Money and Politics

A welfare check

Credit: Allison McCartney for Reveal

UPDATE, Nov. 26, 2016: With Republicans in full control of the federal government, there’s a good chance welfare reform will be an issue they may take on. In anticipation of that, it is worth taking another look at what’s worked and what hasn’t. An updated version of the original episode can be heard below.

Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton vowed to end welfare as we know it. And he did.

One of the biggest changes to come out of the 1996 welfare reform law was that that the federal government handed over control of $16.5 billion to the states, in the form of block grants, to spend as they see fit. Today, only a quarter of welfare dollars actually goes toward basic assistance – housing, transportation or essential household items.

On this hour of Reveal, we take a road trip with Marketplace’s new podcast “The Uncertain Hour” and find out the surprising ways different states use this money.

Reporter Krissy Clark’s first stop is Oklahoma, where until recently, welfare dollars paid for marriage and relationship classes – no matter the couples’ income levels. This meant that the money didn’t go to help families in financial need.

At the second stop in Clark’s cross-country trip, she finds welfare dollars going to scholarships for students at an expensive private college in Michigan. And in Indiana, she explores how the state uses welfare funds for clinics that steer women away from abortions.

DIG DEEPER

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:


TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. There was a time when the most divisive issue in America, the one that made talk show hosts lean into their microphones.
Speaker 2: The ghetto, the black ghetto, the body o in America are separate countries and their gross national product is a welfare check and liberalism …
Al: And made politicians orate.
Speaker 3: When the welfare queen, as she’s now called suddenly burst on the scene …
Al: And made just about everybody hot under the collar was welfare. Well that pretty much ended in 1996, when President Bill Clinton picked up his pen and signed the Welfare Reform Act.
Bill: Today we are ending welfare as we know it.
Al: Welfare is now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, emphasis on temporary. There’s a 5 year life time cap on benefits. In some states, it’s less than that. Instead of getting your check from the federal government, now states give money first as block grants. They decide what to spend the money on.
This means they can do some pretty strange things with it. That’s what this episode of Reveal is all about. We’ve teamed up with Marketplace’s new podcast, The Uncertain Hour for a welfare road trip. In our first story, reporter Krissy Clark travelled to Oklahoma.
Krissy: It’s a wintry night in Oklahoma City and I’m in a crowded conference room. At the front, there’s a guy with a white goatee and a polo shirt.
Scott: All right, so we’re going to talk about love styles.
Krissy: His name is Scott Roby and he’s pointing at a slide with the image of a big colorful heart on it. The heart’s divided up in the quadrants, labeled with different love styles.
Scott: There’s do, be, give, encourage, talk and touch. Those are the 6 different dimensions or love styles.
Krissy: But Scott says in every person, 1 or 2 love styles really rise to the top.
Scott: Sensual touch, if it’s really going to feed the love style and feed the relationship, it’s not always about landing the plane, if you know what I mean, right.
Krissy: Scott’s audience consists mostly of young or middle aged professionals dressed in business casual. Most of them headed to this class room right after work. It’s a free class called Forever for Real.
Scott: Go make your forever for real.
Krissy: Open to any couple who lives in Oklahoma, a kind of marriage counseling 101, to help them improve their relationships and build strong marriages. The couples here are having a good time, dancing to a little EL Green, playing goofy bonding games.
Speaker 7: I want you to stand, knee to knee, back to back, lips to lip. All right you are now on break, we’ll see you back in 10 minutes.
Krissy: At the break, I walk over to a couple snacking on pizza.
Trey: I’m Trey Martin.
Krissy: Trey works in Biotech. His fiancée …
Lory: Lory Ratford.
Krissy: Is a paralegal. They met online, heard about his class at a bridal show and as they’ve just discovered, they’re quite compatible when it comes to love styles. Thank God. Then I asked them a question that sounds totally out of left field.
How do you feel about Government assistance and welfare in this country? Do we spend enough, too much, not enough.
Lory, does not skip a beat.
Lory: I think too much.
Krissy: You feel like too much why?
Lory: Because I think that the people who receive it, a lot of those people don’t try to go find jobs. A lot for them just sit at home and they’re not looking to better themselves.
Krissy: What if I told you that this class is funded by the welfare program?
At this point Trey and Lory, look at each other …
Trey: Oh my God, we’re on welfare. I never thought I’d be on welfare.
Krissy: Trey and Lory had no idea this class was funded by a federal welfare block grant. Neither did the IT analyst, the employment recruiter or most of the other couples I talked to who didn’t consider themselves particularly needy.
The crazy way, welfare spending works today though means that many people in Oklahoma, people who are out of work, people whose incomes fall below the poverty line, people who by any measure are very needy, they aren’t getting any cash assistance at all. Families like Laura Grennins.
Laura: All right we are back with …
Krissy: The same day I went to that marriage class in Oklahoma, I met Laura. Grey sweatshirt, dark hair, pulled back in a pony tail, pushing a double stroller. She was dropping her daughters off at a preschool, near where she lives in Tulsa. There’s her daughter Angel, almost 2
Laura: And Isis, who turned 3 in the 15th of January.
