposed "Economic Bill of Rights," which would have guaranteed employment, health care, education and other needs. She cited Roosevelt's argument that securing these economic rights is crucial to preservation of political rights of modern American democracy. In her view, the history of the twentieth century has borne this out, as activists seeking to secure economic rights simultaneously bolstered American democracy, whether through economic reforms such as the Glass-Stiegel Act, or political efforts such as the Civil Rights movement.

Barbara Ehrenreich focused her remarks on the more recent history of the welfare reform of the 1990s and how those affected by the current recession have fared under the new system. She opened with the story of "Linda," a woman who depended on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the official name for welfare prior to 1996, when it was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Although Linda faced considerable difficulties, including an abusive husband, she managed to establish a reasonably comfortable life with the help of AFDC. She then contrasted this story with that of "Kristin," a woman she met more recently who had lost her job because of the recession. Kristin's husband had also lost his job as a plumber because of a back injury. His back problem should have made him been eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but the couple could not afford to pay for the CT scan needed to document his injury. When they then applied for TANF, they faced confounding bureaucratic obstacles, such as a requirement to apply for 40 jobs per week to continue receiving benefits, even though they lived in rural Pennsylvania where 40 opportunities per week in the midst of recession would be hard to find. Because of its strenuous requirements and minimal benefits, Ehrenreich pointed out, TANF had proved "hardly worth the hassle" for this couple. Beyond the frustration of dealing with TANF, she noted, the couple lived in fear that availing themselves of public assistance would attract the attention of children's services to the fact that the family is living in a tiny apartment, without separate rooms for their sons and daughters.

To Maria Foscarinis, Kristin and her family are part of the "invisible homeless," those who are inadequately housed. Since the start of the recession in 2007 there has been a dramatic overall increase in homelessness. Prior to 2007, there were 2.5 million homeless in this country, but in the next year and a half, that number is expected to increase by another 1.5 million. Many of those left homeless by the foreclosure crisis are not necessarily homeowners, according to Foscarinis, but renters who have done nothing wrong but whose landlords have been hit by foreclosure. This phenomenon comes at the tail end of a period when federal programs to provide housing assistance have been "decimated," she said. The few new federal programs introduced as a part of the stimulus package to address homelessness, particularly for former renters, she argued, have not been adequately implemented. Foscarinis urged two levels of solutions to the problem. On an immediate level, she said, there should be an effort to the remove barriers to assistance that were written into TANF when it was enacted in 1996. On a broader level, though, she echoed Alice O'Connor in urging for a renewed focus on economic rights, casting homelessness as a human rights concern. She called for a more systemic approach to homelessness, not just charity on a case by case basis.

Peter Edelman opened his remarks with some arresting statistics on the level of poverty in the United States. Six percent of Americans, he said, are living in what is considered "extreme poverty," while 13 percent are living in poverty and a staggering 30 percent are "low-wage workers." At the same time, TANF, the primary vehicle for fighting poverty, has "become a bumper sticker that says 'get a job.'" Edelman lamented the shrinking of welfare rolls that has taken place in some states since the onset of the recession. At the same time, he pointed out, federal food stamp usage has gone up, indicating that there is no shortage of need, but only of willingness at the state level to fund needed assistance. The victims of these failures, he emphasized repeatedly, are mothers and children who have no other means of support. Edelman suggested that a starting point for seeking a political solution will be next year, when TANF comes up for reauthorization, allowing the opportunity to reexamine some of its more stringent requirements.

Margaret Simms noted that TANF is predicated on questionable assumptions about the ease of getting a job that are imaginable only in a time of prosperity, not recession. A true safety net, she contended, should provide reliable support for working families who can't make ends meet, opportunities for advancement and emergency assistance for those who have suddenly lost their jobs. She argued that TANF and related programs fall far short of meeting these goals, partly because their funding was raided by state governments during the time of period of prosperity of the 1990's. At the same time, the framework that had been geared toward helping those out of work to find new jobs has completely atrophied. Simms suggested that the federal government needs to adopt a more "investment-oriented" approach to public assistance, planning for the eventuality of recession so that resources will be available to strengthen the safety net when it is needed most.

By Richard Iserman
Sonya Michel, Director of United States Studies