Category Archives: Welfare

Family Caps are Still Considered Birth Control in Pennsylvania

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

The U.S. Census Bureau’s new report on family income reveals that 14.5 percent of all Americans, 45.3 million people, live in poverty. That’s two percentage points higher than 2007, before the recession.

Pennsylvania is no exception. In 2011, the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center noted poverty rising in most regions in the state, “highlighting the widespread impact of the recession and the need for policymakers to protect struggling families.”

So what does the Pennsylvania Legislature do the week they get back to work after a long summer off?

Propose cutting benefits to struggling families with newborn babies.

Sponsored by Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, HB 2477 would implement what’s known as a “family cap” on the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program. Family caps deny babies conceived while the family is enrolled in the program from receiving TANF benefits.

Quite literally, this bill attempts to deter poor women from giving birth by refusing to financially help the child.

In her memo introducing the bill, Swanger wrote that her intention is “to reduce the number of children born on public assistance.”

Evidence shows family caps don’t work that way. For starters, the concept is based on a false assumption. Low-income women are not deliberately getting pregnant and bearing children to snag more state benefits. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the average family size was the same (3.7 persons), whether or not a family received assistance.”

While family caps fail at their supposed intention, what they succeed in doing is increasing the number of families in deep poverty. In particular, they increase the deep poverty rate of single mothers and children.

The bill, recently referred to the state House Health committee, contains a rape and incest exception. It states that a poor mother can receive benefits to feed her infant if, while pregnant, she signs paperwork asserting she was the victim of rape or incest, and that she reported the assault to authorities “including the identity of the offender, if known.”

It’s unclear what prompted the bill. TANF benefits, which have not kept pace with inflation, are already failing to cover basic needs. The number of families receiving TANF in Pennsylvania is near an all-time low; benefit levels have not increased in 25 years. In fact, since 1997, the Commonwealth has reduced its TANF caseload by nearly 60 percent.

At the same time Swanger proposes cutting TANF for pregnant women, several lawmakers have proposed legislation to increase TANF benefits as part of the Agenda for Women’s Health, a pro-choice legislative package supported by the bipartisan Women’s Health Caucus.

Viewpoints, and voting records, like Swanger’s put poor women in an impossible position.

While supporting a family cap on TANF to try to prevent poor women from having children, Swanger has also voted several times to limit poor and working women’s access to abortion services.

Poor and working women of Pennsylvania need opportunities that will help them lift themselves and their families out of poverty. What they don’t need is to be pinned between policies intended to deprive their babies of benefits as punishment for becoming mothers, and ever-increasing barriers to affordable, safe and legal abortion.

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Economic Justice, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, TANF, Welfare, Women's health, working mothers, Working poor

Just Harvest Releases Barriers to Benefits Report: PA Health Program Fails to Deliver!

Aly Mance, WLP Intern

Just Harvest recently released their report titled Barriers to Benefits, which shows that Pennsylvania’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is failing to provide Pennsylvanians with the aid that they need.  Their research shows that there are chronic problems in the food stamp application process—particularly with the inability to successfully reach caseworkers and transmit paperwork.  These problems inhibit consumers from obtaining and maintaining benefits, hurting Pennsylvania families.

The numbers are shocking.  Just Harvest’s research found that 85% of their test calls could not reach a human being, and 66% of surveyed Food Stamp consumers reported disconnects while trying to reach caseworkers. 30% of survey participants also reported that the paperwork they provided was not processed in time for their health benefits to continue without interruption.  40% of survey participants reported waiting more than an hour and a half at the office to talk to a caseworker in person.  The numbers are clear: The County Assistance Offices are unable to properly respond to their workload, and it is having a negative impact on Pennsylvanians.

Just Harvest concludes their report with a well-thought out list of recommendations that the state’s Department of Public Welfare should take to improve the ability of citizens to obtain aid through SNAP.  The list of recommendations includes improving the phone systems, creating a system for confirmation notices when paperwork is received and alerts if documents are missing, regularly reporting data on dropped calls or lost documents to the public, increasing staff, and enforcing the standard that caseworkers treat all consumers with dignity and respect.  The Department of Public Welfare should certainly consider and act upon these recommendations in order to improve the SNAP program and better serve PA consumers.