Krissy: That’s Isis, like the Egyptian Goddess, not the ISIS in all the headlines these days.
Laura: I actually love Egyptian mythology. I just picked the name out of a hat and I thought it was beautiful until of course all of the terrorists, extremist group came out but we work around it.
Krissy: Working around it is something Laura had to become very good at in her life. Not just working around unfortunately timed baby names, but much harder stuff. Laura grew up in Foster care, moved around a lot, dropped out of high school, by her mid 20’s she had found some stability. She had gotten her GED, a series of jobs she liked.
Laura: I’m kind of a Jill of all trades. I’ve worked in a eye glasses lab. I’ve done retail. I was a tour guide at a couple different places where I’m from, Salem, Massachusetts.
Krissy: She was bringing in a steady, if modest paycheck. She and her husband were expecting their first child and then …
Laura: Out it came, out the rug came and got into downward spiral. It’s one thing and then you lose another thing and you lose another, it just keeps going.
Krissy: In Laura’s case, that downward spiral started with her home getting condemned and ended with a messy break up with her husband. Now she and her daughters are in Tulsa, trying to start over again.
Laura: I currently live at the Salvation Army with my 2 children just because we were really running out of options, where to go at that point because we don’t have a whole lot of family that could help us out even for a month or so we could get back on our feet.
Krissy: There is one other place you might expect Laura and family to go in this situation, while she tried to get back on her feet, the County Welfare Office. For many decades in this country, that’s where families often turned when they were desperate. No money, no family to turn to for help. In fact, Laura did go down to the local office to look into and apply in for cash welfare. She spoke to a case worker there …
Laura: And, I said I need to apply for TANF and he turned around said, “No you don’t need to, you want to.”
Krissy: Laura says, between that embracement and all the hoops involved in applying, forms to fill out, hours waiting to speak to a case worker, she decided to give up on cash welfare.
Laura: I’m really trying to get a job on my own.
Krissy: Stories like these are common in many parts of the country today. Very few poor families actually receive any cash welfare any more. Nationally just 23 out of every 100 families who live below the poverty line. In Oklahoma, it’s even more extreme, just 7 out of every 100.
Laura does get food stamps but that only covers food. There’s lots of others really basic stuff that you need to get by, day to day, that’s not food.
Laura: Cough syrup. Cough medicine is very expensive even for children. I tried to put a little squirrel, little bit away for a rainy day but it hasn’t always been successful. It does get hard when you’re down to your last dollar and it’s, “Well do I go buy a 4 packet toilet paper or do I get cough syrup for my kids.”
Krissy: All these little things add up every month. To complicate matters, without the cash to cover them, it’s actually hard to get a job. Your bus is late, taking you to your job interview, you don’t have clean clothes, the callback number on your resume is a homeless shelter.
Let’s put this all in a little perspective. Poor families like Laura’s are not getting temporary assistance for needy family dollars. But for than a decade, TANF money has being going to middle class families, looking for relationship help. Here are some recent numbers.
In 2014, Oklahoma spent almost $200 Million of TANF money, promoting marriage and preventing out of wedlock pregnancy, accounted for about 5 percent of that spending. Just a little more, 9 percent went to cash assistance for poor families, what we think of, when we think of welfare.
I wondered what Laura Grennin, who was discouraged from applying for cash welfare would think of these numbers. I walked her through them.
Laura: As far as marriage counseling and classes, I don’t know, if that’s the best way to spend a budget. I have a lot of questions I think. One is definitely the way that budget is spilt up.
Krissy: How did the welfare budget get split up this way? The answer comes down to 4 bullet points.
Liz: I even printed them out so I wouldn’t stumble.
Krissy: This is Liz Shawt, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She for the last few years, has been obsessed with how and why state spend federal welfare money, your tax payer money, like they do. She says, “It all comes down to these 4 bullet points buried in the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, under the sub heading Purpose.” They start off simple enough.
Liz: First is providing assistance to needy families so children can be cared for in their homes. That’s really your basic cash welfare that we’ve been talking about.
Krissy: Then there’s the second bullet point, the second purpose.
Liz: The second purpose is about promoting work preparations and those 2 purposes really are what I think most thought that welfare reform was about.
Krissy: But then we get to purposes 3 and 4 and things take a twist.
Liz: The 3rd purpose of TANF is preventing and reducing the incidents of out of wedlock pregnancies. The fourth purpose, encouraging the formation and the maintenance of 2 parent families.
Krissy: These last 2 purposes, focusing on marriage and preventing out of wedlock pregnancies had been pushed for years by Republican and Democratic welfare reformers who were alarmed by the rise of single parent families. Data shows that children with single moms are 4 to 5 times more likely to be in poverty than those in married families.
But the fact that these 2 purposes, focusing on family formation, became such an integral part of the goals of welfare reform, that did not make a lot of headlines in 1996 when the welfare reform bill was passed. In fact, this emphasis on marriage and 2 parent families didn’t even get much notice from policy wonks like Liz Shawt at the time.
Liz: You know I don’t think anyone really paid attention in 1996. You read a statue, you read a bill and there’s all these whereas-es, that’s just blah, blah, blah. Here it turns out that controls how the money can be spent.
