TANF Mothers Give Expert Advice On Program Reform

Some Capitol Hill staffers and other interested parties, including yours truly, got an earful on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from experts who know it well — five current and former “welfare mothers.”

As I’ve mentioned before, TANF is overdue for reauthorization, i.e., a thoroughgoing review and revision of the law that allows the federal government to spend money on the program and establishes its basic rules.

The Women for Economic Justice coalition organized the Hill briefing in part to change the “narrative” about single moms — this, I infer, because a fact-based view of their needs, ambitions and potential could lead to a better law than the one that’s been shredding the safety net since 1996.

If the five women who spoke can’t do it, I can’t imagine who could.

Stories of personal hardships — and mistakes — overcome by courage, smarts, energy and fierce determination to make life better for themselves and their children.

I’d expected them to address various issues often raised about TANF — woefully insufficient cash benefits, arbitrary sanctions, time limits, pressure to immediately get a job — any job, no matter how bad the fit and the pay.

And, indeed, we heard about some of these. But we heard most about educational opportunity — in some cases, how TANF had made higher education possible, in others how it thwarted college ambitions.

Magali, for example, was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when she was ten. She started working at thirteen because her mother couldn’t make enough to support them.

She married a man she thought was her “prince,” but found out was a life-threatening “monster.” For a long time, she felt she “had to keep quiet” because she depended on him for everything, including her tenuous immigration status.

But she ultimately fled with her children and wound up on TANF.

Given the opportunity, she passed the GED tests in a month. Then her local agency let her go to a community college rather than take a low-paying job — “gave her wings,” she said. Now she’s completing a degree at UCLA.

Rasheeda almost dropped out of high school after giving birth to her daughter. But she graduated with honors and went on to Temple University, where she completed a bachelors degree (with high honors) in three years and then a law degree.

With promise like that, it’s not surprising that she got scholarships and grants. The university provided housing for both her and her child. But without TANF cash assistance, she wouldn’t have had enough for their other basic living expenses.

Now she’s an attorney at a nonprofit legal services organization, where she represents and counsels low-income child care providers, “thereby increasing their economic stability and creating resources in the community” for low-income parents.

These are clearly exceptional women. And they seem to have had exceptionally good luck with TANF. Chalk this up partly to their state programs and partly, I would guess, to their caseworkers.

But we need to understand that the federal law severely restricts access to higher education and creates unique hurdles for those permitted to enroll.

Mary referred to some of them when she talked about her current experience with TANF.

She’d enrolled in the program when her first child was born, but then spent many years independently supporting herself and her family.

She returned to TANF fairly recently — one of the millions fired when the recession set in.

She wants to go back to school, thinking that a college education will improve her prospects in the job market. But TANF, she says, “allows only certain tracks.”

Specifically, she can enroll only in a program that qualifies as vocational education — unless, of course, she wants to pursue her studies while also putting in 30 hours a week in approved work-related activities.

Even with this restriction, she may or may not get work-activity credit for coursework. Under federal law, states can grant such credit to no more than 30% of their TANF participants — and then for only one year.

After that, studies can count for only part of a participant’s obligation. So Mary will have to put in 20 hours a week on other work activities — in addition to the time she’ll spend in classes and all but a fraction of  “unsupervised” homework.

This, of course, assumes she can get subsidized child care. Torrie was told she couldn’t if college was what she had in mind.

TANF is supposed to “end the dependency of needy parents.” Everything we know about the labor market tells us that postsecondary education is the best bet for doing that.

What sense does it make to impose artificial limits on college access? What sense to make successful completion more difficult for TANF parents than their better-off peers?

Questions one hopes our federal policymakers will ponder. And they might if they’d just get out of their ideological boxes and listen to real “welfare” moms.

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2 Responses to TANF Mothers Give Expert Advice On Program Reform

  1. [...] in vocational training or vocation-related education beyond the current one-year limit. We know, anecdotally, what a huge difference this could [...]

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