Poverty continues to impact 1 in 5 North Carolinians, according to 2012 Census Bureau Data released last week. The extent of poverty would be far greater without the safety net and work supports, however. This post is part of a blog series that will explain how the new poverty data demonstrates the important role public programs play and the need for continued support. Read the other posts in this series on SNAP , Social Security , Unemployment Insurance  and the EITC .
Work First, North Carolina’s TANF program, was created to assist extremely low-income families in becoming economically self-sufficient through basic services, a small cash grant, and short-term training. But despite soaring unemployment rates and persistently high poverty levels  in the state, the Work First case load has been declining in North Carolina .
In good economic times, a declining TANF caseload could indicate greater economic well-being. That is, fewer cases could indicate fewer families are in deep poverty and therefore ineligible for or not enrolled in a program like TANF-Work First. But with unemployment rates hovering just under 9 percent and one in five North Carolinians living in poverty, declining TANF-Work First caseloads point to the program’s limited role in building economic security.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was created by Congress in 1996 to replace Aid to Families with Dependent children and “end welfare as we know it .” Those eligible for Work First are still very much in need of assistance. Families must earn less than 19.6 percent to 37.8 percent of the federal poverty level, depending on family size, in order to be eligible. A family of four would qualify with a monthly income below $594.
Extremely low benefit amounts and stringent eligibility and work requirements have shaped the current program’s potential. And the Work First program is built on the assumption that once recipients complete the program and acquire new skills, they will be able to find jobs and will no longer need public assistance. This model does not work when there are not enough jobs. North Carolina unemployed workers currently outnumber available job openings by approximately three to one.
Instead of proposing legislation that would drug test public assistance applicants  or spreading falsehoods about “welfare” paying better than work , we should be talking about bolstering the safety net. And we should be talking more about the sustainable creation of good jobs that can truly lead to self-sufficiency.
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