With this week’s “welfare reform” executive order from President Trump, which calls for work requirements in public assistance programs across the board, the outlook for anti-poverty programs is bleak. And this current anti-welfare climate has also made it easier for states to overhaul their public assistance programs. Tennessee, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, is one such state. Republican Governor Bill Haslam has proposed a number of welfare reforms that he has asked the Republican-controlled legislature to pass.
In two moves supported by the Trump administration, the governor has already announced that the state will further limit food assistance for adults without children, and the legislature may well impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients (using dollars earmarked for the cash assistance program to implement and monitor those requirements. But at least some Republicans in Tennessee’s General Assembly have gained a partial understanding of the difficulties of poverty, because they also voted this week to increase welfare benefit payments to poor families for the first time in 22 years. Nonetheless, the impact of such an increase would largely be offset by other anti-welfare policies that the legislature is pursuing—like the work requirements for Medicaid.
Currently, the maximum benefit for a family of three in Tennessee from the U.S. cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), is $185. States choose how to spend their TANF block-grant funds, whether on basic assistance, work supports—or sometimes, to fill budget gaps. Most states have neglected to ensure that cash assistance levels meet the needs of poor families; as of mid-2017, 99 percent of TANF recipients receive benefits that, when adjusted for inflation, are worth less than the average benefit 22 years ago. Tennessee’s payment to poor families has remained at $185 since TANF was established in 1996. When adjusted for inflation, that payment had depreciated in value by nearly 36 percent by 2017.
New legislation, which on Monday passed overwhelmingly with 88 votes for the bill and just seven against, will increase those benefit levels, as reported by Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The increase is just one component of a larger bill, however. The bill also proposes to implement stricter initiatives to curb fraud in public assistance programs.
If enacted, the bill would increase Tennessee’s maximum monthly benefit from a paltry $185 … to a slightly-less-paltry $277.
“$277 for a family of three still puts [those] Tennessee families at 16 percent of the poverty line,” says Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, an advocacy organization in Nashville. “We are grateful to the governor for increasing the grant,” Johnson says, but the increase still “leaves us in the bottom rank of states.” Tennessee has the second lowest TANF benefit in the country. The increase would bring the benefit to the sixth lowest. And this is a one-time raise—it’s not indexed for inflation.
Since welfare reform, states increasingly use their block grant funds on initiatives other than basic assistance to poor families. Indeed, only about 25,000 families in Tennessee receive cash assistance; while in 2016, nearly 142,000 families lived below the poverty line. And it’s not for a lack of funds—there are hundreds of millions of dollars in Tennessee’s unspent, reserve fund.
Instead of using more of this reserve fund on assistance for poor families, the legislature is proposing to use the money to facilitate the introduction of Medicaid work requirements—that is, to help remove people from public assistance. A handful of other states have recently established work requirements for Medicaid, since the practice has been greenlighted by the Trump administration (though none have suggested they will use TANF dollars to do so).
But here’s the rub: Tennessee hasn’t expanded Medicaid to all adults under a certain income level like those other states. The other states that have established work requirements have targeted them to childless adults, who gained coverage through the Medicaid expansion. That population isn’t generally eligible for Medicaid in Tennessee. Instead, Tennessee’s Medicaid program primarily serves children, caregivers, people with disabilities, and the elderly. The few childless adults who could receive Medicaid benefits in Tennessee include groups that are very small, among them former foster children until they reach the age of 26 and women under a certain income level who have been diagnosed with breast cancer or cervical cancer.
So instead, Tennessee’s requirement would seemingly target all adults on Medicaid who don’t have dependent children under six, as that’s all the bill says. But the bill is so vague that proponents of the bill don’t seem to understand exactly what it would mean and whom it would cover. The bill’s sponsor in the State House, Speaker Beth Harwell, said that a full-time caregiver to her son who is disabled would be exempt from the requirement. The bill’s sponsor in the State Senate, Republican Kerry Roberts, also reiterated that women who were full-time caregivers would be exempt.
But according to the bill they support, that is not the case if those caregivers’ children are over the age of six.
Despite the assembly’s new willingness to increase the welfare benefit, not all Republicans went along. State Representative Tilman Goins harked back to the “welfare queen” myth when speaking for his amendment to the bill, which would have kept the fraud-reduction measure but eliminated the increase in TANF payments entirely. Goins said the increases would amount to “cash money—that can be used to buy anything from cigarettes, to liquor, to prostitutes. Maybe they want to rent a hotel room for less than six hours, they can do that with this money,” as the legislators around him laughed.
Goins’s remarks could have been drawn from the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform in the 1990s, which spoke of lawless, immoral poor people who refused to work. These views were clearly racialized, as was Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric, about a woman, assumed to be black, that defrauded the government to live high on welfare money.
But poverty forces families to live anything but high, which some Republicans in the State House seemed finally to understand. Two cited “compassionate conservatism” as their reasons for supporting the meager TANF payment increase. Republican State Representative Dan Howell, who sponsored the bill, said, “We get as legislators … a [yearly] cost of living increase. It’s been 22 years since TANF families have received a basic increase in the allotment … the average working family on TANF in Tennessee earns $933 a month. [Add the TANF payment and] they’re making about $1,100 a month. It’s been a long, long, long time since I’ve had to live on $1,100 a month. I’m not sure that many of us could do that.”
Still, Republicans who supported the bill also provided a number of disclaimers about the TANF population, stressing that these are the working poor. “These are people who are trying,” said Republican State Representative Patsy Hazlewood. “You have to understand there is a work requirement to TANF,” said Howell. While true, such arguments still legitimize welfare stereotypes by separating the working poor, who “deserve” help, from those who don’t—seemingly, people who aren’t trying, or who buy cigarettes and liquor. In reality, there are number of reasons why people receiving assistance may not be able to work full time—disabilities, caregiving responsibilities, or a lack of employable skills, to name just a few.
Goins’s amendment ultimately failed, after Howell read out statistics of how little TANF recipients earn, how little fraud is in the program, and how TANF “is not a way of life.” Was Howell beginning to understand the depths of poverty in the country? Was he seeing how Americans tend to ostracize the poor in order to escape the reality of a social system where hard work doesn’t necessarily equate with success? Was Howell about to gain insight into how devastating work requirements can be to people in poverty?
Tennessee’s lawmakers aren’t just pushing a policy—they’re pushing a narrative about the deserving and the undeserving poor.