It's not easy for poor people to get cash assistance in America.

Prior to welfare reform in 1996, 68 of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). But by 2010, under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program which replaced AFDC, just 27 of every 100 poor families received benefits. The rolls shrunk as states were given wide discretion over eligibility, benefit levels, time limits, and how to use their TANF block grants which were frozen at 1996 funding levels and not indexed for inflation.
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Georgia is known as a particularly difficult state when it comes to accessing TANF. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), in 2008-09 for every 100 poor families with children in Georgia, only eight received cash aid.

Now the state is set to make its TANF application process even more onerous.

On Monday, Republican Governor Nathan Deal signed a law requiring that people approved for TANF receive a drug test within forty-eight hours. They also have to pay a $17 fee for the test and it isn't refunded, even if a person passes. In addition to the financial burden, forty-eight hours can be tough for someone who may need to arrange for childcare, or find transportation to a testing site.

"In effect it's an application fee," says Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the CBPP. "So in addition to a universal, suspicionless drug test being unconstitutional as an unreasonable search - like we saw with the recent Florida law - the new thing in the Georgia law is adding a fee that isn't refunded even when someone passes the test."

Federal Judge Mary Scriven - an appointee of President George W. Bush - issued a temporary injunction against the Florida drug testing law in October. She ruled that it was likely unconstitutional and "scolded lawmakers," noting that their own pilot program "debunked the assumptions of the State, and likely many laypersons, regarding TANF applicants and drug use." In fact, prior to the injunction, testing demonstrated a lower incidence of substance abuse among TANF recipients than in the general population.

But these laws really have nothing to do with any reality about substance abuse.

"To the extent there are individuals on TANF with substance abuse problems, what you would want to do is identify them and provide treatment," says Schott. "The drug testing bills generally do nothing like that."

To the contrary, the Georgia bill provides no funding for treatment at all. In the event someone is disqualified from receiving benefits, the individual can reapply after providing certification of completed treatment - tough to undertake without any dough. Moreover, every substance abuse treatment facility in the state has awaiting list.

"It's not about doing something about substance abuse," says Schott, "It's about Georgia continuing to make it harder for anyone to get on welfare - trying to get to zero."

Georgia and Florida are hardly alone in pursuing the Druggie Welfare Recipient Boogeyman. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), in 2012 at least twenty-five states introduced legislation related to drug use and the TANF program. The vast majority involved mandatory drug testing of applicants and/or current recipients who would also be required to pay for their own tests. There have also been proposals to require unemployment recipient beneficiaries to take drug tests.

"It's part of a systematic effort to blame individuals who are poor or unemployed for their own situation - even though there's still nearly four people looking for work for every job opening," says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst at CLASP.

The only other state to pass a TANF drug-testing requirement in 2012 is Utah, and it's less draconian than the Florida and Georgia laws. For one thing, it's not a universal test. Utah uses a written questionnaire to screen for illegal drug use - a common practice in many states. More importantly, it pays for substance abuse treatment if someone tests positive.

But this somewhat less offensive approach by Utah - though there is still an argument to be made about whether testing should be undertaken by the state at all - is the exception to the current spate of bills that focuses on testing rather than screening and treatment.

"We've just seen a lot more of these harsh bills in the last two years," says Schott. "Drug-testing, restricting ways you can use TANF benefits, restricting access to cash. They are all a form of creating an untrue perception that TANF benefits are misused - for drugs, gambling, strip clubs, fraud and abuse. All of these bills that address these perceived problems are just creating a climate to erode support for public assistance programs."

Schott's right. But why treat people as worth helping when there is political gain in treating them with suspicion, disdain and moral superiority?

California: Healthy Babies, Healthy Mothers

In California, low-income women who are pregnant for the first time can't receive federal TANF assistance - known as CalWORKs - until they are in their third trimester. When CalWORKs began twenty-five years ago, there was a strong state General Assistance (GA) program to help very poor, childless pregnant women during their first two trimesters until TANF kicked in. But as in most states in the country, California's GA program has deteriorated significantly, so that now many pregnant women face the prospect of zero income during their second trimester.

We now know from research just how important the second trimester is in terms of fetal development, and that proper care at this stage can prevent preterm births and future developmental disabilities - both of which are expensive. In fact, according to the Institute of Medicine and March of Dimes, the average first-year medical costs - including inpatient and outpatient care - are about ten times greater for preterm infants ($32,325) than for term infants ($3,325).

That's why Assemblymember Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles introduced the Healthy Babies-Healthy Mothers Act of 2012 to allow for pregnant women with no other children in the household to become eligible for CalWORKs upon verification of the pregnancy. The assistance is about $350 per month - still far below "deep poverty," which is less than half the federal poverty level, but better than zero income.

