Please welcome Guest Blogger Philip Cohen.  Cohen offered an excellent, data-driven takedown of the suggestion that the U.S. has offered poor families an effective safety net during this economic downturn.  We are happy to reproduce it here.

Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches classes in demography, social stratification, and the family.  You can visit him at his blog, Family Inequality, and see his previous posts on SocImages here, here, and here.

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Keeping a trend in perspective.

The sociologist down the hall pointed out that yesterday’s chart gave the impression of a whopping increase in TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) support for poor families. But I have been complaining since December 2008 that the welfare system is not responding adequately to the recession’s effects on poor single mothers and their children. I wrote then:

We now appear headed back toward a national increase in TANF cases. But the restrictive rules on work requirements and time limits are keeping many families that need assistance out of the program…. If the government can extend unemployment benefits during the crisis, why not impose a moratorium on booting people from TANF?

So it does seem contradictory that I would post a chart yesterday showing a huge increase in TANF family recipients, and continue the same complaint. So let me put it in better perspective. It’s a good lesson for me on the principles of graphing data, which I have made a point of picking on others for.

Height and width

There were two problems with yesterday’s chart. First, the vertical scale only ran from 1.6 million to 1.9 million families. Second, the horizontal scale only ran for 26 months. I’ll correct each aspect in turn to show their effects. Here’s yesterday’s chart:

It sure looks like a dramatic turnaround. And any turnaround is a big deal. I wrote last year:

What should be striking in this is that the rolls are increasing even as the punitive program rules continue to pull aid from families according to the draconian term limits dreamed up by Gingrich, ratified by Clinton and endorsed by Obama — 2 years continuous, 5 years lifetime in the program. The current stimulus package includes more money for TANF, to help cover an expected growth in families applying — but no rule change to permit families to keep their support in the absence of available jobs.

But, run the vertical axis down to zero, and the same trend is not so dramatic:

Now the big bounce since July 2008 is put in perspective. We’ve seen a 16% increase since that bottom point, but the response seems much more modest in light of the size and impact of the Great Recession we’ve come to know.

In fact, though, the longer-term view underscores how paltry that response has really been. Back the chart up to 1996, and you can see how small the increase has been compared with the pre-draconian reform period:

All three images are correct, but their emphasis is different. To me, the important take-home message from this trend is, “That’s it? The greatest economic recession since the Great Depression, and our welfare response was that measly uptick? Our system really is a shambles.”

One important issue remains, however, and that is some measure of the need for welfare. So consider the number of single-parent families below the poverty line, compared with the number of families receiving TANF (formerly AFDC):

Now the story is much more clear.

After welfare reform in 1996, the number of families receiving welfare was cut by half in just a few years. At the same time, however, the number in poverty dropped. Since then, as the number in poverty has increased, the number on welfare has not. The two trends appeared to be uncoupled through most of the 2000s. In the last year we’ve seen the first increase in TANF numbers since 1996, but nowhere near enough to meet the increase in poor single-parent families.*

It is still the case that, although the stimulus bill allocated more money to TANF, the punitive rules and term limits have not been changed. So the system does not address longer-term poverty — something we should expect to see much more of in the next few years.

*We don’t have the official 2009 poverty rates yet, since they are compiled from a survey done in March 2010, to be released this fall.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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