Tag Archives: Poverty

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

Study Shows Importance of Medical Insurance for Poor as PA Cuts $400 Million from Welfare

“The first rigorously controlled assessment of the impact of Medicaid” recently revealed that when the poor are provided with medical insurance, “they not only find regular doctors and see doctors more often but they also feel better, are less depressed and are better able to maintain financial stability.”

However, despite the obvious benefits of providing insurance for the poor, recent Pennsylvania legislation mandates a $400 million cut from that state’s welfare budget. Richard P. Weishaupt, senior attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the bill will “dramatically increase child care co-payments, cut Medicaid benefits, change the rules for welfare-to-work programs to eliminate training and educational programs, and reduce eligibility for benefits.”

The study by the National Bureau of Economic Research is the first to research the effects of insurance coverage on randomly-selected individuals. Previously, studying a population in which some participants are given insurance and some are not would have been impossible as it is “unethical to devise a study that would explicitly deny some people coverage while giving it to others.” However, in 2008, Oregon wanted to expand its Medicaid coverage but could only afford to add 10,000 residents to the program. Nearly 90,000 people applied. The state decided to select who would receive benefits by lottery. Economists studied the quality of life of both those who received and those who did not receive Medicaid in the two years before the state of Oregon came up with the money to offer insurance to those who had not received coverage through the lottery.

The study found that those with Medicaid were 35% more likely to go to a clinic or see a doctor, 15% more likely to use prescription drugs, and 30% more likely to be admitted to a hospital. The likelihood that Medicaid recipients said their health was good or excellent increased by 25% and they were 40% less likely to say that there health had worsened in the last year than those without insurance. Among women in the study, those with Medicaid were 60% more likely to have mammograms, 20% more likely to have their cholesterol checked, 70% more likely to have a particular clinic or office for medical care and 55% more likely to have a personal doctor. The researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research are now assessing the health effects of insurance for the poor.

However, despite the evidence that providing health insurance to the underprivileged is very beneficial, $400 million is going to be cut from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare budget. Currently, 52.2% of Pennsylvania’s welfare budget is dedicated to Medicaid. Over two million Pennsylvanians receive Medicaid benefits and 2,534,761 individuals receive cash assistance or are beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as food stamps). All of these state citizens will have their benefits cut without guarantee of legislative oversight or opportunity for public comment, Weishaupt said.

Decreased access to benefits which are proven to improve quality of life will be especially harmful for women. The National Institute for Reproductive Health has found that (PDF):

Women are particularly at risk [for being uninsured], with over 17 million women uninsured. Women often rely on a spouse for health coverage, and should they become widowed or divorced, they are susceptible to losing that insurance. Without insurance, women do not receive preventive care and lack security in maintaining their health.

NIRH also found that women of color, young women, and low-income women are especially at risk of being uninsured. Though unemployed and part-time working women are more likely to be uninsured, the majority of uninsured women are in working families.

To learn about how welfare funds are currently distributed, click here [PDF].

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Filed under Government, Health insurance, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Welfare, Women's health

The Paradox of Eating Healthy

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, traditionally known as food stamps, have been providing low-income families with affordable grocery assistance for years. Recently, the Nation examined the difficult reality of trying to eat healthy when you’re on SNAP.

In 2009, the average SNAP recipient received $124.31 per month, which averaged out to less than two dollars per meal. Researchers have studied the link between obesity and food stamps, and in the summer of 2009, Ohio State University released a study showing “that the body mass index (BMI) of program participants is more than one point higher than nonparticipants at the same income level. The longer one is on food stamps, the higher the BMI rises.” People who receive SNAP benefits are conscious of unhealthy food choices they might be making, but they simply cannot afford to eat otherwise.

Farmers markets have taken the lead to combat this problem. Recently the Food and Nutrition service made it possible to use SNAP benefits at farmers markets. Markets accept the EBT card issued to SNAP recipients which functions like a debit card. An additional 30 cents is added to the recipient’s SNAP balance for every dollar spent on fruits and vegetables.

According to the Farmers Market Coalition, the new program has been extremely beneficial to vendors as well as recipients. Pennsylvania SNAP manager Susan Richards expects that the acceptance of these cards will boost sales at farmers markets, support local agriculture and encourage people to buy locally.

Overall the program has proved to be successful:

Over the past five years, the number of farmers markets increased 250 percent.  In 2009 alone, 949 farmers’ markets participated in SNAP and more SNAP benefits were redeemed at farmers’ markets in the fiscal year 2009 during October than any other month of the year…Currently, there are more than 1,100 farmers markets and farm stands across the country using EBT machines.  As of May 2, 2010, there were 1,156 authorized farmers’ markets enrolled in SNAP and of the 3,153 counties in the United States, 496 have at least one EBT-authorized market.

SNAP recipients and families living in poverty should not be shut out of eating healthy because fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive. Accepting SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets and providing incentives for recipients to do so are great first steps in ensuring that all Americans have access to fresh, healthy, local foods.

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Filed under Pennsylvania

Governor’s Budget Includes Decrease for Cash Assistance Program

Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed budget for 2011-12 has been released, and it shows interesting trends in funding to the Department of Public Welfare. The governor has proposed increasing funds for Medicaid, which is a good development for the state.

