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Time to mend our safety net

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opinion Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Sadly, this isn't news to many newspaper readers: Our safety net is failing Americans battered by the "Great Recession" of 2008-09.

Unemploy-ment is soaring. Poverty and hunger are at record high levels. Foreclosures and homelessness are still on the rise. The middle class is shrinking and many blacks, Latinos, single mothers and children are experiencing a full-blown economic depression. This economic crisis has exposed our nation's inability to respond to the profound needs of a growing number of Americans.

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The Institute for Policy Studies, the Center for Community Change, Jobs With Justice and Legal Momentum have co-authored a new study outlining the tragic state of our nation's safety net. In "Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net Is Failing Americans and How to Fix It," we find that while the Obama administration's 2009 Recovery Act has provided some responsiveness, particularly with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as "food stamps") and unemployment insurance extensions, our safety net has far too many holes to keep millions of us out of poverty -- particularly during this extended period of high unemployment.

Our cash welfare assistance program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, has been woefully unresponsive to rising need during this recession. By 2008, only 22 percent of needy children were receiving benefits, down from 62 percent under the previous welfare system in 1995. Those few whom TANF does reach receive grossly inadequate levels of assistance. SNAP has become almost the sole fabric in the disappearing support system, responding fairly well in aiding the growing numbers of needy families. But even with this relatively effective program, the average monthly benefit--about $100 per person--is hardly enough for adequate nutrition and health.

Real median household income declined 3.6 percent from 2007 to 2008, even before the worst of the recession. There are six unemployed Americans for every job opening in the nation. It's not a matter of looking harder; it's a matter of nothing to find. And even when laid off workers are able to collect unemployment insurance, the typical benefit is only half of the wages previously received.

With unemployment and underemployment over 17 percent--higher among blacks, Latinos, and single mothers, the fall from middle class to poverty is often quick and painful. America's children suffer the most. Almost one in five children in the U.S. lives in poverty; almost one in four suffered from inadequate access to food last year. These numbers are rising without an end in sight.

We can't give up hope or allow Washington to call all the shots. There are solutions. We must push President Obama and Congress to be bolder and faster. We can begin to repair the safety net immediately, saving millions from lives of despair. We can simultaneously begin to implement longer-term structural changes that can eventually make obsolete the need for a safety net in this country.

We should all press Congress for an Emergency Relief Package. In our study we propose a roughly $400 billion relief package that would create one million new jobs, cover the gaping state and local fiscal deficits, maintain existing jobs, and bolster inadequate safety net programs like TANF and the COBRA health insurance program.

Ultimately we need to reverse the trends of the past 30 years that reduced wages, increased poverty, and grossly expanded the income gap between the rich and the rest of us in this country. For example, we could raise up to $150 billion for new jobs simply by putting a penny tax on every $4 of stock trading transactions. We could save our economy and curb the reckless casino mentality that got us here in the first place. But first let's stop the hemorrhaging and immediately create good new public sector jobs--targeted at those who need help the most-- that bolster families and communities.

Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank that transforms ideas into action for peace, justice, and the environment. She's one of the co-authors of the new report "Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net Is Failing Americans and How to Fix It."

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