Who Benefits From Welfare Dollars—and Who Doesn’t

Two new stories reveal where TANF money is going, and it isn’t always towards needy families.

Photo credit: John Liu, CC BY 2.0.

I want to share two stories with you.

The first comes from The New York Review of Books’ essay on Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, which I immediately added to my library hold list:

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

The opening chapter of $2.00 a Day describes a Chicago mother whom the authors call Modonna Harris. Harris graduated from high school and then took out loans to attend a private university. However, she got no financial help from her divorced parents, and when she hit her student loan ceiling at the end of her second year, she dropped out. Misadventures in love followed, and after her marriage broke up she had a child to support. The best job she could find was as a cashier, but after eight years her employer fired her because her cash drawer was $10 short. The store eventually found the missing $10, but it did not rehire Harris.

Harris looked for new jobs, without success. After her unemployment benefits ran out, a friend noticed that Harris had no food in her apartment for herself or her child and persuaded her to apply for TANF. The welfare office opened at 8:30 AM, so Harris showed up at 8:00. At least on that particular day, however, there were only enough appointment slots for applicants who had joined the line in the rain outside the welfare office before 7:30. After waiting most of the day, Harris left without having been given a chance to apply, convinced that TANF would never help her.

The second story I want to share with you comes from Slate, and it’s about people who benefit from welfare without realizing it.

You’d Be Surprised by How “Welfare” Money Is Spent in Some States

Reporter krissy clark attends a free marriage workshop called “Forever. For Real.” While she’s there, she asks other attendees how they feel about welfare and then asks them if they know this free class is funded by TANF dollars:

Radford looked at her fiancé. They both wore a look of surprised amusement.

“Oh my god — we’re on welfare?!” Martin asked, chuckling. “I never thought I’d be on welfare.” Pause. “Well, that’s great!”

Other couples were similarly bemused when I told them that welfare money, formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, made their marriage class possible. Neoka Ashley, a recruiter for an employment agency, and her husband Paoli Wognakou, an IT analyst, certainly didn’t consider themselves needy. Ashley describes herself as “in need of like — maybe learning? But as far as benefits, we’re pretty good. Financially stable.”

Despite the stubborn stereotypes about just who benefits from federal welfare spending in America — how needy they are and whether they “just sit at home not looking to better themselves” — a workshop full of middle-class couples working on their love styles is exactly what welfare can look like today.

So you’ve got an unemployed woman who is in need of TANF benefits but can’t access them, and middle-class couples benefiting from TANF without even realizing it.

Both articles make it clear that TANF benefit distribution differs from state to state; Modonna Harris might have been more likely to receive TANF benefits if she lived in California, for example. Both articles also explain that some TANF programs deliberately try to avoid paying out cash benefits to individuals—and as Clark notes, one way to pay fewer cash benefits is to put more money into free marriage workshops.

TANF stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and you could easily argue that a marriage workshop does in fact provide temporary help to people in need (of marriage workshops).

But I don’t like the story these two stories are telling.

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