It is important for us to remember, as Just Harvest points out in their mission statement, that “hunger is a symptom of poverty and that poverty is a product of social and economic injustice.”  We need to improve programs like SNAP in order to better the socioeconomic situation of Pennsylvanian women and their families.

For more information on Just Harvest, visit their website at http://www.justharvest.org.

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Filed under Economic Justice, food stamps, Pennsylvania, Welfare, Working poor

UPDATE RE: H.B. 2718 Would Penalize Women on TANF for Having Children Unless They Are Survivors of “Legitimate” Rape

UPDATE (10/26/12):  Within three days of the publication of this blog post, three of the six house sponsors of H.B. 2718 have removed their names from the sponsorship of the bill.  The prime sponsor, Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, defended the bill initially, but reversed her position three hours later, saying that she did not check the language of the three-page bill.  She has informed the Philadelphia Inquirer that the bill will not go forward in its current form.

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney (10/23/12)

Led by State Representative RoseMarie Swanger of Lebanon County, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are targeting poor women and children with the introduction of House Bill 2718, which would prevent women who receive benefits under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) from receiving an incremental increase in benefits due to the birth of a child.  As of October 17, 2012, the bill is in the Human Services Committee.

As the Women’s Law Project discussed in its report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, less than 2% of Pennsylvania’s residents receive TANF, and only 17.6% of Pennsylvania’s residents living below the official poverty line receive cash assistance benefits.  That latter percentage will be even lower now that Governor Tom Corbett has eliminated General Assistance, the welfare benefit program for individuals who were ineligible for TANF.  Most of the families who receive cash assistance through TANF live in counties where the monthly benefit is $403 for a family of three, often not enough for most families to meet their daily expenses.

Instead of helping these families who are struggling to make ends meet, H.B. 2718 seeks to reduce the assistance families receive by preventing a family from receiving additional TANF benefits if that family has a child while receiving benefits or while on a temporary period of ineligibility for TANF.  The result is a denial of assistance to the most needy and vulnerable, the newborn children themselves and their families.  This harmful bill serves as yet another example  of how hypocritical many of Pennsylvania’s politicians are in caring only about “life” before birth and not afterwards.

The bill contains a narrow exception for survivors of rape and incest that is so fraught with conditions that it is unlikely that many survivors will be able to avail themselves of it.  It is largely an empty gesture grounded in insulting beliefs about survivors of sexual violence.  H.B. 2718 does not use the term “legitimate rape” explicitly, the term used by Republican Todd Akin in support of his inaccurate and ignorant argument that women cannot become pregnant as the result of a rape, but it is built upon similar stereotypes of rape survivors.

In essence, this legislation creates a “legitimate rape” test based on misconceptions of how “real” rape victims behave, a test that determines whether a family may receive the incremental increase in benefits after the birth of a child.  If this legislation passes, a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape must send a signed statement to the Department of Public Welfare stating:

 [1] that she was a victim of rape or incest… [2] that she reported the crime, including the identity of the offender, if known, to a law enforcement agency or [3] in the case of incest where a pregnant minor is the victim, to the county child protective service agency… stating the name of the law enforcement agency or child protective service agency to which the report was made and the date such report was made.

This bill presumes that “real” rape victims report the crime to police and will have no trouble disclosing the details of the crime to the Department of Public Welfare, when research shows us that many victims never inform the police for a wide variety of reasons.  For example, as the Women’s Law Project wrote in its amicus brief in Reedy v. Evanson:

Decades of research has documented the fact that the vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their sexual assault to police… Some of the most common reasons that victims give for not reporting are their fears that their report will not be taken seriously, they will not be believed, or they will be seen as responsible for their own assault. (internal citations omitted).