Krissy: Those 4 bullet points were the closest, the bill came to clearly defining how states could spend their block grants and they opened the door to a whole world of possibility.
Liz started to look more closely at just how each state spends that 16.5 billion dollars allocated for needy families each year. She combed through the hundreds of annual reports that states have sent to the feds since welfare reform, describing where the money goes, and which of the 4 purposes justifies that spending.
Liz: When we started slicing them and dicing them, we began to see very dramatic patterns.
Krissy: One of the biggest patterns, nationwide in the last few years, less than a quarter of welfare money is being spent on actual cash assistance for poor families. Less than a quarter on child care and work supports to help poor families find jobs. As for the rest of the money, much of it goes to pretty much anything that might fit, even vaguely, under purposes 3 and 4 which brings us back to that wintery night in Oklahoma and to this conference room.
Speaker 12: Here’s what I want you to do … In your workbook, your fun book, I want you to on 56 …
Krissy: Where the teacher paid by federal welfare dollars in standing, where he’s asking couples of various income brackets, from working class to upper middle class.
Speaker 12: What do you think your top 3 love styles are and then what do you think your least 3 love styles are?
Krissy: But the really strange part, at the center of all this, is a for profit company.
Mary: I’m Mary Myrick and I’m the President of Public Strategies.
Krissy: Mary Myrick got her start working on political campaigns for Republican candidates in Oklahoma. But since 2001, her company Public Strategies has received more than $70 Million in welfare money to run these relationship classes for Oklahoma. The whole idea, took hold in the state in the late 90’s, after a report came out looking at why Oklahoma had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country.
Kandy: It said all the things that an economic report would say but have a hard time understanding, unless you’re an economist.
Krissy: Kandy Cox also works at Public Strategies, running many of their marriage classes. She says, “At the end of the report, there was this one part that caught state leader’s attention.”
Kandy: It said you have too much divorce, too many out of wedlock births and up until at that point, nobody had really made the connection between divorce in the economy.
Krissy: The report came out right around the same time, as welfare reform kicked in. The new system of block grants that states could use for anything that broadly fit those 4 bullet points, those 4 purposes, including the last 2 about marriage.
Kandy: Our governor at the time, met with our Department of Human Services and said, why don’t we use a very small portion of that money to try some innovative things to strengthen families.
Krissy: The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative was born. Over the years they’ve offered so many different classes, targeted at different demographics, Kandy can barely keep track.
Kandy: Forever for Real, that has targeted to the needs of couples, whether they’re engaged, married, seriously dating, Heart and Soul is crafted towards the needs of African American couples and individuals. We have the Spanish version of Forever for real which is the [foreign language 00:15:42]. I don’t have that rolling of my R’s down every well.
Krissy: The list goes on. Some classes have been targeted towards low income people but most have been open to everyone, rich poor and in between. But since their inception, all of these programs have been funded in part by the federal government through TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That’s concerned some state law makers from both parties, including Democratic state representative, Jeannie McDaniel.
Jeannie: Having healthy marriages is a worthy goal. I understand kids need 2 parents. I support marriage but at the same time, is this the best use of TANF funds.
Krissy: McDaniel says that she was surprised when she first heard about how the Oklahoma marriage initiative was being funded.
Jeannie: I had never heard about it.
Krissy: Even as a legislator?
Jeannie: Even as a legislator.
Krissy: Who’s on the Appropriations Committee, doesn’t know how the TANF dollars are spent.
Jeannie: Right, that’s true.
Krissy: You would think law makers like Jeannie McDaniel would have more involvement in where their own state concentrates its welfare spending. But that task falls to the administrators of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Jim Strubey is the director of adult and family services there. He runs the cash assistance program in Oklahoma and so I asked him.
Does it concern you that so little money goes to basic assistance to direct cash assistance?
Jim: Yes.
Krissy: Do you have more to say? Why?
Jim: One of the things that I’m keenly aware of, low income families are up against obstacles that middle class and upper class obviously families, don’t ever have to deal with. So any amount of support we can give them I think is important.
Krissy: I told him about the about the stories I’d heard from Laura Grennin and others who tried to sign up for welfare and had been discouraged by case workers from applying, with comments like, “You don’t need it, you want it.” He acknowledged this is a problem.
Jim: We’re aware that out in some of our communities, there are workers who discourage participating either with the kind of comment you said or they’re just less than enthusiastic in the eligibility process.
Krissy: Strubey told me, he thinks Oklahoma has spent too much welfare money on promoting marriage and healthy relationships, given the need for basic cash assistance in the state.
I have to say I’m surprised to hear you as somebody high up in the department saying that you don’t think that your department spends enough on cash assistance.
Jim: I’m surprised you’re surprised.
Krissy: Well, I guess it’s just because, if anybody could do something about it, wouldn’t it be you and your department?
Jim: Well there are a lot of things to consider. I mean one thing is that we pay for a lot of other important things with TANF dollars.
Krissy: That is the confusing, some would say infuriating paradox that lies at the heart of how welfare spending is structured today, not just in Oklahoma but across the country. The money has become so flexible that everyone wants a piece of it to fund their state program. As 5 percent here and 10 percent there, get funneled to other state concerns, we’re in a place where 20 years after welfare reforms and all those welfare to work slogans, there’s very little welfare money that goes towards what we think of as welfare or work.
