An Urban Institute panel recently discussed the death of welfare as we know it and the policies that should be considered to help the country’s poor.

District of Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Adrianne Todman joined the panel titled “Desperate Measures.” The panel featured Kathryn Edin, a Bloomberg distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of “$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America”; Susan J. Popkin, a senior fellow at Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center within the Urban Institute; and Gregory Acs, director of the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. The panel’s moderator, Margery Austin Turner is a senior vice president for programming planning and management at the Urban Institute. 

Edin started the discussion by citing a few statistics based on her research. The number of people in the U.S. who live on less than $2 a day has grown from 600,000 in 2006 to more than 1.5 million in 2011. The number of people who told the food stamp program they earn $0 income has risen from 300,000 in 1995 to 1.2 million in 2013. However, the number of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has dropped.

“When poor folks hit hard times they no longer think of TANF as an option in many places across our nation,” said Edin, who noted that 70 percent of the children in $2-a-day households had one working parent, but only one out of 10 families received TANF assistance.

A lot of this can be blamed on welfare reform from the 1990s, Acs said, when cash was replaced with in-kind assistance. In 1996, there were 5.6 million families eligible for assistance and 80 percent were participating in the program. By 2012, 5.6 million families were eligible, but only 1.8 million were participating, he said.

“In addition to TANF not reaching people who are eligible, the amount of assistance declined,” he said. “The real value of benefits declined by 20 percent over that 16-year period.”

Of the $30 billion going to the program, half from the federal government and the other half from localities, “only 30 percent is going in direct cash aid to these really poor families,” Acs said. The rest goes to work support, administration fees, and other purposes, such as child welfare.

Another source of direct cash assistance that comes once a year is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which a person only gets if they work. The return is about $5,400 if the person is earning about $18,000 a year, Acs said.

DCHA serves about 20,000 households, of which 15,000 are headed by females, Todman said.

“Most of our families have some form of working income,” said Todman, who added that 3,500 households receive TANF and 5,400 earn an income through work. “When I am out at the sites or speaking to our families--particularly the young men who come up to me--are interested in working…Families want to live with integrity. Families want to make sure their children are doing better than they are.”

However, due to the lack of quality jobs for DCHA customers, DCHA creates those opportunities, she said. Apprenticeships, workforce development, and computer training are among the services DCHA provides for its families. The agency used its New Market Tax Credits to create 500 jobs in the past year, Todman said, and to partner with contractors who work with the authority supply job opportunities.

“We have to have a system based on our American values if we are going to be successful,” Todman said to the crowd. “As we move away from the War on Poverty, I think we need to have an accord with opportunity. We need to think about ways for us to leverage what we think is important to us as Americans in ways to help other Americans who are not as lucky as we are.”

We need to find ways “to expand work opportunity in ways that bring dignity and hope to families who want to play by the rules, but we haven’t delivered in providing that work opportunity,” Edin said.

Instead, entry-level, low paying jobs are all that is available, Acs said. They do not have regular schedules, offer health care, no paid time off and are “inherently unstable,” he said. 

Todman suggested that while adults need work, it is also important to inspire their children to “imagine the world outside of their community.

“I have 5,000 youth [in DCHA properties]. Imagine the collective impact of all housing authorities being supported in that way. All of the children we house, which I think is over 1 million…lift all of those children out of poverty so they don’t continue the cycle,” she said.

The conversation turned to health as a contributor to, and a result of, housing instability.

Popkin’s work has focused on the women and girls living in concentrated poverty and the health issues they face. They are desperate and feel they have no one to talk to when they are victims of violence. Children are forced into very adult roles, she said, going hungry, working, and even hustling to get extra money.

“We have to talk about it sensitively,” Popkin said. “It is a real crisis and I think we ignore it to our peril. Our kids are not going to be able to move up…they are traumatized.”

There are plenty of reports that show trauma and violence put physical effects on the body that may get handed down in genetic anomalies, she said. Doctors can see the effect on people’s chromosomes, people living with chronic stress, serious depressions, high rates of asthma, diabetes, hyper tensions,” Popkin listed.

“But when you see the health effects of people living in these communities…they are so sick with asthma they can’t walk up the stairs,” she said. “It is really at a level that most of us don’t even have to think about.”

The panelists agreed more funding for affordable housing, services, and direct cash benefits would be steps governments could take to help the country’s poor stop the cycle of poverty. 

From left: Moderator Margery Austin Turner, Susan J. Popkin, Adrianne Todman, Gregory Acs, and Kathryn Edin
Last modified: 3/1/2016 3:12:33 PM