SALEM, Oregon—In much of the country, poor people are finding that there are fewer and fewer government benefits available to help them stay afloat. But here in this progressive corner of the Northwest, the poor can access an extensive system of state-sponsored supports and services.
In Oregon, a higher share of poor families is on welfare (now called TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families) than in most states. The state has some of the highest food-stamp uptake in the country. It subsidizes childcare for working parents, asking the poorest of them to contribute as little as $27 a month. It helps people get off of welfare by linking them to employment and paying their wages for up to six months, and then allows them to continue to receive food stamps as they transition to higher wages. Families can be on welfare for up to 60 months, as opposed to 24 months in many other states, and once the parents are cut off due to time limits, their children can still continue to receive aid.
“I think there’s a certain culture here in Oregon: We think there’s a role for government in the lives of working people,” former governor Ted Kulongoski, who went on food stamps when he was in office to raise awareness for the program, told me.
When Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” in 1996 and passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (commonly known as welfare reform), many states took the opportunity to gut their safety nets. Oregon, on the other hand, has tried to patch the holes. When, during the recession, the number of people seeking welfare skyrocketed, the state loosened some work requirements and allowed more people to receive cash assistance. The state nearly doubled its welfare caseload over the past decade, while other states have been drawing down the number of families that can receive benefits by putting more and more barriers in place.