Analysis Violence

When Leaving Your Abuser Means Living on the Street

Tana Ganeva

Budget cuts have strained domestic violence resources. What does that mean for women who need a safe place to go?

Cross-posted with permission from AlterNet.

The first time Julianna Martinez’s ex-husband hit her in the face, it came out of nowhere. They’d been out dancing, but he left the club early. Later that night she let him into her house and they were sitting there talking.

“He didn’t even seem angry. Then wham, across my face.” Afterward he cried, so she forgave him, thinking it was a one-time thing.

The second time it happened, they were driving through a military base in Germany when he got pissed off because she hadn’t been welcoming enough to a fellow soldier’s wife. “He turned around and smacked me,” she says. “His reason was, I wasn’t sitting with her, making her feel comfortable.”

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She sat there stunned. When she recovered from her shock she jumped out of the car and ran to the office of the Army police. Although they were initially separated, they went to marriage counseling.

It didn’t help. Before their son was born, they fought because her husband wanted her to leave the Army to spend all of her time raising him. After their son was born, they fought because her husband didn’t want her to go to Saudi Arabia with her unit. That fight ended when he stripped off all her clothes and tied her to a weight bench with some t-shirts, which is how she spent the night. The abuse continued through their move back to the United States and his exit from the Army. They settled in Arizona, where she tried her best to hide the beatings from her children and her friends.

“Of course, he did everything behind closed doors and sneaky,” Martinez says. “He used to beat me up and I had black eyes, but once the kids came the beatings were more on my legs, on my torso, on my arms. He stopped hitting me in the face, no more bruises to show, they were all hidden.”

That’s how she spent 17 years, through what she calls good times and bad times. As long as he just went after her and left the kids alone, she thought that they were all better off staying.

“My mother [had] disowned me, so where would I go? So I just stayed. It was survival for me, where else do I go?” she says.

Her fears were not unwarranted. Many women who flee their abusers end up homeless. One 2003 study found that 25 percent of homeless mothers surveyed said they’d been “kicked, pushed, shoved or otherwise hurt” in the past year. Sixty-three percent of homeless women have been victimized by their partners, while 92 percent have been physically or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. (Men are also the victims of intimate partner violence, but at far lower rates than women.)

That’s just one of the heartbreaking ways poverty and domestic violence are intertwined. If the abuser brings home the money in a low-income house, the choice to send him off to jail may seem impossible. Low-income and minority women, for understandable reasons, may be reluctant to tangle with the criminal justice system, and may be less likely to report abuse to police in the first place. Even the relatively well-off can find themselves in trouble: Abusers do not tend to encourage their partners’ career aspirations, leaving many battered women financially stuck when getting away can mean poverty.

Everything gets worse in a bad economy. A lost job or foreclosed home or the stress of long-term unemployment (4.4 million Americans have been without work for 27 weeks or longer) can all trigger violent episodes or worsen abuse. Eight out of ten shelters surveyed reported more calls for help in the past year and the year before that, going back to the start of the financial crisis when the first survey was taken, according to the Mary Kay Foundation.

At the same time that more people are looking for help, state and municipal cuts have gutted the budgets of domestic violence shelters. Private donations are also drying up: 90 percent of the National Network to End Domestic Violence state coalitions reported a drop in private funding. The last thing victims and providers need is an abrupt, arbitrary drop in federal funding, but here comes the sequester.

The cuts, applied across-the-board to federal programs unrelated to the travel plans of lawmakers, are expected to deprive an estimated 106,020 victims of services, according to estimates by the Campaign for Funding to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), and others. The cuts imperil everything from shelters, to protective orders to transitional housing. The Violence Against Women Act, which barely survived GOP obstructionism earlier this year, now stands to lose $20 million, according to Justice Department estimates (some groups think that’s an underestimate).

“[These programs] are already very much on the edge,” says Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). “The potential of another 5 percent cut, on top of cut after cut after cut—it’s the last straw for some of these programs.”