Al: That’s Krissy Clark of Marketplace. Since Krissy travelled to Oklahoma to report that story, the state reduced the amount of welfare money going to the Oklahoma marriage initiative. They say from now on, the program will target low income families. In the 15 years the program has been around, the poverty rate in Oklahoma has barely budged and its marriage rate actually went down.
Next Krissy heads to Michigan where welfare dollars are funding college scholarships in an effort to prevent out of wedlock pregnancies. That’s coming up on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Julia: Hey podcast listeners, Reveal’s Julia B. Chan here. As you’re hearing this hour, we’re travelling around the US with Krissy Clark and Marketplace’s new podcast, the Uncertain Hour. Along the way, we’re learning how different states use the billions of dollars, they’re allotted for welfare, in some pretty surprising ways. It’s been 2 decades, since the welfare system was overhauled.
Now only a quarter of welfare dollars actually goes towards basic assistance like housing, transportation, or essential household items. So where does it go? Keep listening and afterward, go beyond where we’re exploring today and see how all the states spend their welfare dollars. You can check out Marketplaces, your stay on welfare database, on Marketplace.org.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. 20 years ago, the welfare Reform Act promised to end welfare as we know it and it did. There are 10 million fewer people on the rolls today than in 1994. Just as important, what today’s show is about, states took control of the 16 and a half billion dollar welfare program. Only a fraction of that money goes to basic cash assistance and as for the rest, reporter Krissy Clarke of Marketplace, went on a road trip across the country to find out. In Michigan, she ended up on a College Campus in the middle of a party.
Krissy: Explain for somebody who can’t see what’s going on right now, what the hell is going on right now?
Blake: Okay, I guess you call it a rave dance. People are here dancing and having fun with some glow lights right in front of them.
Krissy: I’m in a dark gymnasium on the campus of Adrian College, an expensive private college in Southern Michigan. It’s crazy in here. There are students engulfed in giant plastic bubbles, playing soccer, students squirting glow in the dark, paint at each other.
Blake: Then Hunger Games, Archery, so this is pretty cool. This is basically one of many Adrian College events that they put on for us.
Krissy: The reason I’ve come here to Adrian College … Except hold that thought. I’m going to break the fourth wall now and turn down the rave of music a little because it’s hurting my brain. Okay, much better.
The reason I’ve come here to Adrian College, first is, it just so happens that many of the people at this college are 20 years old themselves. Meaning they were born, the same year that welfare reform was born. But here’s the thing. A lot of these students, they may not know it, but they are on welfare too.
Blake: We’re looking at a basically one side of our small 1 square mile campus.
Krissy: The rave party is over, things have quieted down. I’m getting a tour of the tiny Adrian Campus, past the brand new ice hockey ring, the even newer fitness center.
Blake: Downtall is the oldest building on campus. It was here from …
Krissy: What’s not included in this tourist stats and school trivia, of the 1700 students who go here, who mostly grew up in middle class or upper middle class families, more than half receive TANF money, federal welfare money to help cover their nearly $45,000 a year tuition. Blake Harriston, the junior who’s giving me the campus tour right now …
Blake: From this far end, is what we call Commencement plaza and that’s …
Krissy: Is one of these unwitting welfare recipient. He had no idea he was getting this money, until I asked him about it. Do you have the paperwork with you?
Blake: Give me 1 second.
Krissy: Blake pulled up his financial aid package on his phone.
Blake: Okay.
Krissy: One of the college grants welfare money goes to is known as the Michigan Tuition Grant. It’s specifically targeted to Michigan students who go to private schools in state. Takes into account how much money their families make, compared to how expensive a school is.
Blake’s family is middle class, though they had a rough patch in the recession when her mom was out of work for a couple of years. We looked over his tuition statement and there it was, between some Pell grants and student loans and academic achievement scholarships.
Blake: I see the Michigan tuition grant about 1800.
Krissy: $1830?
Blake: Um hmm (affirmative)
Krissy: $1830, a year in welfare money. That’s about how much Kelly Zican …
Kelly: I’m an accounting major.
Krissy: Another junior I talked to at Adrian, also gets. Like Blake she didn’t know much about what the Michigan Tuition Grant was or where the money came from, until I asked her about it. It was just another useful chunk of money to help her family cover the costs of a very expensive college.
Kelly: Free money I guess is the running joke in our house, but I didn’t know what exactly qualified me for it, hadn’t really looked much into it.
Krissy: When you look deeper into the Michigan Tuition Grant, and how all these students qualify for it, things get really surprising. In the annual report that Michigan has to submit to the Federal Government, explaining how it spends the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal welfare money, it gets each year, it says quote, “The following services are intended to prevent and reduce the incidents of out of wedlock pregnancies,” and then there’s a list of services. Second on the list, there it is. Boom. Scholarships used to fund post secondary education.
As of this year, Michigan puts almost a $100 Million of its more than $700 Million TANF block grant towards these scholarships. Aside from the fact that’s it’s called an out of wedlock pregnancy prevention program, there’s another reason, this welfare spending on college financial aid, is worth examining. A portion of that money goes to students whose families earn more than a $100,000 a year. According to the most available data, about 6 percent of one of these grants, the Michigan Tuition grant goes to families, who are upper middle class.