H.B. 2718 fails to reflect this reality of sexual assault, resulting in harm to survivors who become pregnant as a result of violence.

Pennsylvania’s women and children need laws that do not penalize and stereotype them.  H.B. 2718 must be defeated.

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Filed under PA Law, PA Legislature, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pregnancy, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, TANF, Welfare, Women's health, Working poor

Gingrich Food Stamp Remarks Reflect Common, Harmful Misconceptions

The 2012 GOP primary race has produced a lot of controversial sound bites, but perhaps the most ubiquitous in the past two weeks came from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, when he said that if the NAACP invited him, he would “go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

The NAACP responded almost immediately, pointing out that, “The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job,” and that although Gingrich was invited several times to the NAACP’s annual convention while he was serving as Speaker of the House, he has never attended.

Weeks later, a sad but powerful piece by The Grio allowed food stamp recipients – many of whom did not receive, or need, nutrition assistance before the recession – to share their own reactions to these remarks.

“I pay taxes. I don’t steal anything from the government.” Said Linda Miles, an African-American woman who also happens to be a veteran with a Master’s degree. While looking for a permanent job, Miles has taken an unpaid internship and become certified to work in early childhood care, and adds, “I’m not one of these people who sit on their butt and just collect a check. I’ve got a resume three pages long.”

“I’d rather work than be on food stamps, but, I mean, my body says no.” Explained Russell Johnson, who worked in refrigeration before being injured. “If I sit for too long, my back starts hurting and my leg goes numb. If I stand too long, the same old thing. And if I walk too much, my legs give out like they ain’t even there.”

Josephine Gonzales, who was employed before her pregnancy but unable to find work after giving birth, described her food assistance as “A way to survive.”

“Instead of spending the little cash I have on food, I can spend it on diapers and other things for my baby,” she said. “It’s just a small help. It’s not making our lives luxurious.”

To those familiar with the realities of poverty and food insecurity in America, that a recipient would feel compelled to explain that food stamps don’t buy a life of luxury seems a bit strange – one would think it obvious that people who receive government assistance aren’t exactly “living large.” But with his remarks about food stamps – particularly food stamps and the African-American community – Gingrich is building on the foundation President Ronald Reagan laid when he invented the “welfare queen.”

The phrase “welfare queen” has decidedly ignoble origins. During his administration, President Reagan often illustrated the need for welfare reform by telling the story of a “Chicago welfare queen” who collected over $150,000 from the government using “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards, and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, is getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.” He continued to refer to this woman as a classic example of welfare abuse in America even after the press corrected him that the woman he was referring to was convicted in 1977 of using two names in order to collect $8,000.

Despite the welfare queen’s nonexistence, for decades she has been a powerful tool for stirring up middle-class resentment against government aid recipients.  Likewise, Newt Gingrich’s remarks about the value of the paycheck over the food stamp reinforce the idea that welfare recipients are accepting government aid in place of paid employment, when in reality it is most often used to supplement insufficient paychecks.

The widespread myth that people living in poverty are simply unmotivated and won’t work as long as they’re receiving government assistance, encourages Americans to support slashing safety net programs that, in actuality,  enable thousands of Americans with jobs to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

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Filed under 2012 Election, Economic Justice, Welfare, Working poor

Pennsylvania Restricts Access to Food Stamps in Tough Economic Times

Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW) under the Corbett Administration plans to implement an asset-based eligibility test by May 2012 that will restrict the number of Pennsylvanians eligible to receive assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is more commonly known as food stamps.  Once the asset test is implemented, families must have less than $2,000 in savings and other assets, and households with seniors must have less than $3,250 in assets, to qualify for food stamps.  Houses, retirement benefits, and a single car would be exempt, but any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 would not.  DPW’s decision to join a minority of states by shifting to an asset test is an example of how DPW’s stereotypical, inaccurate views of the poor lead to selfish, short-sighted policies that will harm Pennsylvania.

