Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Stateline exposes use of TANF as a child welfare slush fund

Billions of dollars that should be used to help poor people become self-sufficient are routinely diverted to fund child abuse investigations, foster care, and adoption. 

            For at least 14 years, I’ve been writing about how the federal welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, has become a child welfare slush fund. 

            Billions of dollars that should be used to help poor people become self-sufficient are routinely diverted to fund child abuse investigations, foster care, and adoption.  Reporting requirements are vague and details are scarce, but we know this much: In 2016, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, of the $13.5 billion in federal funds spent each year on the child welfare system, (or as Prof. Dorothy Roberts more accurately calls it, the “family regulation system,”) 20 percent - $2.7 billion -- came from money that was supposed to help poor people to, among other things, keep their children out of the family regulation system.  I explained how the TANF child welfare slush fund works in detail for Youth Today in 2010 and again in 2016

Even without counting TANF, this year the federal government is expected to spend nearly $12 on foster care and adoption for every dollar spent on prevention and family preservation.  The gap has actually worsened from four years ago when it was “only” 10 to 1.  Now, add to the foster care / adoption / child protective services side of the ledger up to $2.7 billion* in TANF money that should have gone to impoverished families. As I noted in 2010, had Madonna decided to adopt a child from Michigan instead of Malawi, she would have been eligible for a subsidy – paid for with federal TANF funds.

            And now we know more. Stateline, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has published an excellent investigative report by Jenni Bergal, all about the legal, but flagrantly immoral, diversion of TANF funds for all sorts of purposes.  (It’s amazing how many ways states can find to make poor people subsidize the rest of us.)  The practice is so despicable that it was denounced across the political spectrum, by scholars from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, to the American Enterprise Institute to the Heritage Foundation.

            Here are the highlights specific to child welfare:

            Let’s start with Arizona, where at least eight caseworkers, almost the entire investigative staff of one child protective services office, dressed in T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional Kidnapper.” The workers were fired, but only because they were dumb enough to literally wear their sentiments on their sleeves.  The numbers back up the words – Arizona tears apart families at a rate nearly 50 percent above the national average – but no one else has been fired for it.

            Now we know the extent to which poor people in Arizona are subsidizing having their children “professionally kidnapped.”  According to Stateline:

In Arizona, nearly two-thirds of the $334 million in federal and state TANF spending in 2018 went to its child welfare system to deal with abused or neglected children, foster care and other services. Just 12.5% went to cash assistance and 2% to work-related activities and support, according to [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] data.
That decision — made by the legislature — angers Democratic state Rep. Mitzi Epstein, who said child welfare programs should be funded through general revenue, not TANF dollars.

Now, let’s pause to consider that for a moment. Remember all those hype-filled stories about how the so-called Family First Act would be a revolutionary change for the better because sooooooo much new funding would be available to help poor people keep their families together?  Don’t believe the hype.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next ten years, for the entire country, the amount of money formerly reserved for foster care that states actually will use under Family First to help impoverished families keep their children out of the family regulation system will average only $130 million per year.

                                                                                                  Map from freevectormaps.com

 But Arizona alone is diverting more than $200 million in federal TANF money from impoverished families to “professional kidnappers” and the foster care system every year.

Elsewhere, even some child welfare agency administrators are upset. From the story:

Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, said in an interview with Stateline that she would like to see her state distribute TANF money differently and stop using it to pay for programs such as child abuse investigations and a homeless initiative.  “But all these programs have a legislative champion,” she said.

It’s similar in Georgia, a state whose horrific approach to TANF was first exposed by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones more than a decade ago.  As she wrote at the time:

Some states have used surplus TANF money to expand child care, job training, and transportation to help recipients find jobs. But Georgia didn’t use the bulk of its money for those programs—instead, it cut spending on child care and put the money into child protective services in the wake of a lawsuit against the state over the mistreatment of children in foster care. 
Needless to say, the lawsuit in question – the one which wound up taking money away from impoverished families to help fund child abuse investigations and foster care – was one of the McLawsuits brought by the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights.”

So, let’s see what’s changed since 2009. Again, from Stateline:

[W]hile Georgia invests only 2% of its state and federal TANF dollars on work, education and training activities, it spends 43% on the child welfare system, …  
“State policy makers have been supportive of child welfare services as a safety net for children and families,”[Georgia Department of Human Services Spokesperson Patrice] Meadows wrote in an email, “but in general our policy makers are not big supporters of high levels of cash assistance.”

Unless the cash goes to middle-class foster or adoptive parents, of course.

*-A case can be made that not all TANF spending on child welfare is wrong. Some money goes to help grandparents and other relatives providing kinship foster care. These grandparents can’t be paid like stranger-care parents unless, like the middle-class strangers, they can meet all sorts of hypertechnical licensing requirements geared more to middle-class creature comforts than to health or safety.  But in most cases there is a better solution: Streamline the licensing requirements and then help poor people to meet them.