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How the Shutdown Is Hurting Low-Income Families

We’re on Day 4 of the first federal government shutdown in 17 years. Here in D.C., the subway and the streets are noticeably emptier without thousands of federal workers on the job. And while a few might be enjoying their time off to take advantage of the shutdown-themed happy hours around town, most are worried about the financial consequences of a prolonged shutdown for themselves and their families (especially since many have already faced pay freezes and furloughs thanks to the sequester and other budget cuts).

But it’s not just the 800,000 furloughed federal workers who are affected by the shutdown. Some federal contractors won’t get paid, either – including workers making close to minimum wage who are unlikely to have much in the way of savings to fall back on. And low-income families who depend on federally funded programs are suffering, too. For example:

Why the Tennessee Legislature Has My Blood Boiling

A number of state Senators and Representatives in Tennessee have identified a serious problem – Tennessean children aren’t doing that well in school. And they’re right. Tennessee earned a C+ this year on Education Week’s State Report Card and Tennessee’s average ACT score ranks 48th out of 51.

Unfortunately, their solution is simply absurd. There is a bill [PDF] that has cleared committee in both the Tennessee House and Senate that would “fix” the perennial underperformance of students by linking a student’s academic performance to his/her family’s government supports. Specifically it would cut a family’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits by 30 percent if their children “are not making satisfactory progress in school.”

WHAT?! (Let’s keep in mind that in TN, TANF benefits max out at $185/month, we aren’t talking about anyone living large off of a government program.)

I couldn’t neatly package all of my rage into nicely organized paragraphs, so here are the top three reasons why this idea makes me think my head is going to explode…

  1. The bill claims the cut to benefits wouldn’t apply if the student has a learning disability. Newsflash – not every child that has a learning disability has been properly screened and diagnosed. When I was a teacher in a low-income school, I taught students that had “highly likely to be dyslexic” results on their preliminary screenings. But in order to be officially classified as dyslexic they had to take a specific exam administered by a diagnostician.  Those exams cost thousands of dollars so none of my students could be properly diagnosed, therefore they couldn’t receive any special services, and they didn’t make adequate progress over the year. The families of those kiddos, if they lived in TN under this law, would have lost vital TANF dollars that helped them barely scrape by.

Dear Governor: Slashing Income Taxes Hurts the Neediest Kansans

Kansas governor Sam Brownback wants to eliminate the state income tax. Yes, you read that correctly. The governor wants to join the small list of states that have chosen to eliminate a crucial revenue stream. In 2012, Governor Brownback sharply cut income tax rates to the tune of $850 million dollars in lost revenue for the coming fiscal year. Amid those big tax cuts that primarily benefit high-earners, he found time to eliminate tax provisions that benefit low-income Kansans, including a refund of sales tax paid on food and a state tax credit for child and dependent care expenses.

Consider these numbers: The poorest 20 percent of Kansans will spend, on average, an additional $148 per year on taxes because of the repeal of tax provisions aimed at low-income people. This is a significant blow to women and female-headed families in Kansas,  13.8 percent and 40.9 percent of whom live in poverty. Meanwhile, the richest one percent of Kansans will save an average of $21,087 per year on their state income taxes. As one Kansas state legislator told the New York Times, this tax package is “Robin Hood in reverse.” Read more »

A Vacation Education on the Welfare Debate

Ah, August. Congress is out, traffic is a (relative) breeze, and I’m feeling refreshed after a relaxing family vacation that involved lots of lazy beach time and zero talk of what was happening back at the office.

…Well, maybe not zero. One thing I’ve found about devoting your career to really interesting women’s issues is that it’s not unusual for conversations with friends and family to wind up delving into those very same issues. Especially if, say, I’m in a house with 20 or so family members from across the country who want to know more about what’s going on in Washington.  

My family is full of bright, interesting people who are pretty on top of current events and have a range of perspectives on the issues. Previous gatherings have involved talk of taxes, health care policy, climate change, and the need to reform agricultural practices. This year, the subject of welfare came up – and so did some misinformation about a recent proposal from the Obama administration to allow states to waive certain work participation requirements under the federal welfare program (known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF). Read more »

Alabama Legislators Consider Ways to Cut the Budget – and Increase Poverty for Women and Kids

While Washington begins debate on an FY 2013 budget proposal that would slash federal safety net programs (and everything else), some states facing projected budget shortfalls in FY 2013 have already proposed draconian cuts of their own. Alabama is one of those states, and as Greg Kaufman recently reported in The Nation, the steps Alabama’s legislature takes over the next few months to close its FY 2013 budget gap could be disastrous for struggling women and their families.

For example, at a hearing late last month, a state legislator with a lead role in budget drafting suggested that a 25 percent cut to general fund revenues flowing to the state’s Department of Human Resources (DHR) is likely next year. That’s a huge cut – so huge that the Commissioner of DHR, Nancy Buckner, testified that she would be forced to entirely eliminate the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and child support enforcement programs.

Shutting down these programs would be devastating for vulnerable families in Alabama. Read more »

Child Care Cuts Continue in 2012

As 2012 begins, states are continuing to make, or propose, cuts to child care. Maryland’s waiting list for child care assistance, started last year, has grown to over 14,000 children. California’s governor has proposed to reduce spending for child care and early education by $517 million, which would deprive 62,000 children of the opportunity to participate in these programs. Washington’s governor has proposed to cut funding for child care assistance by $50 million, which would result in 4,000 fewer children receiving help.

A CNN story aired this weekend demonstrates what these cuts mean for parents who need help affording child care so they can hold onto their jobs and make sure their children are in care that nurtures their growth and learning. Read more »

More Must-Pass Legislation for Women: The Pathways Back to Work Act

Congressional coverage this week has focused on the continuing debate in the super-committee and the just-passed spending bill that counts tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable in school lunches. It’s hardly a wonder that Congress’s recent approval ratings have been as low as 9 percent; more people approve of turning the U.S. into a communist country than approve of the job Congress is doing.

But there really are Members of Congress who are trying to do the right thing for the country – like helping the nearly 14 million women and men who are unemployed. Last week, I wrote about the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act, which would maintain vital federal unemployment benefits for workers who have been unemployed for more than six months. And this week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the Pathways Back to Work Act (S. 1861), a bill that would create employment and training opportunities for jobless workers, including those who have exhausted UI benefits or who have insufficient work experience or earnings to qualify for UI. (Rep. George Miller has introduced a similar bill, H.R. 3425, in the House.)

The $5 billion Pathways Back to Work Fund established by the bill includes: Read more »

Weakness in the Safety Net – TANF

In a recent blog post, I explored how new poverty data demonstrate the necessity of maintaining important safety net programs. Social Security, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, and SNAP (food stamps) have played an important role in keeping millions out of poverty and lessening the severity of poverty for millions more. However, another important part of the safety net, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF – the program that replaced welfare in 1996), has been less effective during these difficult economic times. TANF provides block grants to states to fund cash assistance, work supports, and other services for low-income children and parents. This post will begin to explore how and why TANF has failed to respond to a continuing economic crisis for women and families. Read more »