Late last year, the Census Bureau reported that during the economic recession from 2006 through 2009, the proportion of families who received cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, increased to from 3.8% to 4.8%. While an increase by one percentage point may not seem like a substantial increase, when digging deeper, according to the Bureau, the source of this increase was not the “stereotypical” welfare family (single-mother families or poor, unemployed, or lazy persons), but married-couple families whom have no history of welfare receipt.
Other recent reports have highlighted those populations who are the most affected by the current economic decline are those we often assume to be the most “secure”, including our elders and suburban neighbors.
This report on TANF participation also looked at the participation of families in other social welfare programs, such as SNAP (Food stamps) and free and reduced-priced school meals programs, and again, middle- and working-class families increasingly sought assistance. Recently, this has proven true even for the community in my own back yard.
Often, even the poorest families in times of economic decline, as well as times of prosperity, are embarrassed to ask for and accept public assistance. Living solely (and purposefully) on welfare assistance is illegal; a myth – and exception to the rule – which historically has served to reinforce privilege, independence and self-sufficiency, and deter people from seeking and obtaining relief. For example, some reports, and critical appraisals of the media depictions of the poor, argue that most poor families suffer no deprivation, but live a comfortable life filled with many of the amenities of their middle- and working-class peers.
While many holes can be poked through these arguments (which will be excluded here), it is true that most poor families in the United States do have a higher standard of living than poor families in other industrial, developing, and third-world countries. According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University, one-sixth of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty on less than $1 per day. Extreme poverty in the United States, comparatively, is 50% of the Federal Poverty Line (about $10,000/year for a family of four, or about $28 per day for the family—about $7 per person). In 2010 this group was composed of nearly 20.5 million people, about 5.5% of all families and 9.5% of those families with children under 18 years of age.
However contrasting the consumption roles of families globally is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Standards of living differ between countries, let alone between regions of countries. Subsisting in Sub-Saharan Africa is much different from subsisting in inner-city or rural areas of the United States; the ability of persons and families to participate in each setting is determined locally, not globally.
This is not to minimize the plight of persons living in oppressive poverty around the globe—the conditions in which they are trying to survive are wrenching.
Rather the point here is to critique the harsh treatment of the poor in the United States. When compared to the standards of living in this country, and not considering the quality of life, our poor populations are held too much higher standards without the means to participate at the same level…unless adequate help is provided.
The Federal Government released preliminary results from the construction of a supplemental poverty measure which includes an analysis of the impact of certain social safety net and assistance programs. It turns out, without programs such as SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit, poverty rates would have been higher in 2009 and 2010. Moreover, expenses for aid paid out-of-pocket, like medical care and costs associated with work and transportation increase the proportion of persons falling below the federal poverty line.
However, even as more “traditional” or “typical” working families seek assistance, the message is clear: rather than generate an atmosphere of support and guidance we reinforce unobtainable consumption norms, including the means to obtain these norms.