The DPW’s rationale for this change is that it will reduce waste, fraud, and abuse, but the facts do not support this argument.  Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians could lose their food stamps with no benefit for Pennsylvania’s taxpayers from this misguided and ill-conceived policy: Pennsylvania already has among the lowest SNAP fraud rates in the country and Pennsylvania will not save a single penny of state money by implementing this change because it will deprive Pennsylvania of federal SNAP dollars and raise administrative costs.  The change will also hurt Pennsylvania’s economy by reducing the economic activity that SNAP generates through community spending.  Furthermore, the asset limit applied in the test—$2,000 for most households and $3,250 for seniors—is outdated, having been originally proposed almost three decades ago, when families could afford more with less money.  The asset test also sends the wrong message by penalizing and discouraging savings, thereby harming hardworking and frugal lower income individuals, including the working poor, individuals who have been laid off recently, and seniors.

Denying food stamps to people who need it exacerbates the effects of poverty, which already disproportionately impacts women, who are more likely than men to face barriers to gainful employment due to discrimination, pregnancy, caretaking responsibilities, and the effects of domestic and sexual violence.  Lower income individuals and families lack access to nutritious food: poorer neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets than wealthier neighborhoods, and nutritious food is generally more expensive than less nutritious food.   This lack of access to nutritious food results in poorer health, including malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many other health conditions.

For the long term health of Pennsylvania’s citizens and its economy, DPW should think twice about limiting the poor’s access to nutritious food.  Urge Governor Corbett to stop efforts to implement this short-sighted, harmful asset test for SNAP.  The change will negatively affect the lives of real people for whom food stamps make the difference between having a nutritious meal and going hungry or resorting to unhealthy but less expensive food options.  The result for Pennsylvania could be an increase in the number of individuals who go hungry and who are more likely to suffer life-long health consequences.

To learn more about Pennsylvania’s proposal to institute a harmful asset test for SNAP benefits, check out the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.  To learn more about the impact of poverty on women’s health, stay tuned for the Women’s Law Project’s forthcoming report, Through the Lens of Equality: Gender Bias, Health, and a New Vision for Pennsylvania’s Women.

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Filed under Economic Justice, Government, Welfare, Working poor

Increasing Number of Homeless Women Veterans

The number of women veterans who become homeless after returning to civilian life is on the rise. This increasing rate of homelessness among women veterans is due to many factors that affect all genders who have served in the military such as brain injuries, drug and alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress.  However, the increase in the homeless women veteran population is also likely due to stresses that disproportionately affect women such as sexual assault, domestic violence, single parenthood, and pregnancy.

As we have reported previously, there is a shockingly high number of servicewomen who are sexually assaulted while in active service and the military has often failed to deal with the crime appropriately. Trying to cope after surviving rape in the military is one factor that is likely to blame for the rise in the women veteran homeless population.  Indeed, the Huffington Post reported “that 20 percent of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have experienced Military Sexual Abuse, a trauma that is more likely to impede a veteran’s transition back to society than a combat-related trauma.”

While some women veterans must try to cope with trauma experienced while in military service, other servicewomen, such as Ruth Donaldson, must try to transition back to civilian life while experiencing violence at home.

Donaldson said she was diagnosed with PTSD [after having served as an ammunition specialist], even though she did not serve in combat. She moved out [of her home] after her then-husband, a soldier, physically abused her, she said.

She managed to get an apartment, but after she lost her gas station job, she couldn’t afford her rent.

A friend told her about Jubilee House [a homeless shelter for female veterans], where Donaldson now has a room for her and her son, Dante.

Like Donaldson, many women veterans find themselves struggling to support not only themselves but children after returning from military service.  Increasing awareness of this issue has produced more homeless shelters that specialize in the type of services women veterans often need, such as beds for their children and care for those who have survived military sexual trauma.  However, shelters that provide these services, while growing in number, are still rare.  Stephanie Felder, the Fayetteville, NC Veteran Affairs homeless program coordinator told the Los Angeles Times that “the community is more aware [of the need for increased services for homeless female veterans]…But there just isn’t [sic] enough beds [in homeless shelters for veterans], especially for women and children.”

