'At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
"Are there no prisons?"
Ebenezer Scrooge's response in Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol doesn't exemplify America's approach to poverty. But too little attention is being paid to the poor in the current economic crisis.
Welfare reforms made in the mid-1990s when the economy was sprouting jobs must be reassessed. America today is shedding jobs like it's the 1930s, when welfare was born. At least a dozen states have reported increases in their welfare rolls. Other states are seeing growing numbers of welfare applicants.
When President Clinton engineered welfare reform in 1996, the economy had plenty of jobs. So, the new rules placed a time limit on the assistance that recipients could receive and required them to find a job or get training leading to a job while they were on welfare.
Welfare caseloads dropped dramatically because people did find work. But with the unemployment rate being predicted by some analysts to reach 9 percent by the end of 2009, many former welfare recipients are going back on the dole and being joined by new clients.
Great Britain is in a similar situation, with Parliament debating proposed welfare reform that would require single mothers with pre-school children to find work. "It is vital in this recession that we at the very least don't do anything that makes our broken society worse," said Tory leader David Cameron.
That must be the directive for U.S. leaders, too. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that if the unemployment rate does reach 9 percent next year, the number of Americans living in poverty could grow by up to 10 million.
Welfare recipients will need more time to find work or be trained. But Congress should also see if it can increase welfare benefits.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is the program that has replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). But TANF serves only 40 percent of eligible families and TANF benefits in every state except Alaska only provide an income that's less than half the federal poverty level.
More money is also needed for food stamps. Benefits were cut when welfare reform occurred, but no subsequent adjustments for inflation have been made. Today, it would cost a family $430 a month above its food-stamp allotment to afford a USDA-approved diet.
President-elect Obama's economic recovery package will create jobs. But until those jobs exist, welfare reform as we know it must be changed. People must be given adequate time to find work, and more help to shelter and feed their families. Those steps are as important to the nation's future as bailing out banks and carmakers.