Let’s not turn our backs on America’s poor | PostIndependent.com

Let’s not turn our backs on America’s poor

Colorado’s lower-income families are in trouble. In the coming months, Congress must decide how to renew and revise the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which in 1996 replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the nation’s welfare program.

On May 16th, the House of Representatives passed an unduly harsh bill that represents a step backward in states’ efforts to help families meet their needs.

Catholic Charities supports welfare proposals that include sensible pro-family work requirements, incentives for states to move TANF recipients into work, strong family formation provisions, increased education and training, provisions to help families maintain steady jobs and fairness to legal immigrants.

TANF already requires parents to work. This work requirement will rise from 30 hours to 40 hours per week if current proposals become law.

The requirement is impractical and inflexible, greatly limiting a parent’s opportunity to further their education and training. In the end, it is this training that will help them secure higher paying jobs, ensuring long-term independence for their families.

Currently, parents must move quickly from welfare to work. Unfortunately, many people leaving TANF find it hard to succeed in the workforce because they lack affordable housing, education, transportation, childcare and other resources we take for granted.

Colorado families leaving welfare today have median earnings of $8,400 to $9,600 a year. If aid is cut off too quickly, it can be devastating – basic needs go unmet.

Through the late 1990s, welfare reform and a booming economy reduced the number of families on welfare by more than half. Yet, during years of remarkable prosperity, hunger and poverty in Colorado remained shamefully high.

Data from the end of the 1990s show 400,813 Coloradans living in poverty, including 154,000 children. Families living in poverty were earning $13,290 or less for a family of three at a time when jobs were plenty. Unfortunately, living costs were skyrocketing.

For 75 years, Catholic Charities has been at the forefront of treating society’s ills with timely services and innovative programs. At this time, however, Catholic Charities is finding that our services are stretched to the limit. Many of the households we serve have jobs but still face a variety of problems that keep them poor.

Requests for help at our six emergency assistance centers, where we help families and individuals to fill gaps when a crisis occurs, are up 45 percent in the past few months. We provide housing, food, personal care items, baby supplies; we also provide transportation allowances; help pay rent, utilities and medical costs; and help people find and keep employment. Last year, Catholic Charities served over 200,000 people, and this number will surely grow in 2002.

Serving people of all origins, cultures, and religious beliefs, Catholic Charities believes the goal of welfare reform should be poverty reduction, not caseload reduction. We strive to lift people toward true independence, not simply push them off the rolls.

That being said, this requires an investment in workers seeking self-sufficiency and adequate safety net benefits for those who need help feeding their families.

The Senate will soon be debating the future of one of America’s major safety nets, the welfare program. Members of the Senate Finance Committee will consider bills as early as next week and Congress must renew TANF by Sept. 30, 2002.

This reauthorization provides an excellent opportunity to make changes in TANF to ensure it meets the needs of America’s hard-working families.

We at Catholic Charities urge Senators Allard and Campbell to fight for the best policies that will help people work their way out of poverty.

This is not the time to turn our backs on America’s poor. If anything, it is time to renew our commitment to them.

James H. Mauck is the president of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Denver.

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