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Deep Poverty Up, Welfare Benefits Down

Two weeks ago, the Census Bureau reported that poverty in America had grown to 15.1 percent, capturing 46.2 million Americans, including over 16 million (22 percent of) children. Further analysis revealed that there was growth in "deep poverty" -- 6.7 perecent of Americans, the most ever, are living at 50 percent of the poverty line. For a two parent, two child household, that's just $11,000.

Were Republicans listening?

Last Wednesday, the House re-authorized Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) but gutted the supplemental funding that had been part of the program since its inception. Congress traditionally set aside $319 million, which could be granted to states that could not meet the needs of its poor. This money was necessary because of TANF's poor design.

National TANF funding was set at $16.6 billion in 1996 and it remains the same today, unadjusted for inflation or population growth. Consequently, for over 15 years, states have had ever less money to tackle poverty, diminishing the life prospects of poor families. In Rick Perry's Texas, where the poverty rate is now 18.4 percent, the TANF grant has decreased in value by 38 percent over the last 15 years.

TANF's lack of flexibility was always a problem. As Jared Bernstein has made clear, it is a program that works best in good economic times, not when it's really needed, like right now in the wake of the Great Recession. 

The Obama Administration did its best to offset TANFs weaknesses. In 2009, the White House included a $5 billion TANF Emergency Fund as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The Emergency Fund covered 80 percent of the state spending increases in three categories basic assistance, non-recurrent short-term benefits, and subsidized employment, and it expired on Spetember 30th, 2010 because states had drawn down all the funds.

If states were desperate enough to draw down $50 billion in deliberately allocated funding in less than two years, what makes Congressional Republicans believe that $319 million is extraneous funding?

The shocking answer: Republicans do not believe that poverty is really all that bad in America. In a recent National Review commentary, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke on behalf of the denizens of conservative America:

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist and chairman of a subcommittee on which I am the ranking minority member, called a hearing this week titled, “Is Poverty a Death Sentence.” My answer was a resounding “No.”

Rand Paul's argument relied heavily on Hertige Foundation Scholar Robert Rector and his new report "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?" I have already discussed that report here. My argument, in sum, was that the reason America doesn't have the kind of abject poverty that Rector and Paul describe as "real poverty" is because of the social welfare programs that Republicans describe as a dangerous socialist scheme.

Conservative arguments like these are common parlance in Washington these days and what's worse is that they are winning the day. Senate Democrats have got to begin to throw their weight around. Draw attention to the Republican's callous cuts and get the supplemental funding back in this bill. They have until Friday, when TANFs last re-authorization expires.