Debbie: Hi.
Krissy: Hi, Debbie.
Debbie: How are you, yeah?
Krissy: Nice to meet you. I’m Krissy.
Debbie: Hi.
Krissy: Debbie Peters Mark lives in East Lansing, Michigan.
You have a beautiful home.
Debbie: Oh, thanks.
Krissy: On a tree line suburban street, where she and her ex husband Mike, raised 3 kids.
Mike: Hi.
Krissy: Hi Mike I’m Krissy.
They’re oldest Andy just finished his sophomore year at Adrian College. He receives a Michigan Tuition Grant, funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Peters Marks’, do not fit the typical definition of a needy family. Mike’s a CPA. Debbie sells ads for a local TV station. Together they fall into the upper end of earners in America, more than $200,000 a year.
Mike: Between the 2 of us, I think we’re 2 and a quarter to 250.
Krissy: But everything’s relative. Even when you can make that much money, college can be expensive. Mike and Debbie’s son, considered a public university but liked the intimate feel and close attention, he’d get at a small, private college like Adrian and its $45,000 a year price tag was a challenge.
Mike: With college, you’re basically buying a brand new car, every year that you have to pay in full for it right then.
Krissy: When you’re putting 3 kids through college, even if you’ve had college savings accounts for these kids since they were little, which the Peters-Marks did, it can still feel like a pinch. When I tell Mike and Debbie that one of the grants they’re sons gets to help cover tuition, is actually funded through welfare money.
Debbie: I personally think it’s terrific because just because a kid grows up in a home that might have a little bit more money than the next, doesn’t mean that they’re not entitled to some help from the government for college. I mean, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, you’re still forking over $30,000 a year for college is a hardship.
Krissy: I asked Debbie what she might say to a really poor family, who wasn’t getting the kind of traditional direct cash assistance that we think of when we think of welfare.
They might look at you guys and be like, “You guys have this beautiful home, you’re getting welfare money,” what do you say to them or what do you make of that?
Debbie: Again, I would go back to the fact that the welfare money is supporting the kids, to go to college and if this is something that can help, make an experience better for them, they’re going to pay taxes and contribute to the society in the long run. I won’t necessarily think of it as a welfare gift to the family, I would think of it as a welfare gift to the kid.
Krissy: As for the kids, who are getting these welfare grants, I asked them what they thought. Debbie and Mike’s son Andy was pragmatic.
Andy: If we’re going to be offered the money then we’re going to take it.
Krissy: I asked Kelly Zican, the Adrian junior, her parents make almost $200,000 a year. She said, she hoped enough cash assistance goes to actual poor families, so they can meet their basic needs.
Kelly: Your child needs a new jacket, and it’s winter time then by all means I hope that there’s enough money in you to receive enough money for that month for your children if you’re warm and clothed and fed.
Krissy: But she said, maybe giving her some of that welfare money to go to a good private school like Adrian, might mean she can help others with their basic needs down the line.
Kelly: I know that I’m going to take my education and use it wisely and get a great job and hopefully I can buy a jacket for Christmas for one of those other kids that needs to stay warm.
Krissy: It’s kind of trickled down economics, college grad by college grad.
I explained to Kelly that Michigan leaders actually have their own logic for these college grants. That they have to connect every federal welfare dollar the state spends to one of four basic purposes included in the welfare law and the one that they connect it to is that, it helps prevent out of wedlock pregnancies.
Kelly: Oh, okay. So, hoping, because I’m … I’m going to just assume because I’m educated that I won’t have a baby.
Krissy: I asked Frank Rebar, the vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs at Adrian College about this idea of using welfare dollars to fund college grants.
Frank: Certainly it helps students better afford a private institution education.
Krissy: Adrian’s just one of 30 or so private colleges in Michigan where students are eligible for these grants. Frank points out that his college was recently ranked as one of the top schools in Michigan for social mobility based on the high graduation rates of low income students in the school. As for the welfare grants that go to students from higher income families …
Frank: It’s giving those families options. These are families who are also paying income tax so they’re able to access some of what they’ve been paying for.
Krissy: I asked him about the rationale, the state uses to spend welfare money on grants for school tuition, as a way of preventing out of wedlock pregnancies.
Frank: Interesting okay. I’m not quite sure how to respond to that. It’s an interesting rationale.
Krissy: I found it interesting too. What exactly was the thinking behind this? My producers and I reached out to a bunch of Michigan state officials. After repeated requests over many weeks, none of them agreed to comment. Then finally after a month and a half, we got a short statement from a spokesman at the State’s Department of Health and Human Services which oversees the cash welfare program.
It reads, “Studies have shown that higher education decreases the chance of out of wedlock pregnancies,” and goes on to say, “Children born out of wedlock and their families are more likely to be poor. We want to remove barriers to self-sufficiency so that families can succeed and thrive.” So that’s something, but the truth is Michigan doesn’t really have to explain its rationale at all.
Liz: States have not had to present rigorous evidence and there isn’t rigorous evidence to connect those dots and to say this is a pregnancy prevention strategy.