"The bill grew out of seeing more pregnant women struggling with zero benefits during their second trimester," says Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which is a sponsoring organization of the bill. "For many, many reasons this bill makes a lot of sense for poor pregnant women."

Although Democrats don't need bipartisan support to pass a law in California, proponents of the bill were hopeful they would get it. After all, the science on the impact of stress on fetal development is pretty clear, as are the associated fiscal costs of fetal distress.

But when committee hearings began, Republican Assemblywoman Shannon Grove of Bakersfield argued vehemently against it.

"Why aren't we working on legislation that will help people succeed and get out of that situation, instead of telling them that government will solve all of their problems?" she said. "Let's teach them that the world is at their fingertips."

"That's a bill you should consider introducing and I'd love to be part of that public policy dialogue," said Assemblymember Mitchell. "The point of this bill is recognizing that women who are eligible for financial support from CalWORKs should have access early enough to help improve [their child's] birth outcome. That's the only issue this bill is attempting to address."

Grove also told Mitchell that "out of wedlock birth rates have soared among women of color or minority women in poverty situations." Mitchell is a woman of color and an unwed mother. Grove tried to clarify. "It's not just a race issue though because even Caucasian families as well, out of wedlock births have also soared," she said.

Grove also commented that if indeed the fetuses are counted as "eligible for benefits or life" then aborting them would be "murder."

"So now every committee member was fired up," says Bartholow. "And in an unusual move for this particular committee, every supporting member made a statement - talking about poor women in their districts and how they are struggling to have healthy babies when they don't have income."

In the end, the bipartisan support that bill proponents had hoped for didn't materialize. The legislation was approved by a 4-2 party line vote.

"The hearing devolved into somewhat of a circus," says Bartholow. "But at the same time, it was also an interesting nugget of the kinds of conversations that are happening nationally between conservatives and liberals about poverty."

In the next two weeks, the Appropriations Committee will decide whether to send the bill to the floor for a vote. There is a new possible sticking point: the committee is asking whether $350 is truly sufficient to reduce stress and consequent harm to the fetus in the second trimester.

"We have to think the difference between zero and $350 would be enough to move the needle," says Bartholow. "But the committee staff is correct in positing that it doesn't get the woman and her fetus out of danger."

California readers can get involved in advocating for this modest support for very poor, first-time mothers and their babies. These next few weeks are critical in making a difference in birth outcomes for the most vulnerable Californians.

Further Learning

"For Homeless Dad, Nothing Is Easy," Petula Dvorak
"Keeping a Promise to Home Care Aides," New York Times editorial
"How to Grow the Middle Class," Harold Meyerson
"The Real Hunger Games," Melissa Boteach and Seth Hanlon
"Antipoverty Tax Program Offers Relief, Though Often Temporary," Sabrina Tavernise
"WORK Act Would Give Low-Income Moms Same Option As Ann Romney," Ryan Grim
"Federal Study on Effectiveness of Food Stamps Absent from TV News," Media Matters
Romney's Double Standard on Working Moms, Up w/ Chris Hayes

Upcoming Event

The Transformation of Poverty Governance: A Panel Discussion: Monday, April 23, 12:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m., Bryn Mawr College. Discussion of Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (Chicago, 2011), by Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram.

Notable Studies

"The Ongoing Impact of Foreclosures on Children," First Focus. This report reveals that an estimated 8 million children will be directly impacted by the mortgage crisis. Of the 8 million children affected, 2.3 million have already lost their homes. Three million more children are at serious risk of losing their homes, and an additional 3 million have been evicted, or may face eviction, from rental properties that undergo foreclosures. This is the first study to quantify the children in rental units affected by foreclosure. There are also companion policy recommendations here.

"Doing Without: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans: Race," Wider Opportunities for Women. This report examines economic security among African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans who live alone or with their spouses and are ages 65 and older. It reveals that 76 percent of Hispanic retiree households, 74 percent of African-American retiree households and 65 percent of Asian retiree households have incomes that fall short of covering the basic expenses.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Women over 65 living without economic security: 60 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high - nearly 30 percent of population.

Quote of the Week

"Just three months before [Mitt Romney] said all stay at home Moms are working moms, he said he wants to make parents of kids as young as two 'go to work' so that they could 'have the dignity of work.' This genuinely angers me... It seems to me that there's a double standard about what we call work: that when it's a very poor mother with three kids at home, it is not work. She needs to learn the dignity of work. But when it is an extremely wealthy woman with five kids at home, that is work.... I just find the double standard that has crept into this conversation and not been identified really maddening."
- Chris Hayes, Up w/ Chris Hayes

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me and follow me on Twitter.