Faced with flat federal financing and rising need, Arizona is one of 16 states that have cut their welfare caseloads further since the start of the recession — in its case, by half. Even as it turned away the needy, Arizona spent most of its federal welfare dollars on other programs, using permissive rules to plug state budget gaps.
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.
Critics of the stringent system say stories like these vindicate warnings they made in 1996 when President Bill Clinton fulfilled his pledge to “end welfare as we know it”: the revamped law encourages states to withhold aid, especially when the economy turns bad.
The old program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, dates from the New Deal; it gave states unlimited matching funds and offered poor families extensive rights, with few requirements and no time limits. The new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, created time limits and work rules, capped federal spending and allowed states to turn poor families away.
President Obama spoke favorably of the program in his 2008 campaign — promoting his role as a state legislator in cutting the Illinois welfare rolls. But he has said little about it as president.
In a twist on poverty politics, poor single mothers, previously chided as “welfare queens,” were celebrated as working-class heroes, with their stories of leaving the welfare rolls cast as uplifting tales of pluck. Flush with federal money, states experimented with programs that offered counseling, clothes and used cars.
But if the rise in employment was larger than predicted, it was also less transformative than it may have seemed. Researchers found that most families that escaped poverty remained “near poor.”
The recession that began in 2007 posed a new test to that claim. Even with $5 billion in new federal funds, caseloads rose just 15 percent from the lowest level in two generations. Compared with the 1990s peak, the national welfare rolls are still down by 68 percent. Just one in five poor children now receives cash aid, the lowest level in nearly 50 years.
As the downturn wreaked havoc on budgets, some states took new steps to keep the needy away. They shortened time limits, tightened eligibility rules and reduced benefits (to an average of about $350 a month for a family of three).
Many people already found the underlying system more hassle than help, a gantlet of job-search classes where absences can be punished by a complete loss of aid. Some states explicitly pursue a policy of deterrence to make sure people use the program only as a last resort.
Clarence H. Carter, Arizona’s director of economic security, says finances forced officials to cut the rolls. But the state gets the same base funding from the federal government, $200 million, that it received in the mid-1990s when caseloads were five times as high. (The law also requires it to spend $86 million in state funds.)
Arizona spends most of the federal money on other human services programs, especially foster care and adoption services, while using just one-third for cash benefits and work programs — the core purposes of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. If it did not use the federal welfare money, the state would have to finance more of those programs itself.
“Yes, we divert — divert’s a bad word,” said State Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican and chairman of the Arizona House Appropriations Committee. “It helps the state.”
While federal law allows such flexibility, critics say states neglect poor families to patch their own finances. Nationally, only 30 percent of the welfare money is spent on cash benefits.