Krissy: That’s Liz Shawt again, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Liz: States have simple asserted it. They just say, “We’re spending this,” and do the third purpose. They just have to check the box.
Krissy: It’s hard to know if Michigan’s achieving its stated purpose of reducing out of wedlock pregnancies with the scholarship program funded by welfare. But what would we do know is that more than 200,000 families with children, live below the poverty line in Michigan and most of them don’t get any cash assistance at all.
Al: That’s Marketplace’s Krissy Clark. So far we’ve heard about welfare dollars going to relationship classes and tuitions for not necessarily needy college students. Next we head to Indiana, to visit a women’s health center that gets welfare dollars for helping to prevent abortions. That’s next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Jennifer: Hey, everyone. This is Jennifer Welch. I’m the Director of Story Works, a project by Reveal that pairs playwrights with investigative reporters. We’re bringing our latest theatre production into the Bay Area for 4 shows only, from July 21st to the 23rd at the flight deck in Oakland and we want you there. The play is called Justice in the Embers and it’s inspired by stories from Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Mike McGrath.
It’s explores the criminal justice system, through the lens of a 1998 explosion that caused the tragic death of 6 Kansas City firefighters. If you’re in the Bay Area and you want to see the show, you can use our exclusive promo code to get free tickets. Just to go revealnews.org/events. Follow the link to buy tickets for Justice in the Embers and enter promo code Justice. See you there.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This week we’re collaborating with Marketplace in their new podcast, the Uncertain Hour. This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Welfare Reform Act. We’ve been looking at what it’s meant for needy people.
One of the main changes in welfare reform, money for welfare gets managed and handed out by the states, not the federal government. Reporter Krissy Clark went on a cross country road trip and found some surprising ways, the states are spending their welfare money. Her next stop, South Bend, Indiana.
Krissy: I’ve just pulled into the parking lot of a CVS pharmacy to look at a billboard. There it is.
Brandy: There it is.
Krissy: Bright pink background with the photograph of a concerned seeming women.
Brandy: It says, “Pregnant? We can help.” Then it gives their phone number and at the bottom it just says, “Women’s care center, free ultrasounds, free pregnancy tests.
Krissy: The women showing me this billboard is Brandy David, 26 years old works as a property researcher at a title company. After driving by this billboard hundreds of times in her life, one day 2 years ago, she called that phone number, when she found herself pregnant and needing help.
Brandy: My first thought was, “Oh my god dammit, no.” Just all of those things, just all at once. I’ve been using protection and I was just like, “Why, why, why?
Krissy: She was in her first year of graduate school, barely making ends meet already and she says she immediately knew she was in no position to have a baby.
Brandy: I couldn’t afford it, I was not dating the gentleman in question. I’m already in the hole from student debt, while I’m in school.
Krissy: Brandy knew she wanted an abortion and she thought she knew where she could get one. Women’s care center, that place with the billboard she kept driving by. When she went to the website, it said the Center offered information about abortions. She set up an appointment, came in as soon as she could.
Brandy: So I go there and it’s setup in this beautiful old house, very homey. I walked and saw how pink and fluffy everything in that room was.
Krissy: Brandy was hoping there was still time for a medical abortion, the kind with a pill which you can only do in the early weeks of pregnancy.
Brandy: The lady was very friendly, supportive but when I said that I wanted abortion, she kind of shied away from that. She was just kind of keep telling me, “Well, we can get to that. Adoption’s an option. There are other things that we can talk about. We’ll get to that sooner or later.”
Krissy: Brandy didn’t know it at the time, but her councilor would never get to that. In fact, there was no way she would receive an abortion at Women’s Care Center, or even get a referral for an abortion. Because it turns out, Women’s care Center is what some call a Crisis Pregnancy Center, a pregnancy resource center, with a specific mission to steer women away from having an abortion.
It turns out the Center Brandy went to, as well as dozens of centers like it across Indiana and Pennsylvania and a few other states, are partly funded by federal welfare dollars, through the program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Jennie: This is just our waiting room.
Krissy: Jennie Hunsberger is Vice President of Women’s Care Center. She showed me around one of the offices they have in South Bend.
Jennie: When clients come in, we have our waiting rooms at all of our centers set up very much like living rooms because we just want people to feel welcomed and cared for and comfortable and safe.
Krissy: Brandy was right. It’s very pick, very homey.
Jennie: I’ll just walk you through quickly.
Krissy: Plush chairs and soothing music, and small counseling rooms where women’s care center staff talk with clients who’ve come in seeking help, with an unexpected pregnancy. Jennie tells me, this network of Women’s care centers has been around for more than 30 years.
Jennie: Really our work is very simple. We provide unconditional, positive, support and love so that they can become great moms and have healthy babies.
Krissy: The typical client Jenny says is poor.
Jennie: Almost all qualify for federal programs like Medicaid, nearly 80 percent our single moms, 25 percent don’t have a high school diploma, 40 percent are fully unemployed. Our clients have a hard lives.
Krissy: I asked her if a women feels like she just cannot afford to have a child and she wants an abortion. Would you refer them to an abortion clinic?
Jennie: What I would say is we would be here if any women said that. Whatever a women says, we would say to her, “We are here for you before your decision, during your decision and after your decision regardless of what you’re decision is.”
