Next Monday, August 22, 2016, marks the 20th anniversary of “welfare reform” in America. Congress created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, as part of a federal effort to “end welfare as we know it.”
Prior to welfare reform there was Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC which served as the nation’s major cash welfare program.
AFDC was established in 1935, as part of the New Deal. It provided financial support for single mothers and children living in poverty.
Under TANF, the federal government provides a block grant to the states, which use these funds to operate their own programs. In order to receive federal funds, states must also spend some of their own dollars on programs for needy families (they face severe fiscal penalties if they fail to do so). This state-spending requirement, known as the “maintenance of effort” (MOE) requirement, replaced the state match that AFDC had required.
States can use federal TANF and state MOE dollars to meet any of the four goals set out in the 1996 law: “(1) provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; (2) end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; (3) prevent and reduce the incidence of out of wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and (4) encourage the formation and maintenance of two parent families.”
States have used their TANF funds for a variety of services and supports, including: income assistance (including wage supplements for working-poor families), child care, education and job training, transportation, aid to children at risk of abuse and neglect, and a variety of other services to help low-income families. Since the four TANF goals are extremely general, states can use TANF funds much more broadly than the core welfare reform areas of providing a safety net and connecting families to work; some states use a substantial share of funding for these other services and programs.
~ Source: Center on Budget and Public Policy Priorities
The 1996 law authorized TANF funding through federal fiscal year 2002. After several short-term extensions, Congress reauthorized TANF for another five years in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 and made some modifications to the program. Since October 2010, Congress has again continued to extend TANF with short-term extensions rather than a full reauthorization.
The TANF program is long overdue for reform. The basic TANF block grant has been set at $16.5 billion each year since 1996; as a result, its real value has fallen by one-third due to inflation.
Back then we really didn’t know how living in poverty impacted children. Now we do. Researchers have found that the consequences of living in poverty and economic uncertainty for children and youth is especially harsh and could linger for years. Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up poor are more likely to suffer from poor health, developmental delays, behavioral problems, and lower academic achievement. Even temporary spells of poverty can have negative long-term effects on child development.
So the question is: Has TANF worked?
Some policymakers have pointed to TANF as a model for reforming other programs, but the facts suggest otherwise. TANF provides a greatly weakened safety net that does far less than AFDC did to alleviate poverty and hardship, as the Center on Budget and Public Policy Priorities’ LaDonna Pavetti and Liz Schott point out in their newly released report:
TANF at 20: Time to Create a Program that Supports Work and Helps Families Meet Their Basic Needs
TANF’s combination of nearly unfettered state flexibility, fixed block grant funding, narrowly defined work requirements, and time limits has created a system that provides a safety net to very few families in need and does little to prepare low-income parents for success in today’s labor market. Federal policymakers can address these problems by adopting policy changes in three broad areas: providing an effective safety net to poor families with children, creating effective work programs to help parents prepare for work, and ensuring adequate resources are available for achieving these goals.
Twenty years’ experience under TANF has provided more than enough information to see that the program is not working as intended and is leaving many children worse off than they were under AFDC. States certainly could have done a better job to further TANF’s twin goals of providing a safety net and connecting parents to work, but the law itself is a large part of the problem. It contains poorly designed incentives and requires no state accountability for providing a safety net. It does not promote effective work programs or hold states accountable for creating them. States have used TANF’s flexibility to spend the money in ways Congress never imagined, with less than a third of the funds going to providing a safety net or effective work programs. Given states’ dismal track record, federal law should change to hold states accountable in these key areas.
You can read the full report Here.
Writing in a blog post for The Hill, Melissa Boteach, Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program, and Rebecca Vallas, Managing Director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP) said this about the TANF program:
While a robust economy in the late 1990s, along with expansions in tax credits for working families and childcare investments initially helped spur a dramatic reduction in poverty, once the economy slowed down, TANF’s flaws began to surface.
The program was not designed to respond to recessions. Indeed, during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many states actually cut back on assistance while unemployment and hardship were quickly rising. States began diverting TANF funds to plug budget holes, leaving just one in every four TANF dollars for income support to struggling families.
The result? Today, just one-quarter of poor families with children are helped by TANF, and assistance is so meager that in no state are benefits for a family of three enough to make rent on a two-bedroom apartment. In fact, TANF’s ineffectiveness at mitigating hardship has directly contributed to the rise in deep poverty.
In addition, a wealth of evidence now demonstrates that TANF’s work requirements are ineffective at boosting employment. That’s not surprising, given such requirements do nothing to address the lack of good jobs or barriers to work like childcare and transportation.
…..Without vital programs such as Social Security, nutrition assistance, and tax credits for working families, our nation’s poverty rate would be nearly twice as high as it is today. Moreover, these investments not only mitigate poverty today, they boost economic mobility tomorrow, improving children’s health, education, and employment outcomes in adulthood.
Ensuring an adequate safety net is something we all have a stake in. Job loss, low wages, ill health, and the birth of a child are the most common triggers of poverty spells in the U.S. More than half of Americans will experience at least a year of poverty or teetering on the economic brink during their working years, and fully 70 percent will need to turn to the safety net at some point.
We must take steps to strengthen the program so it can protect kids and families from hardship. Benefit adequacy, meaningful accountability, and reforms to support TANF recipients in obtaining the education and skills they need to get ahead are key priorities.
But we cannot stop there. To dramatically reduce poverty and expand opportunity, we must also pursue a bold agenda to build an economy that works for everyone—not just those at the top of the income ladder. This includes supporting job-creating investments in infrastructure, research, and education, and pathways to good jobs such as apprenticeships and subsidized employment. It’s long past time to raise the federal minimum wage so it ceases to be a poverty wage, and to adopt paid leave and paid sick days so working parents are not forced to choose between work and caregiving.
We should also protect and strengthen key investments in nutrition, housing, income security, and healthcare—including women’s reproductive healthcare and rights—to ensure basic living standards for all families. And we must invest in the next generation by ensuring affordable high-quality childcare, pre-K for all, and access to higher education.
Twenty years later, it’s not just time to fix TANF; it’s time to enact an agenda that will dramatically bolster family economic security once and for all.
GRANITE STATE RUMBLINGS
Mark your calendars for our 8th annual Step Up for Kids Day! We will be back on the State House lawn on this year with plenty of fun activities, games, and musical entertainment for kids of all ages!