John Oliver on US state welfare: ‘Politicians have been relentlessly abusing the system’

The Last Week Tonight host discussed TANF – a system meant to assist families in need but now mired in bias and corruption

John Oliver took aim at a US welfare system that is being “relentlessly abused” by politicians and government officials.

The Last Week Tonight host discussed the many problems with TANF, “a commonly used acronym that in Britain stands for that asshole Nigel Farage” that in the US stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

He called it an “absolutely vital resource” but one that is often misused including by the former football star Brett Favre, who “aggressively lobbied” for millions of dollars from the fund to build a volleyball stadium at his daughter’s high school while also having $2m routed to a pharma company he invested in. Favre denies any wrongdoing. “He’s been hit in the head enough, not enough but a lot,” Oliver joked.

Oliver said this was “just the tip of the iceberg” though, detailing that from 2016-2019, $77m in federal welfare money had been misspent or stolen in Mississippi, with six people being criminally charged. In the state, people have been “in dire need of help but couldn’t get it”, with 190,000 children living in poverty but just 2,600 receiving money.

In states all over the country the programme has been abused for decades and completely legally. For every 100 families in poverty nationwide, only 21 received assistance.

It’s the “only federal anti-poverty programme that provides monthly assistance” and is therefore an “absolute lifeline for families”.

When it was primarily white families who were the ones using it, the government was supportive but people suddenly began to panic when families of colour also needed help and conservatives in the 70s and 80s pushed cherry-picked narratives of abuse.

There were “major and catastrophic changes” including the shift of funding to a block grant which meant that each year states would receive a lump sum but no mechanism was established for increasing that amount over time. It hasn’t increased since 1996 despite inflation and population changes, meaning its real value has fallen by 40%.

The rules provided as to how money should be distributed are also based around conservative moralistic ideals like marriage and pregnancy within marriage.

In Oklahoma, millions have been spent on marriage counselling classes and “at its absolute worst TANF money can be used in actively harmful ways” such as crisis pregnancy centers AKA fake abortion clinics.

Aside from that, the barrier to access the funds is insurmountably high for most families. Oliver used the example of a woman who earns $9 an hour with three kids to take care of who was seen as having too much money to qualify.

The application process can also be deeply invasive with the state chasing down biological fathers for support before allowing any funds. One woman was also kicked off government assistance because she was in a coma. “One of the worst things you’ve got to possibly hear when coming out of a coma,” he said.

It’s also a lot of hoop-jumping “for an abysmally small amount of money” and “in 15 states they don’t even reach poverty line”.

It’s not even from a lack of funds, with $5.2bn in unspent TANF money nationally.

“The wild thing here is that our current system was created under the assumption that poor families simply couldn’t be trusted to collect welfare honestly but the past couple of decades have proven that it’s actually politicians and government officials who have been relentlessly abusing this system,” he said.

Guardian staff

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