Krissy: But am I correct that you would not refer them?
Jennie: What I would say is that what we say to women is, “We are here for you before during and after and the decision if yours.”
Krissy: But I just want to make sure I’m clear. But would you ever refer them to a clinic.
No. Correct, or am I wrong?
Jennie: No what I would say is, “I’ll be here for you before, during and after, the decision is yours.”
Krissy: So you’re not going to give me the information, but you will tell me that you will be here for me.
Jennie: We will be here for you, always.
Krissy: Though Jenny wouldn’t say it explicitly, it’s written into the contract with the State of Indiana that in order for centers like hers to receive TANF money, federal welfare money, they’re forbidden from referring people to abortion clinics.
To put this in some perspective, current law, prohibits federal money from being used to fund abortions with the exception of rape or incest or when the pregnancy will endanger the life of the women. But in Indiana, in the past year, the state has allocated 3,500,000 TANF dollars to organizations like Jennie’s that steer women away from abortions.
There’s a common critic of single mothers on welfare that goes like this. “If you’re too poor to support a child you shouldn’t be having one in the first place.” I asked Jennie, why welfare dollars should be used to help and encourage, poor, often single mothers to have children. She said her program’s more than that.
Jennie: It helps build strong families. It encourages things from healthy birth weights to families that are more self-sufficient, so in that way it’s very appropriate.
Krissy: The center also actively connects women to charities and government services.
Jennie: Make sure that she has all of the resources that she needs to navigate the Medicaid system that she’s signed up for Wick, which is the federal nutrition program for pregnant women and children.
Krissy: And food stamps and of course, cash welfare, TANF. The whole idea of putting federal welfare dollars towards these crises pregnancy centers, got its start in Pennsylvania with a nonprofit organization called Real Alternatives. We reached out repeatedly to them for an interview but they declined. Jerry Birmelin was a Republican State legislature in Pennsylvania, when the idea for Real Alternatives was born.
Jerry: We in the pro-life movement saw that there was TANF funds available and it could access the TANF funding. But I kept wondering how a state could justify putting welfare money, into encouraging single women to have children, when one of the explicit goals of the federal welfare law was to promote the formation of 2 parent families.
Krissy: I started digging though the paper work and on page 6, in the contract Pennsylvania has with real alternatives, I found it, a complicated sentence that I’ll just read here. Alternatives to abortion sentences, quote, “Maintain and encourage the formation of stable one parent families, which impart the same skills necessary in 2 parent families. Imparting those skills helps improves one’s confidence in their parenting abilities and encourages the formation of 2 parent families in the future if that is appropriate and possible for the women and her baby.”
I asked Jerry Birmelin about all this. Some critics might say, “Should we be encouraging people who don’t think they can afford a child right now, to have a child.”
Jerry: Yeah and I don’t think the answer is ever to kill the children just so that they don’t have to be on welfare and I do not accept the argument that we should just have them have them have their abortion so they’re not on welfare. I feel that’s very dehumanizing.
Krissy: Jerry’s also a fiscal conservative. He believes in shrinking, spending non-government programs. So yes, he thinks it makes sense for welfare dollars to go to crisis pregnancy centers. But he cautions.
Jerry: It’s not the tax payer’s responsibility to raise everybody’s children for them and I’m not suggesting that. What I’m suggesting is if you go through a crisis pregnancy and you really need help for a short period of time, usually it’s only a few months and I think we should be in the business of helping these people through those crisis pregnancies.
Krissy: In doing that, the umbrella group, Real Alternatives claims that they save tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars by connecting women with things like pre-natal care and immunizations.
When I told Brandy David who went to women’s care center thinking she could get an abortion there, that it was partly funded by welfare dollars, she was surprised.
Brandy: That’s just not okay dude. Like find something else. Like there are million other things it could go to. It could go to supporting the children that are a result of this.
Krissy: She says, she still feels angry about her experience with women’s care center.
Brandy: If they’d even just said, we can’t help you get an abortion and sent me on my way, I would have been frustrated but I wouldn’t have wasted potentially 2 to 3 weeks.
Krissy: Brandy did eventually realize that women’s care center was not going to help her with an abortion and she called a planned parenthood in another state, to help her find a clinic that did provide them. Looking back on her experience, Brandy says, she has no regrets about her choice.
Brandy: I never really wavered from that. I still think it was the best decision. I thought it was then. I’ve always thought it was.
Mary: My name is Mary McGiffin. I’m 26.
Krissy: Mary McGiffin had a very different experience when she stumbled onto a women’s care center, 4 years ago. She was a senior in college, pregnant and scared. She made an appointment at an abortion clinic but got confused about where it was and walked into the women’s care center down the street.
Mary: The women at the desk said, “We don’t offer that service here but we do offer counseling for women who maybe in your position. It was then that I realized that this was a crisis pregnancy care center and immediately just burst into tears of relief.
Krissy: That day she got an ultrasound.
Mary: He was just a little Lima bean and a fluttering little heart cavity.
Krissy: But Mary says that the real turning point in her decision about what to do, came late one night, soon after.
Mary: One night, I stayed up all night, working out a budget for the next 20 years to see if it was at least possible even if we lived very meagerly.