According to Gandy, a large majority of NNEDV’s state member programs are cutting services and staff in anticipation, and some are in danger of closing entirely. Domestic violence groups in states that don’t provide funding are especially panicked because their budgets come from federal grants and private donations.

What does all this mean for a woman who has decided to leave her abuser and needs a safe place to go?

“People will call for emergency shelter and there won’t be shelter for them. So they will probably go back to the abusive situation,” says Gandy. “If it’s just them, they might go sleep under a bridge. But if they’ve got kids, they might go back to the abuser for shelter and food.”

This can mean the difference between life and death, since more than three women are killed by a husband, boyfriend, or ex every day.


There’s a long history of not doing enough—or doing anything—to help vulnerable women and children in the United States, with law enforcement and the judicial system disinclined to intervene in abusive households. Alabama was the first state to reject the idea that a man has a right to beat his wife in 1871, and several states tried to tie criminal penalties to wife-beating after that, but law enforcement mostly tried to keep out of it. (“It is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive,” a North Carolina court ruled in 1874.)

For most of American history, beating or raping a stranger brought down the full force of law (at least in theory), but doing these things to one’s own wife rarely resulted in jail time. When police were forced to mediate a domestic dispute, their primary goal was to calm everybody down and encourage the couple to work it out. Nor was there anywhere for a battered woman to go, a safe place to hide from an abuser who might become even more enraged and dangerous because she ran away.

It took second-wave feminism—and the battered women’s movement that grew out of it—to recast domestic violence as a public problem, demanding state solutions. Wife-beating was not a thing for cops to throw their hands up in the air and walk away from, but a widespread social blight, an emergency, given the rates of intimate partner homicide that required a comprehensive public response, from more aggressive policing to state and federal funding for domestic violence resources.

Thanks to the efforts of groups of women who founded the first shelters, often as consciousness-raising groups, there are around 2,000 shelters nationwide that help women trying to escape their abusers.

But the hard work of domestic violence advocates is not nearly enough, especially now. It’s no match for lawmakers worshipful of budget cuts at the federal and state level, and an economy that drives up need at the same time it cuts down resources. The comforting Lifetime movie myth that the hard part is leaving—that once a woman has mustered the courage to walk away, she’ll be greeted by kindly strangers offering clean beds—is totally false.

In 2011, the Domestic Violence Hotline was unable to answer 87,000 phone calls that came in. In 2009, 167,069 women seeking shelter were turned away. In just one day in 2011, 10,581 women trying to find a place to stay were told there was no space for them. Forty-three percent of shelters have reported a decrease of services offered.

Katheryn Preston, executive director of the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness, says that as often as once a day, a battered woman will call asking if there is space for her at a homeless shelter. When they’re directed to domestic violence services, they often say that they’ve already tried that.

“A lot of women who call here tell us they’ve already spoken to a hotline. When we go to give them their number, they’ll say, no space right now,” she says. “It’s one of two things: no imminent danger or no space available.”

Space in domestic violence shelters is always tight, so providers must judge whether a woman is in “imminent danger” before giving her a scarce bed. Usually, if she’s already left her abuser, particularly if she’s in a different state, she won’t fit the criteria. (Preston points out that state boundaries do not magically keep out determined abusers.)

Many domestic violence shelters have long waiting lists anyway, and may refer a woman who is in imminent danger to a shelter far away from where she lives, which can be its own nightmare. “It means they have to pull kids out of school,” says NNEDV’s Kim Gandy. “Quit your job, and now you can’t feed them.” It’s also harder to access benefits or child support.

“Women may experience delays and frustration, and it essentially means that they’re more likely to give up leaving,” says Beth Meeks, one of many Louisiana advocates who spent the year trying to stop Gov. Bobby Jindal from dumping millions from the state’s budget for domestic violence services.

Julee Smith, who runs a shelter in Utah that is expected to lose 23 percent of its budget, described to how heartbreaking it is to turn women away:

“We literally had a lady call, she had four children and begged to get in our shelter,” Smith said. “She said, ‘I have 45 minutes to get out.’ And we said ‘We’re sorry, we don’t have any room.’ And then the police call and say that she has been abused again.”

