The Tennessean, May 28, 2008: Don’t forget that welfare is about well-being

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The tentacles of today’s economic tailspin are far-reaching, curling around all facets of our lives. Gas prices and health-care costs gouge our pockets. Our plates are not as full and investments aren’t worth as much. We feel it.

But for those teetering at the precipice between deep poverty and a chance for prosperity, the tentacles are tighter, stronger and more crushing. The working poor put in long hours for low pay with few if any benefits. Their jobs are expendable and their children’s chances for success are fragile. They include the 20 percent of Tennesseans living in poverty, a full two-thirds of them working, and 37 percent of our children (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2004, and the Working Poor Families Project).

“Welfare,” properly known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), is in the news because of a slight national increase, after nearly two decades of declines, in applications as reported by USA Today. States are bracing for consequences of our economic downturn.

As a backdrop, please know I hate the word “welfare” and I love it, too. The true meaning of the word is “well-being,” and has been used for hundreds of years to refer to the “public good.” It is a vision for a strong society. In fact, every Tennessee law ends in the words “the public welfare requiring it.”

Most people don’t realize “welfare” is radically different from years past. It is primarily a job-placement and support model for 28,960 Tennessee participants, most unskilled and reading below the ninth grade level, with work requirements and a five-year time limit.

Tennessee’s TANF will be challenged to find work for those already in the program and to help single parents losing jobs in the downturn. In all reality, many families displaced by the economy, specifically two-parent families, will likely not be eligible for TANF in Tennessee.

In the short term, they will turn to families, friends and other programs, if they qualify. For long-term results, state budget cuts to education initiatives for at-risk children, pre-K expansion and health care are devastating. Early intervention to shape young lives is essential.

When one among us falls, we all do. A public will to make a change will “lift” Tennessee for not only those struggling now, but for your children and grandchildren: “The public welfare requiring it.”

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