Krissy: She decided it was possible.
Mary: Did you take a nap?
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Krissy: Her son is now 3 years old.
Mary: You’ve been playing your guitar.
Krissy: Mary says she’s grateful for the role women’s care center played in her life. She thinks, anything that would help women have more resources during pregnancy should get funding. But she says that’s not where the support should end.
Mary: The goal is not simply to save the baby but to save the life. That life is going to grow up, you need to be able to have communities and governments that will support that kind of choice because a lack of feasibility is what causes a lot of abortions to happen in the first place.
Krissy: Mary says she sees both crisis and pregnancy centers and traditional welfare cash assistance as pro-life.
Al: That was Marketplace reporter Krissy Clark. Throughout the show you’ve heard how most of the welfare dollars today, about three quarters don’t go to cash assistance for the poor. The money goes to other things entirely and the people who benefit from those services aren’t necessarily low income. But what about the 25 percent that states do spend on welfare checks. Who’s that helping?
Tamara: I’m Tamara Santiago, AKA Tammy and a mother of 2 beautiful little children. I have a 6 year old boy and a 1 year old baby girl.
Al: Tammy is 25 and has been on and off welfare. She remembers her mom struggling with money when she was growing up. Her family lived in the shelter, then moved to the projects in Boston.
Tamara: I was always around violence and gangs and guns and drugs. Although I was around that environment and surrounded by those things, I myself never took part in it.
Al: Tammy was a good student and wanted to go to college. In 2009, she was accepted to North Eastern University but at that time, she was pregnant and poor. Her family and the father of her child couldn’t help so she decided to apply for welfare. Talk to me about going to the office for the first time. What was it like?
Tamara: Oh my gosh. For the first time, I was kind of being judged and there was a lot of stigma and just these ideas of, “Oh she’s a Hispanic woman, 18,” basically I would always get this comment. I just lost my life.
Al: But she says after getting regular welfare checks, her life got better.
Tamara: Honestly I’m happy that I took that step because after I did have my son, I was able to go to college. It felt good, it felt empowering because I said, “Even though I maybe on government assistance, at the moment I’m doing more with my life and I know this is just temporary.”
Al: After about 2 and a half years on assistance, Tammy found a full time job and for the first time was trying to pay bills on her own, and it was a struggle.
Tamara: It was horrible. It was chaos. I hit rock bottom because when you’re used to receiving benefits, you know exactly what you’re going to get, how to allocate it towards certain things and how to stretch it out throughout the month, it’s budget.
Al: But without benefits anymore she couldn’t stretch her paycheck to cover bills.
Tamara: I put money towards food which is crazy expensive especially when you want to buy healthy foods for child and yourself and clothes, diapers. It was so many things in one, and I felt like I was drowning.
Al: Tammy got back on welfare and went back to school. Then she found another full time job but was laid off shortly after. She applied for welfare again and moved into a shelter.
Tamara: It was like a cliff. You’re going up and then going right back down and then going up and then falling right back down. I felt hopeless.
Al: She hasn’t been able to break the cycle since.
Tamara: You know it’s frustrating and sometimes I get really emotional about it and upset and angry because, I’m trying, I’m trying my hardest to get off of this assistance and move forward in life and continue my education, but I feel like there are so many other things that are against me rather than for me.
Al: Tammy says she knows there will be more struggles in life. But they wouldn’t feel so impossible to overcome, if she had more of a buffer.
Tamara: The system doesn’t feel as if it’s made to help people get off because there is no transition. If you make 25 to 50 cents over the income guideline, you get off of assistance right away. Then you drop right back down.
Al: That cliff that Tammy mentioned before seems to stay in her horizon and if she falls down again, the climb back up will be just as long as it was, the last time.
These days, 4 million people get welfare checks in a given year. Compare that to more than 14 million back in the nineties under the old system, and the overall federal spending has dropped too, from about 20 billion dollars, to 16 billion dollars. Fewer people on the rolls and federal spending going down, it’s far off for some experts to call this success.
But as we’ve heard in this episode, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. As long as states keep funneling their federal welfare money, towards things like relationship counseling, or encouraging women not to have abortions, that money won’t be going to provide basic assistance for poor people.
Reporter and producer Krissy Clark has more on how welfare gets spent in Marketplace’s new podcast, the Uncertain Hour. Be sure to check it out, at marketplace.org. Thanks to Marketplace for partnering with us, especially Krissy Clark, Nancy Farghalli, Gina Delveck and Caitlin Esch.
We like to thank our friends at the Esquire classic podcast from PRX. The show dissects classic Esquire magazine stories and reveals the cultural currents that make them as urgent and timely today as when they were first published. Listen in iTunes.
Deb George was our senior editor with help from Taki Telonidis and Rachel de Leon was our lead producer. My man, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs is our lead sound designer.
Our engineer this week were Claire C Mullen, Paul Vikis and Peter Cronhelm. Julia B. Chan is our digital editor, our head of studios Christa Scharfenberg and Amy Pyle’s our editor in chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer if Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.
Supported for Reveal was provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the John S and James L. Knight foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism foundation.
Reveal is a co-production, a Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m AL Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

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