A homeless shelter is another less than ideal place for families to end up. Besides the fact that programs aiding the homeless are also perennially underfunded, being around a bunch of unfamiliar men may not be comforting to a woman who has just escaped one who hits her. Plus, homeless shelter staff aren’t trained in the most important job of all: keeping the victim away from their abuser. Unlike domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters have public addresses.

There have been times, Preston says, when someone has called looking for a woman, and she’s been pretty sure it was a relative or friend of the abuser helping to track her down.

Preston knows how important it is to have a safe place to go. When her husband came back from Vietnam, he had a drug problem on top of his already existing alcohol problem: “I could tell when he’d be triggered, especially by his drinking. The drunker he got, the more angry he would get at somebody else for something stupid. A car would go in front of us, he’d go off. If I would stick up, then it all turned on me. That’s when I began to catch it all.”

For 13 years she told friends and family her wounds were from, say, playing softball. “They must have thought I was the most accident prone person in the world,” she says. But one Memorial Day, her husband’s Wild Turkey-fueled freakout landed her, her sister, and her sister’s husband in the hospital, where a nurse who saw their injuries asked if they’d all been in a car accident.

Now she couldn’t hide it from her family anymore, so she left, moving into a new place where he wouldn’t be able to find her. She kept the shades shut just in case he tracked her down. One day, he called her at her new place and asked her why she always kept the shades drawn. What was she trying to hide? Did she have a man in there?

“He’d been sitting outside, watching me in my apartment,” says Preston.

Right after she left, she decided to kill him to keep herself and her son safe. She went to a pawn shop looking for a gun, but then she realized what would happen if she missed. “About the worst thing that could happen is I’d miss him, go to jail, spend life in jail for trying to kill him, and he’d raise my son to be a batterer,” she says. “There were no battered women’s shelters at that time, a woman was out there on her own, doing what she needed to do. I was blessed because I had family, or I’d have been out on the street homeless too.”

It’s heartbreaking for her to see things get worse and worse as lawmakers callously pull back resources for homeless shelters and domestic violence programs, pretty much everything that the country’s most needy women and children depend on, sometimes to stay alive.

In 2009, then California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger led the way in using cash earmarked for domestic violence programs to fill state budget gaps. The governor line-item vetoed all state funding for shelters, forcing six shelters to close in six weeks and the rest to limit their services. (The funding was restored the next year, after lots of fighting by domestic violence advocates, but around $4 million of previous cuts remained.)

Christine Gregoire’s 2011 proposed budget for the state of Washington contained massive cuts to domestic violence funding.

In February, Iowa cut $1 million from domestic violence and sexual assault programs, reported KWQC, forcing shelters across the state to scramble to make up the funds with private support. Twelve shelters were informed they would no longer get funding so the remaining resources could be spent on the bigger shelters, according to local news sources.

What makes the cuts especially galling, Kim Gandy notes, is how little money they actually save states. Earlier this year, Bobby Jindal had proposed cutting $2.4 million for domestic violence services, or more or less the price tag of a soccer field and fishing pier the governor had proposed at the same time.

“In the grand scheme of things that’s not that much money for an entire state. It’s peanuts,” she says. “That tells you how underfunded those programs were to begin with.”

“This puts women who are already in physical jepoardy in even greater danger, because of budget cuts. But they found the money to fund the FAA,” Gandy says. “Imagine how quickly they found that money.”


One day, Julianna Martinez’s ex-husband turned on the kids. Her son had lost his jacket, and his father slapped him. She jumped between the two of them to protect her son, and then it was all over. “He kept pushing me and pushing me and I fell on the floor and he just started beating me.” she says. “He screamed, ‘That’s her problem, that’s her whole problem! She’ll never be anything, doesn’t know how to take care of anybody, or herself, or her kids!'”