Enrollment in Medical Assistance is projected to increase in 2011-12 by 4.5% to 2,273,555 Pennsylvanians. Overall state funding for MA is $5.2 billion in the budget plan, reflecting the expected increase in enrollment and additional utilization costs. It also reflects a significant increase in state funding to make up for lost FMAP funding.

Unfortunately, cash assistance grants, meant to help families in need cover basic living expenses like housing, utilities, clothing, and more, have still not increased. It has been over 21 years since there was an increase in cash assistance levels on January 1, 1990. The grant levels that families (who are overwhelmingly single mothers with one or two children) receive are too low to begin with and their real value, when adjusted for inflation, gets lower and lower each year. The number of families and individuals needing assistance is expected to increase this year:

Enrollment in cash assistance programs is projected to increase slightly in 2011-12 to 256,005. Funding for cash grants, however, was cut by 10% to $249 million.

In this proposed budget, the governor’s office has ignored the situation of today’s needy families. It is time to provide those who have fallen on hard time with the assistance they need to survive and the real ability to escape the cycle of poverty.

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Filed under Pennsylvania, Welfare

Debunking the Myth of the “Welfare Queen”: Who Actually Receives TANF Benefits?

In February of this year, a blogger wrote about their experience observing an 11th grade classroom. The post discusses a student performing a poem that mocks a poor woman who encourages her seven children to steal food. When the character confronts police officers and runs into the drug-addict father of her children, she delivers the punch line – “You can have my welfare check!”

According to the post’s author, when asked who the poem was referring to, the student said “Minorities, because they’re the main ones on welfare.”

Besides the obviously skewed viewpoint the poem expresses, it is alarming to note that the girl reading the poem was one of two black students in the classroom – the rest being white.

This unsettlingly common view of cash assistance recipients in the U.S. dates back to the 1976 presidential campaign, when Ronald Reagan popularized a hyperbolic framework for female welfare recipients known as the “welfare queen.” The stereotype is sexist, racist, and belittles the legitimacy of cash assistance programs, criminalizing and disparaging those in need.

While the infamous star of the “welfare queen” narrative, cruising around in her “welfare Cadillac” was nowhere to be found by the national media, the fictional picture of lower class minority women abusing the system that gives them monthly “hand-outs” continues to shape the way Americans think about welfare recipients. Moreover, this misconception adversely affects the largest demographic benefitting from cash assistance – children.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Government, Pennsylvania, Politics, Welfare

New Census Figures on Poverty Paint a Bleak Picture for Women

The U.S. Census Bureau released new statistics on poverty last week, revealing a dismal picture for women and families across the country. The number of people living in poverty increased from 39.8 million in 2008 to 43.6 million in 2009 – in real terms, that means that one out of every seven Americans is living in poverty. The full report can be accessed here [PDF].

Of all types of households, the ones headed by women claim the lowest median earnings: the 20.6 million single women not living with family members have a median income of $25,269, while the 14.5 million families headed by women have a median income of $32,597.

Contrast those figures with the median incomes for single male households ($36,611), families with a single male householder ($48,084), and married-couple households ($71,830).

For single women raising children, the picture is even bleaker: 29.9% of female-headed households live below the federal poverty line. By contrast, 11.1% of all families are in poverty, and for married-couple families, that percentage drops to 5.8%.

The gender wage gap didn’t significantly change last year:

Both men and women, 15 years old and over, who worked full-time, year-round experienced increases in real median earnings between 2008 and 2009. The median earnings of men increased 2.0 percent, from $46,191 to $47,127; and the earnings of women increased by 1.9 percent, from $35,609 to $36,278. In 2009, the female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.77, not statistically different from the 2008 ratio.

Breakdowns by state and county will be available later this year. In 2008, 12.1% of Pennsylvanians lived below the poverty line.

These figures are depressing, but not hopeless. There are several things you can do to show your support for equal pay and giving single mothers the help they need to get out of poverty:

  • Let your elected officials know that you support the Paycheck Fairness Act. The PFA would strengthen the Equal Pay Act and proposes voluntary guidelines for employers to follow in evaluating jobs and eliminating sex-based pay disparities for the same work.
  • Tell Congress that the safety net is failing women and families. This report [PDF] from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research describes the many ways that the systems set up to help people in need are failing women and children. The U.S. Senate Finance Committee is holding a hearing on September 21 on “Welfare Reform: A New Conversation on Women and Poverty.” You can submit written comments here.
  • If you’re in Pennsylvania, you can urge our gubernatorial candidates to pledge to raise cash assistance levels in their budget proposals to the state legislature. Contact Republican Tom Corbett here and email Democrat Dan Onorato here.


Filed under Equal pay, Pennsylvania

New year, same cash assistance benefits

Happy New Year! We hope you enjoyed your holidays.

While January 1 marked the beginning of a year in which we’ll see a new president sworn in and more women in high-ranking positions in the U.S. government, it also marks the 19th year in which cash assistance benefits in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have remained the same. That’s right – the poorest families in our state who are struggling to keep up with the spiraling cost of living have been receiving the exact same grant amounts for almost two decades. The benefits don’t increase with inflation either, and a dollar doesn’t go nearly as far in 2009 as it did in 1990.

For further information, see this op-ed written by WLP Program Assistant Christina Cann that was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August. An excerpt:

Even the federal government acknowledges that a family of three is living under the poverty line if their monthly income is $1,467 or less. Shamefully, that same family could receive no more than $403 per month in cash assistance in Pennsylvania, a small fraction of the federal poverty line.

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Filed under Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Welfare