Illinois may kick families off welfare after three years

What happens to a poor family when they get kicked off welfare? 3,000 Illinois families may find out as of July 1st if the state goes ahead with its proposal to cut the budget by reducing the time limit for receiving cash assistance from five years to just three.

It's a way to save money when the state doesn't have much to spare, and Governor Pat Quinn claims it will net Illinois $15 million.

The problem? It will likely hurt the very poorest families and the most vulnerable children, ones whose parents have the hardest time finding work.

“The people most likely to be cut off are the people least likely to find employment," said Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president of the family income support division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Shriver Center on Poverty Law has been leading a coalition of advocacy groups to counter the proposal. They say a three-year time limit is too short because it doesn't allow enough time for struggling families to overcome barriers to work, like young children, needing more education or health problems.

In addition, they point to Illinois' continually high unemployment rate, which is particularly hard on people with limited skills or education.

"The projected $15 million 'savings' from this measure that will make 6,000 children destitute is not enough to make a difference in patching up Illinois’s budget but it is life-changing for the affected children," writes Shriver.

Dan Lesser, director of economic justice at Shriver, says they've been talking to lawmakers and trying to make inroads in the legislature and the governor's office.

"Since he proposed this as part his FY 2013 budget, the issue is being decided now and we should know by May 31 whether Illinois is going to shorten its lifetime limit," said Lesser.

What does life look like for families at the bottom of the welfare roll? The New York Times profiled a few families who have been cut from their states' cash assistance program  during the recession and its aftermath:

The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.

Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.

Maria Thomas, 29, with four daughters, helps friends sell piles of brand-name clothes, taking pains not to ask if they are stolen. “I don’t know where they come from,” she said. “I’m just helping get rid of them.”

To keep her lights on, Rosa Pena, 24, sold the groceries she bought with food stamps and then kept her children fed with school lunches and help from neighbors. Her post-welfare credo is widely shared: “I’ll do what I have to do.”

Welfare time limits began in the mid-90s with The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. It also changed how the federal government funded welfare cash assistance. Instead of providing states with money according to how many families were on their welfare rolls, it created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Block Grant--a lump sum that states could use for cash assistance, as well as for other programs that helped low-income families.

In this fiscal climate, many states have sought to shorten TANF time limits to save money. California and Arizona have both shortened the time they allow families to receive cash assistance. Cutting cash assistance means states can use those federal block grant dollars to plug budget holes for other programs, like child care programs for poor families.

How much of the TANF block grant does Illinois use for its original purpose - cash assistance to low income families? Not much, compared to other states. In fact, Pavetti says, Illinois is dead last when it comes to how much of Uncle Sam's dollars go toward actual welfare checks, rather than other state programs. In 2010, only 6 percent of the $858 million the state received went to basic assistance, according to CBPP. The rest went to  programs like child care and work training.

In addition, just a fraction of poor families that are eligible for welfare in Illinois actually receive it. Only 9 percent of poor families in Illinois received TANF cash benefits in 2009, one of the lowest rates in the nation. And the benefits that that 9 percent receives doesn't go as far as it used to. Compared to 1996, when adjusted for inflation, Illinois families get about 18 percent less cash benefits.

So the state is using the smallest amount of money from the federal government to fund a tiny percentage of poor families with less buying power than they had during the Clinton administration, and now, that amount is being slashed again.

When we talk about poverty in the United States, people often like to say how poverty in America is nothing compared to what it is world-wide. And while that may be true in general, the number of desperately poor families - the kind of families who will be cut off if this proposal moves forward - is on the rise.

How many people in the United States live on less than $2 a day, the World Bank standard of poverty? 

About 1.5 million households with 2.8 million children or four percent of all families, a number that's nearly doubled since 1996.

Times are tough in the land of plenty.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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