Monday, May 12, 2008

New State Responses to the Working (Rural) Poor

A story by Rachel Swarns in today's New York Times reports on state programs to assist the working poor. A graphic accompanying the story shows states that have either implemented these programs or are considering them.

Many of these programs have been implemented to respond to two phenomena: (1) the consequences of welfare reform, which was initiated in 1996, and (2) more recently, the economic downturn. Jack Tweedie of the National Conference of State Legislatures counsels states, including Arkansas, on poverty issues. He says that while the prior goal was getting parents off welfare, “the emphasis now is much more on work and helping parents stay in work.” As Swarns is quick to note, these programs are not entirely altruistic. To the extent that the programs keep people working and off welfare, they protect states' funding from the federal government. She writes:

Advocates for low-income families point out, however, that benefits are so low in some states that officials seem to be more focused on meeting federal work requirements than on helping the working poor. Federal officials say the programs may siphon money from the welfare recipients they were intended to serve.

Some of the state programs offer a mere pittance to recipients. Massachusetts, for example, pays just $7/month to food stamp recipients, and Michigan provides just $10/month for 6 months. As Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Priorities expresses it, one issue is "how rich is the benefit? Is it nominal, or is it an amount that will really help?”

While the anecdotes offered by Swarns are all urban (Little Rock area, in particular), I note that most of the states that have implemented such "safety nets" or which are considering them are states popularly thought of as rural and/or with significant rural populations. Swarns focuses on the Arkansas program, which is one of the more generous. It pays $204/month for up to 24 months. Among the other generous programs are those in Utah, Oregon, North Dakota, and New Mexico -- also states with very large rural populations. I wonder if this is a coincidence or reflects state lawmakers' understanding of the added burden that welfare reform placed on the rural poor.

No comments: