What Safety Net?

PORT SULPHUR, LA - MAY 14:  Herschel Barthelemy and sister Jalinh Vasquez walk home in the FEMA Diamond trailer park after ge
PORT SULPHUR, LA - MAY 14: Herschel Barthelemy and sister Jalinh Vasquez walk home in the FEMA Diamond trailer park after getting dropped off by the school bus May 14, 2009 in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. Seven children and four adults from the family are still living in a FEMA trailer after their home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The trailer park used to house hundreds of families but just a few still remain. They are still awaiting money from the federal Road Home program to purchase a new home. Approximately 2,000 families in the New Orleans metropolitan area still live in FEMA trailers nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina. Eighty percent of those still in trailers are homeowners who are unable to return to their storm damaged houses. May 1 marked the end of the Temporary Housing Program for Katrina victims as those still living in the trailers have been given a May 30 deadline to move out or face possible legal action. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The assistance America’s neediest families receive has fallen to historic lows, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s a statistic that should bother us all on a humanitarian and a pragmatic level.

After adjusting for inflation, the authors found that in 37 states the purchasing power of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare) dropped by 20 percent or more since 1996. Buying power for families on public assistance had consistently been eroding for decades before that.

The monthly benefit was less than the fair market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in every state in the union. When adding food stamps into the equation, welfare recipients in all 50 states were still living well below the federal poverty level, often on less than half the poverty level. By the way, the federal poverty level is a horrendously low standard — for example, less than $20,000 for a family of three.

So families across the country are making unacceptable choices: Heat or rent? Food or soap? It's no wonder that the diaper banks I work with around the country report more families asking for assistance. There is a rather popular myth in this country that being on public assistance is a cushy lifestyle. Mothers tell us that they are drying out wet diapers over radiators to reuse them. Not very cushy.

To people living in extreme poverty, even a small bit of help can be transformative. Parents tell us that a box of diapers allowed them to change a baby frequently enough that painful diaper rash cleared up. They also tell us how having a supply of clean diapers lets them get their children into day care so that they can go to job training and other programs that foster independence. (Most child-care programs will not take a child unless parents provide a supply of disposables.)

We know that any kind of help that goes to people in extreme poverty automatically cycles back into the economy. Where a middle- or upper-class person might throw a windfall into savings, a poor person cannot. That money buys new sneakers for the kid who’s been wearing a worn pair that pinches his feet. It puts a more complete meal on the table. It buys diapers. If we want to stimulate the economy, we should stop excluding people from it.

This is personal. None of us needs to travel far to find a neighborhood where children live without basic necessities. There are opportunities for us all to do small things that can dramatically change a child’s life. In no way am I suggesting that this is not also a societal problem. There is something deeply wrong with our national priorities when a family needs to choose between groceries and diapers. We must change that on a macro level. Meanwhile, though, we can all do what we can do. And that is always something.

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