Kalena Thomhave

Kalena Thomhave is a writing fellow at the Prospect.

Follow @kalenasthom

Recent Articles

A Tough Week for the Social Safety Net

States from Tennessee to Wisconsin are mirroring the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for eviscerating anti-poverty programs.

(AP Photo/Scott Bauer)
(AP Photo/Scott Bauer) Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker describes his proposal to reduce food stamp benefits for parents who do not meet work requirements on January 23, 2017. T he past few days have been difficult, on both the state and federal level, for the country’s already frayed social safety net. Several states, taking their cues from the Trump administration, have restricted and made cuts to anti-poverty programs, and this week, too, the federal government has joined in the shredding of welfare assistance. The week began with the tiniest of hopes, as the Republican-dominated Tennessee State Legislature voted Monday to raise cash assistance levels for the first time in 22 years. But the abysmal increase brings total benefits for a family of three to just 16 percent of the poverty line, and that same state legislature is moving forward with Medicaid work requirements that could strip health care from thousands of adults with children. In Wisconsin on Tuesday, Republican Governor...

Tennessee Republicans Experience Cognitive Dissonance on Poverty

Tennessee has increased welfare benefits for the first time in 22 years, while also proposing to kick people off medical and food assistance.

AP Photo/Mark Zaleski Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam speaks at the General Assembly W ith this week’s “welfare reform” executive order from President Trump, which calls for work requirements in public assistance programs across the board, the outlook for anti-poverty programs is bleak. And this current anti-welfare climate has also made it easier for states to overhaul their public assistance programs. Tennessee, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, is one such state. Republican Governor Bill Haslam has proposed a number of welfare reforms that he has asked the Republican-controlled legislature to pass. In two moves supported by the Trump administration, the governor has already announced that the state will further limit food assistance for adults without children, and the legislature may well impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients ( using dollars earmarked for the cash assistance program to implement and monitor those requirements. But at least some...

Welfare Drug Testing Promotes Stereotypes, Not Efficiency

Despite a clear lack of evidence of significant drug use among welfare recipients, lawmakers in at least two states are moving forward with plans to require drug screening for individuals seeking assistance. State legislators in Illinois and Iowa have introduced bills that would make drug testing a prerequisite for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the U.S. cash assistance program for very poor families. If passed, the states would join more than a dozen others in mandating drug testing for welfare applicants.  

But the outcomes of those existing state testing programs contradict the harmful and racist stereotype of the drug-addicted welfare user.

Over the past several years, proposals to drug test the poor applying for or receiving TANF have been quite popular among a number of conservative states—and some states have begun attempting to expand drug testing into other assistance programs, too. Wisconsin drug tests not just TANF applicants, but has moved forward with a plan to also test Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) applicants (without federal approval, which may be illegal). Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker even wants to drug test those who apply for Medicaid—potentially barring people from health care when they could perhaps need it most.

The Illinois bill would also require that SNAP applicants be drug tested, pending federal approval. (Not being a conservative stronghold, it’s probably unlikely that the Illinois proposal will pass.) And the Iowa bill proposes drug testing all recipients of public assistance.

However, the results of these drug-testing initiatives have amounted to a wasteful use of funds when one considers how few welfare recipients actually test positive for drugs. An analysis by ThinkProgress found that, in 2016, 13 states spent $1.3 million on welfare drug testing, with just 363 people testing positive.

Since the data don't exactly justify the expense of these programs, one should consider other reasons that conservative legislators keep advancing legislation like this—namely, to attempt to justify a certain narrative. Without “immorality” and other individual characteristics to blame for poverty, what’s left? A systemic canker—that threatens the American narrative of hard work and equal opportunity.

Striking a Match

The walkout wildfire is spreading from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona, as teachers demand investment in education—not more tax breaks for the rich.

(Nate Billings/The Oklahoman via AP)
(Nate Billings/The Oklahoman via AP) Teachers and supporters of increased education funding pack the first and second floors of the state capitol during the second day of a walkout by Oklahoma teachers on April 3, 2018, in Oklahoma City. trickle-downers.jpg W hat started in West Virginia has spread . This week, partly inspired by the teacher walkouts across every county in West Virginia, teachers in both Kentucky and Oklahoma have left the classroom to protest (the issues vary state to state) low pay, abysmally low school funding, and inadequate benefits—but fundamentally, the attacks on public education. As was much the case in West Virginia, the blame for these states’ defunding of public services like education can be placed on a history of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. West Virginia saw a wave of tax cuts passed in 2006, which only grew over the next decade. Soon, the cuts were reducing West Virginia’s revenue each year by $425 million . Corey Robin, author of The...

A Failed Fight for $8.50 Energizes the Fight for $15 in Louisiana

When a bill to raise the Louisiana minimum wage by just $1.25 failed, advocates didn’t reduce their demands—in fact, they did the opposite.

On Tuesday, the Louisiana Senate voted against a bill that would have raised Louisiana’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour by 2020. “Not advancing this legislation is a step backwards for our families and our children who live in poverty but want to work,” said Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards.

But just two days later, supporters of a $15-an-hour bill introduced by State Representative Joe Bouie testified in a hearing before the House Labor and Industrial Committee—a bold statement given the clear leanings of the legislature. The committee unsurprisingly rejected the bill, but the hearing was an opportunity for advocates to make their case in front of committee members.

“Can any of you live on $290 a week?” said Ben Zucker, co-director of advocacy organization Step Up Louisiana. “Too many of these low-wage workers working for multinational corporations ... making record corporate profits come into our state and pay our workers so low they can’t afford to eat,” Zucker said, as reported by New Orleans’s Gambit. Louisiana is one of five states without a state minimum wage, so the federal minimum of $7.25 is in effect.

State Senator Troy Carter of New Orleans, who sponsored the $8.50 bill, has sponsored minimum-wage legislation for the past three years, but each attempt has failed. He has also sponsored a bill that would allow voters to determine whether to pass a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage. (As of 2016, 76 percent of Louisianans support raising the wage.) Bouie’s bill was the first $15 minimum-wage legislation introduced in the Louisiana legislature.

One in five people in Louisiana lives in poverty, and the state has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, as do Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, which also don’t have state minimum wages. Sixteen other states have wage floors that match the federal minimum of $7.25.

Pages