Friday, April 21, 2017

Temporary Assistance has some pros and cons

In this reaction paper, a student considers the pros and cons of TANF. 

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as TANF is a program that is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; it provides temporary assistance in the form of cash payments to needy families who are income-qualified.  In 1997 TANF started, and since then has helped roughly over two million families per month; most of those families have been headed by single mothers. 

When talking about TANF there are many pros and cons to the program.  One of the positive aspects of family assistance is the requirement to determine a plan for self-reliance within the family.  Instead of just receiving cash assistance for life, you must meet with a caseworker and come up with a plan that helps you to eventually stop needing to rely on TANF.  I believe that TANF is helping the people find their right path and provide them with ways to stand on their own again.  Another advantage of TANF is that it is a time-based program.  Most states only let families get government money for so many years just so that individuals are not signing up for it repeatedly.  TANF helps individuals pay rent, buy food, pay for utilities etc. 

When I think about the program and its negative aspects, I think of welfare fraud and individuals who abuse it.  I think that there are many people out there coming up with fake names and using other people just to receive cash assistance, just like in the book we read for class (Two Dollars A Day).  Another problem with TANF is helping individuals who do not deserve it.  I think that the individuals who can work should do so and that only the truly poor and disabled should receive cash assistance.  This would stop from helping individuals who make poor choices and suffer from drug and alcohol addiction.  There are needy children not receiving the help and care they need because their parents are worried about getting the cash in hand so they can spend it on things that do not matter.  

In considering the pros and cons of a welfare policy or program, it is often helpful to think in terms of how it fits within a moral framework.  There are also questions we can raise about effectiveness and efficiency. 

I think that just about everyone shares a moral value in which we prefer a situation in which an adult person who is not yet venerable in age is self-sufficient and independent to one in which the person is dependent on others or generally oriented to life with an outlook of what they can get from others instead of what they can produce for themselves.  On one hand, this is obviously related to some sort of sense of fairness.  When we are children or after we reach advanced age, we ought to depend on others, but while we are “working-aged” adults, we ought to “carry our own weight” and “contribute our fair share” to the general civilization.  I think the value of liberty and equality also prefer situation in which people are independent and autonomous.  There is something that distorts our spirit and tarnishes our character if we must be too obviously dependent on others, or if we think so much of what we can get or should get from others.  This is some sort of mental enslavement or subordination, and it violates our sense that everyone ought to be free and equal in life. 

That said, most of us would allow people to be “dependent” or at least “interdependent” in some cases while they are “able-bodied working-aged adults”.  For example, a person may need help for a period of months or years during an economic downturn, or after the loss of a job, or after the birth of a child, or after suddenly taking on unpaid caregiving duties with a child or sick person. Someone must take care of children and sick and disabled persons, so in some sense the person who ceases to earn an income so they can take care of others is really doing a valuable to service to us, and in that circumstance, the “aid” they receive from us through TANF might instead by considered as a sort of “payment” in exchange for their performing duties as good parents, dutiful siblings or children or friends who aid a sick or injured person, and so forth.  But of course we worry whether they are actually earning such payments, which is why you remark on your concern about parents who may only care about having money so they can spend it on things that “do not matter” (or even things that are harmful or wicked).  

There is also this problem to consider: the children in poor families are expected to be dependent.  We do not expect them to go to work in the mills and mines, or the strip malls and industrial parks, to earn their housing and bread.  And, even if the parents are undeserving, it is simply more efficient and cost-effective to preserve families and provide money to parents, and let the parents spend that money on their children.  What is the alternative, removing the children and placing them with a more “responsible” parental figure who can accept the financial assistance we give for child-rearing so that we can adequately punish the parents by denying them assistance and allowing them to face the hunger and homelessness and deprivation that seem appropriate to us as the just consequences of their choices?  And so we are stuck.  We must take care of the parents as well as the children, all together as a family, or else we must punish the parents and their innocent children all together as a family because of choices made by the parents.

But even that is too simple.  For, as it turns out, in many cases the parents who are single mothers have not made especially wicked choices.  Many single mothers are reared in unsupportive families.  Many become parents when they are young and relatively inexperienced, and the fathers are often much older.  In many cases the parents or single parent were working, or are working, but the jobs they hold or held paid low wages, and the cost of living is too high.  Or, they have lost their work, and no employer is willing to hire them.  In such cases, it seems wrong to punish the parents, because they are willing to work and simply cannot find employment; and it is even more obviously wrong to punish the children, as they are blameless in any case, as they are not responsible for the actions of their parents.  

By keeping TANF benefits low, and by restricting them over time, we succeed in our aims of depriving poor parents of the means to pay their rent, pay their utilities, or buy clothing.  We may still provide SNAP to prevent starvation, but even that can be terminated if a parent cannot find work within a certain time period. But, what do we achieve by this?  If we make poor parents homeless, we make their children homeless.  If we turn off the electricity or water or heat for a family, we subject the children to dangers of unsanitary conditions, dehydration, heat stroke, or exposure. Without electricity and internet, we deprive children of access to the Internet, and that must have consequences in their education. By subjecting children to such costs, do we impose a greater long-term burden and cost on society than we do by “saving” money by spending less on such poor families?  It may satisfy some people’s sense of fairness to stop sustaining poor families when the parents fail to meet our expectations that they conform to the demands of capitalist rigor and the free market and get themselves a satisfactory job.  But, we also have values of compassion and altruism that make us want to provide families with at least a minimum of what they need to participate in society with dignity.  We may also have a sense of freedom and liberty in which we do not think there is any value to forcing people to bow down to the principles of the free market and capitalism.  Some of us think that human freedom and dignity come first, and that should be secured for everyone, and then we can use the free market or capitalism to give extra rewards to those who do the best or the most within the commercial and industrial aspects of life. I’m not opposed to using capitalism and the free market to make some of us wealthy, but I see no reason to “punish” persons who want to exert their freedom to disengage from capitalist production, perhaps doing so for six or seven years while they rear a child.

You say that people who can work ought to work.  I agree.  But, do you mean that such persons ought to work to earn money?  I am not sure I do agree. Some work is unpaid, like the work of rearing children, or caring for elderly and sick or disabled siblings or parents or grandparents. There may also be work of improving one’s skills and knowledge. I’m in favor of everyone who can work being put to work, but I’d like to recognize that there are worthwhile types of work that earn nothing, and I’m glad to provide a decent living stipend to anyone engaged in those activities.  Also, capitalism and the free market just doesn’t provide a sufficient range of job and career opportunities.  I’m also in favor of the government creating jobs (especially jobs that provide public goods and aren’t easy to use in the process of extracting surplus labor to make profits).  If the government offered more worthwhile employment opportunities so that the unemployment rate was down near 2%, then I might be willing to restrict TANF benefits for able-bodied working-aged adults who failed to get paid employment and also weren’t engaged in any sort of parenting or caregiving or volunteering or self-improvement through skills-development or education.  Until then, the moral problem of allowing a few cheaters and frauds to take advantage of the system seems insignificant to me, whereas we face a monstrous moral problem of depriving many children of material abundance sufficient to secure stable housing, electricity, water, abundant nutritious food, clothing, and internet access. Surely we lose more in white collar crime and tax evasion and corruption among the wealthiest and most powerful than we ever lose to all the low-income shiftless and idle folks who scam and cheat the welfare system.  Surely more moral evil is present in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians blown to bits by our military drones or the bombs dropped by our proxies in Gaza or Yemen than in all the evil of all the poor people cheating our welfare system.   How prevalent is the problem of welfare fraud anyway?  Is it widespread and common and costing a significant percentage of the TANF dollars?  

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