Will the 2013 Legislature Thaw Decades of Indifference to Oregon’s Poorest Children?

Chuck Sheketoff

(Click image for larger view or download a PDF of TANF Income Limit Frozen for Over Two Decades.)

In his nomination speech for his second term, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

An example of such indifference can be seen in the Oregon program that serves the greatest number of poor families with children — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF emerged out of nationwide “welfare reform” efforts in the mid-1990s, a rebranding the program called Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). TANF is the centerpiece of the state’s anti-poverty efforts.

For over two decades, however, the Oregon legislature has frozen the dollar amount that a family can earn and still qualify for assistance. To be able to apply for cash and job placement assistance, a family of three can’t earn more than $616 per month. That limit has been in place since July 1991.

Inflation has chewed away at the purchasing power of those $616 dollars. So, families with children today must be a lot poorer to qualify for assistance than in 1991. The limit used to be at 66 percent of poverty; now it is at 38 percent of poverty. Back in 1991 a family of three could work nearly 30 hours a week at a minimum wage job and qualify for assistance; today 16 hours of work at minimum wage cuts off a family.

For the families in deep poverty that meet the income criteria, the Department of Human Services determines whether the family meets other requirements to qualify for temporary, modest cash assistance (about $500/mo for a family of three) and job placement services. (The amount of cash assistance that families receive has also lost purchasing power over the years.)

With the TANF income limit frozen for over two decades, it’s no wonder that Oregon is not making headway against poverty. Oregon is helping fewer poor families than when welfare reform took place.

Isn’t it time for the legislature to thaw the indifference to poor families with children?

The legislature has an opportunity to do so in the current session, but so far the temperature readings aren’t encouraging. Neither Governor Kitzhaber’s proposed budget nor the Ways and Means Co-Chairs’ budget proposes to bring the income limit into the 21st century.

Thawing our TANF program income limit cannot come too soon. After all, indifference today to a program that helps very poor families with children means indifference to Oregon’s future.

Oregon Center for Public PolicyChuck Sheketoff is the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. You can sign up to receive email notification of OCPP materials at www.ocpp.org.

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