The Huffington Post reported that “homelessness among female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has increased every year for the last six years — from 150 in 2006 to 1,700 this year.” To find out more about the needs of homeless veterans, visit the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, Homeless, Military, Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Violence Against Women, Welfare, Women Veterans

PA Department of Public Welfare Blames the Poor and Penalizes the Disabled

On October 26, 2011, Tim Costa, the Executive Deputy Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW), testified about implementation of Governor Tom Corbett’s new state budget, which cut hundreds of millions of dollars from DPW programs that help the poor and disabled.  Costa said:

[T]he welfare system, over time, has contributed to the problems that the country now faces.For years, if not decades, our welfare system has fostered unhealthy levels of dependency and family fragmentation that represents a staggering loss for our country and our state. The reality is that low income individuals today are far less capable of self-reliance – especially in this downturn – than they were when means-tested welfare became a growth industry in the late 1960s. Moreover, a much larger portion of our population today is welfare dependent than it was in 1970. President Reagan once remarked that we “declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” He was and is correct.  Therefore, our long-range challenge is to transform our welfare system so that it becomes part of the solution, not the problem (Costa Testimony PDF).

Invoking the specter of President Reagan, Costa repeats discredited welfare myths that poor people and government programs are primarily to blame for poverty and that anti-poverty programs contribute to the problem (we blogged about a related welfare myth—the “welfare queen”—a year ago).  According to these myths, a reiteration of the controversial “culture of poverty”  arguments popularized in the 1960s, the poor grow dependent on government assistance programs and develop certain behaviors, such as weak work ethics, that keep them in poverty.  Here, Costa uses these stereotypes of the poor to excuse the Corbett Administration and the Pennsylvania General Assembly for turning their backs on the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians in tough economic times.

These myths persist despite no evidence that public assistance actually causes impoverished individuals to choose to stay poor simply to continue receiving welfare.  It is telling that Costa never mentions the welfare amounts supposedly so high that they would compel someone to forgo paid employment: in fact, a mother with two children in most Pennsylvania counties receives a mere $403 a month. It is ludicrous to assume that anyone, much less a parent, would be discouraged from working by such minimal assistance. At current levels, assistance through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is still well below the federal poverty line.  It is more likely that most individuals who stay on public assistance for extended periods of time do so because of real economic problems outside of their control.

As DPW cuts government programs for the poor, more Pennsylvanians are slipping into poverty.  In 2010, the Commonwealth had a 13.4 percent poverty rate .  Poverty disproportionately burdens women, especially single mothers and ethnic minorities, as discrimination, pregnancy, caretaking obligations, and the impact of domestic violence and sexual assault create barriers to gainful employment.  It is particularly difficult to find gainful employment today.  According to a report by the Pew Trust, the percent of unemployed who have been unemployed for more than a year surged recently to over 30 percent, more than double the highest percentage recorded over the past forty years. There are simply too few jobs, and those that exist pay too little for workers to support their families.

Furthermore, cutting DPW programs ignores the economic boost anti-poverty measures can provide: every $5 in new SNAP benefits, for example, translates into $9 of total community spending, as families use their benefits supporting stores, warehouses, truck drivers, and farms.

Costa also boasts in his testimony about the ways in which DPW has turned its back on the disabled and gravely ill by dropping people from Medical Assistance.  Needy and deserving recipients have lost coverage due to minor paperwork errors beyond the individual recipient’s control.  These arbitrary actions, taken under the guise of rooting out “waste and fraud,” have harmed real people, such as children with cerebral palsy who have been wrongly dropped from Medical Assistance. 

With this state budget, the Corbett Administration, DPW, and the General Assembly have let down the people of Pennsylvania.  We need more from our state government than arbitrary practices and excuses for selfish, short-sighted policies.

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Filed under Economic Justice, Government, Pennsylvania, Welfare