Martinez finally left. But she didn’t end up in a domestic violence shelter—none of the ones she called could accomodate her family because her son was too old—but she really wishes she had. It would have given her much-needed time to get her head in order.

“My other friends I made going through this process … you need that because you are dazed, you’re so used to having someone controlling you and telling you what to do.”

Instead, she and her kids lived with friends. It wasn’t the street, but still: one little room for all of them, living out of boxes; not an easy existence for a traumatized family. Eventually she moved back into her house (without her husband), and then they tried marriage counseling one last time. One day, their therapist confessed that she was utterly terrified of Martinez’s husband. She said her job was patching up marriages, but she didn’t want to be responsible for the consequences of saving this one.

“If I were you, I’d turn around and run,” the therapist said. It was the last, last straw, and Martinez managed to extricate herself for good.

She can’t believe she waited for so many years. “What was I waiting for?” says Martinez, who now works as a school assistant. “For Superman to come save me? For lightning to hit me or him? Was I waiting for him to kill me?”

News Politics

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Resigns as Chair of DNC, Will Not Gavel in Convention

Ally Boguhn

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) resigned her position as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), effective after the convention, amid controversy over leaked internal party emails and months of criticism over her handling of the Democratic primary races.

Wasserman Schultz told the Sun Sentinel on Monday that she would not gavel in this week’s convention, according to Politico.

“I know that electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is critical for America’s future,” Wasserman Schultz said in a Sunday statement announcing her decision. “Going forward, the best way for me to accomplish those goals is to step down as Party Chair at the end of this convention.”

“We have planned a great and unified Convention this week and I hope and expect that the DNC team that has worked so hard to get us to this point will have the strong support of all Democrats in making sure this is the best convention we have ever had,” Wasserman Schultz continued.

Just prior to news that Wasserman Schultz would step down, it was announced that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) would chair the DNC convention.

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

Wasserman Schultz’s resignation comes after WikiLeaks released more than 19,000 internal emails from the DNC, breathing new life into arguments that the Democratic Party—and Wasserman Schultz in particular—had “rigged” the primary in favor of nominating Hillary Clinton. As Vox‘s Timothy B. Lee pointed out, there seems to be “no bombshells” in the released emails, though one email does show that Brad Marshall, chief financial officer of the DNC, emailed asking whether an unnamed person could be questioned about “his” religious beliefs. Many believe the email was referencing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT).

Another email from Wasserman Schultz revealed the DNC chair had referred to Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, as a “damn liar.”

As previously reported by Rewire before the emails’ release, “Wasserman Schultz has been at the center of a string of heated criticisms directed at her handling of the DNC as well as allegations that she initially limited the number of the party’s primary debates, steadfastly refusing to add more until she came under pressure.” She also sparked controversy in January after suggesting that young women aren’t supporting Clinton because there is “a complacency among the generation” who were born after Roe v. Wade was decided.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has made the right decision for the future of the Democratic Party,” said Sanders in a Sunday statement. “While she deserves thanks for her years of service, the party now needs new leadership that will open the doors of the party and welcome in working people and young people. The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race.”

Sanders had previously demanded Wasserman Schultz’s resignation in light of the leaked emails during an appearance earlier that day on ABC’s This Week.

Clinton nevertheless stood by Wasserman Schultz in a Sunday statement responding to news of the resignation. “I am grateful to Debbie for getting the Democratic Party to this year’s historic convention in Philadelphia, and I know that this week’s events will be a success thanks to her hard work and leadership,” said Clinton. “There’s simply no one better at taking the fight to the Republicans than Debbie—which is why I am glad that she has agreed to serve as honorary chair of my campaign’s 50-state program to gain ground and elect Democrats in every part of the country, and will continue to serve as a surrogate for my campaign nationally, in Florida, and in other key states.”

Clinton added that she still looks “forward to campaigning with Debbie in Florida and helping her in her re-election bid.” Wasserman Schultz faces a primary challenger, Tim Canova, for her congressional seat in Florida’s 23rd district for the first time this year.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.