Blood, Turkeys and Coats: America’s Answer to a Safety Net

Thanksgiving in the United States each year kicks off a public love-in, stoked by advertisements featuring sad-looking, ill-clad children or grateful looking adults and urging us to remember poor people and to “give” to charities so the “less fortunate” can have a warm, food filled holiday like rest of us. What they are supposed to do the rest of the year is never spoken of.

Despite all the maudlin concern, a more productive way to get poor people a decent existence would be to expose states’ abuse of their poor families via their mismanagement of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF or “welfare reform”) federal block grant they get each year. Most states including New York use the block grants in ways that divert them from their stated purposes, most importantly the provision of cash aid to destitute families. As a result, TANF now helps only a tiny fraction of the poor people in each state. I’m being diplomatic here. What the state governments are doing is everything possible to keep the block grants they are supposed to spend to help their poor stay alive, and eventually use the money for things that have little to do with helping the poor.

In New York state, approximately 2,800,000 people live at or below the poverty line. Only 575,000 of them are enrolled in TANF. Low enrollment in this program is not just going on here, but in most states. In Wyoming, there are 64,000 people living in poverty. 704 of them get TANF. This is not a typo.

This goes on in every state. It is a national emergency obfuscated by politicians and “experts” who insist that low caseloads are a sign that poor people don’t need TANF anymore. Yet while their caseloads shrink, no state is required to return any money, or reduce the amount that it asks for each year. Instead, states use the money on things other than the cash families need, and in some cases, pay for things with their TANF block grants that they are supposed to pay for from state budgets. Expert welfare recipient basher Robert Rector talks about this as a good thing in an article he co-wrote with another welfare reform cheerleader named Katherine Bradley in 2009. Called, “Stronger Welfare Work Requirements Can Help Ailing State Budgets,” it describes how states should restrict help to as few people as possible—including removing American children of undocumented immigrants—so that “services that states fund with their own dollars could be paid for instead with excess TANF dollars.”

Misuse of the grants is worked into the design of TANF, to the glee of those who wish to play fast and loose with the grant. A provision in the legislation allows states to keep “excess” funds even if their caseloads shrink, and to spend them on other “related” programs. Louisiana TANF, one of the worst thieves, still accepted a block grant of $163,000,000 in 2014 even though it has cut the number of Louisiana residents it helps by 91%: only 6,500 of its 155,000 poor families get any TANF at all.

Yet the experts ignore all this, telling us that welfare reform is a success. Robert Doar, former Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Social Services (and thankfully replaced by Steven Banks) left his post upon the election of Bill de Blasio and ran straight to the American Enterprise Institute, a Conservative “think tank” that pays people like Doar to lie about how successful TANF is, and how we need more of the same.

According to Peter Germanis, a policy analyst who is recently working to expose welfare reform as a “massive policy failure,” Doar “relies on outdated research and misleading comparisons to make his point.” Doar never cites facts that would raise immediate concerns for how few poor children are served by TANF. In 1961, welfare benefits went to 96% of poor children. Before this round of welfare reform began in 1996, the program helped 58% of low income children. Today, it helps 28.7% of them. The trend is clearly downward.

But the public need not worry, according to Rector, Doar et al: the season’s favorite ritual, the ridiculous giveaway of turkeys and coats to poor people, can take up the slack while states make off with the federal block grants meant to give cash assistance to poor families.

Even assuming that a turkey and a used coat were all any poor American needed, the process of getting these two items is undignified. Take the coats: in most places, people are required to line up for these, often outside, regardless of weather. This results in old people, ill people, or young people standing in lines in or outside churches and gymnasiums, most others plainly aware of their bleak situation. This humiliation in no way benefits anyone, though it does keep a lot of poor people busy and a lot of well meaning volunteers at least feeling helpful.  The more visible poverty becomes, the more critical these giveaways are perceived to be. Yet they do more harm then good, as they divert attention from the real issue: lack of direct income support to poor people.

The consequences of TANF get worse. Kathryn Edin, who did research to find out what people who do not have any cash income do to survive, explained one thing they do to writer Dylan Matthews of Vox in September: “…there's selling plasma. You can only do it a couple times a week, and it can leave you physically debilitated. You make about $30 a time. It's fascinating sitting in front of the Cleveland Plasma Clinic, watching busload after busload of people get off at the bus stop, and the entire bus walks right into the plasma clinic…” In 2014, while people were selling their plasma to feed their children, Ohio left $79 million of its TANF block grant unspent.

Last year, during the annual collecting of used coats at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, I saw a man without a coat get turned away from a pile of them by a volunteer, who handed him a paper and told him the volunteers were not allowed to give away the coats there, only to collect them. To get a coat, he would have to get on the subway and go to the address they gave him. He said he didn’t have money for subway fare, and could they help him. They said no. The whole time they were speaking, the pile of coats got larger, yet common sense and decency were unable to prevail so that this man could have just one of the coats in front of him.
Then there are the turkeys. An internet search on free turkeys + any state brings up thousands of hits. Places from community centers to firehouses become outposts in the holiday season for this ritual. The Morongo Indians donate turkeys. Farms donate turkeys. Schools donate turkeys. Every year, for example, the Los Angeles Convention Center gives out thousands of turkeys. Churches give turkeys out; charities give turkeys out. Charities give them to churches to give out. Even clothing stores will ask you to donate money at the register so they can give that money to a charity for them to give turkeys out. Or they ask you to bring in a “gently used” coat to give to a poor kid while you buy a new one for you. With all the complex logistics of giving away old coats and turkeys, you may find a Butterball on the counter at a high end retailer or at the entrance to a seasonal hockey game. It gets pretty complicated. Photographers are usually on hand to snap photos that can be used for fundraising brochures.

It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that these giveaways are the least effective way to fight poverty. All this coordinating, transporting and packaging of coats and turkeys clearly tuckers out both the helped and the helpers. It cost money in fuel and labor (even coordinating volunteers costs money). The trucks that lug the coats and turkeys pollute the environment, yet no one who cares about the environment seems to comment on this. Not to mention that the person we expect to doggedly pursue these turkeys and coats may not be able to present herself at the time and place the helpers have available to give these things away, because this person has a paid job, or parenting responsibilities. She may not have the carfare to make the trip. Yes, there really are people that poor in America.

Meanwhile, our other signature poverty aid program, Food Stamps (“SNAP”) has a maximum monthly benefit that is $12 to $95 lower than the United States Department of Agriculture’s official estimate of how much money a person needs to eat for one month. There are also counties all over the nation where fewer than 50 percent of people poor enough to need Food Stamps receive them. However, never satisfied knowing that at least some poor people are scraping by, the same people who have presided over the theft of the funds intended for poor Americas in the TANF program now want you to let them block grant Food Stamps, too. In my fantasy world, we block grant all military spending and divert it to essential human needs like cash assistance. If it were designed like TANF is, states could do that.

When will Americans finally object to the calculated evisceration of the safety net by people and special interests who have no plan to replace it with something superior, efficient, and dignified? When and how will we hold accountable those pundits who use public forums and the reach of think tanks to say poor families are doing fine while every indication is that they are not? Will we also allow the pundits and politicians to further destroy American families by block granting Food Stamps, and even Medicaid, until there is no commitment left to help anyone?

By Diane Pagen, LMSW
Adjunct professor of social policy at Rutgers University Graduate School of Social Work and school social worker in New York City.

Note: most data from the Administration for Children and Families, TANF Financial Data, 2014; and from Germanis, Peter (2015). TANF Is a Massive Policy Failure. All sources can be provided by the author.