House Republicans Defend Counterproductive TANF Work Rules

House Republicans will again try to block any and all waivers of the work participation requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

They passed a bill to this effect in mid-March. And we find the equivalent tucked into Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan as well.

As I’ve written before, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told states that they could get waivers only if they presented plans that seemed likely to improve employment outcomes, plus measures to track success.

The Republicans are still up in arms. Congressman Dave Camp, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, again asserts that the waivers are illegal — and should be because they will undermine the purported success of the TANF program.

The work requirements were central to this success, he says, and thus helped lead to “more work, more earnings, less welfare dependence, and less poverty among low-income Americans.”

No one would argued that the touted reforms haven’t drastically reduced dependence on “welfare.” In 1996, when TANF was created, 68% of poor families with children received cash assistance. In 2010, only 27% did.

Meanwhile, the number of families with children poor enough to fall below the very low poverty thresholds increased by 17%.

For single-mother families — the large majority of those TANF serves — the latest reported poverty rate is 40.7%. These undoubtedly include families in the program, since no state provides cash benefits equal to even 50% of the federal poverty line.

It’s nevertheless true that many single mothers entered the workforce in the late 1990s. Experts give the TANF work requirements some credit for this, but note also the importance of other factors.

Two seem especially important because they help explain not only the sharp uptick in single-mother employment, but the downward slide since, as well as the disproportionately high rate of poverty among single-mother families.

The labor market in the late 1990s was unusually tight. And the demand for low-wage workers in particular was unusually high.

So it was relatively easy for TANF parents to get hired. Generally not for jobs that paid enough to support them and their children, however.

Nor to move up to better-paying jobs that offered some modicum of stability and essential benefits, e.g., paid leave, health insurance.

Which brings us back to the issue of the work participation requirements. They are, indeed, a core part of the TANF program we’ve got.

But they’re also the core of the program’s failure to help poor parents move from welfare to work that ends not only their dependency on, but their need for government benefits — one of the main goals Congress defined when it created TANF.

The work participation requirements fly in the face of a basic good management principle. They hold states accountable for process, not outcomes, as a new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains.

Process, in this case, means that states must have set percents of the parents in their caseloads engaged for a set number of hours in one or more of a set of activities defined in the law.

At the same time, states can avoid penalties for failing to hit their required participation rate by reducing their caseloads — in any manner they choose.

Both the “countable” activities limit and the caseload reduction option encourage agencies to push TANF parents into the first job they can find — or to direct their contractors to gear their services to this “work first” approach.

On top of this, the law effectively prevents states from achieving the best long-term employment outcomes because it imposes several different limits on how much they can count participation in education programs as part of work activities. For example:

  • They can count hours spent in these programs for only 30% of the parents in their caseloads — and then only for 20 hours a week, counting homework, if supervised.
  • Vocational education training is okay, but only for a lifetime total of 12 months.
  • Coursework leading to a four-year or advanced degree is not countable at all.

At the same time, the work participation requirements constrain states from fully addressing severe, relatively common barriers to work, e.g., mental health and/or substance abuse problems.

Parents with these problems generally can’t perform countable work activities on an ongoing basis — at least not for the average per week hours required.

But their participation in programs designed to help them resolve such problems is countable for only four consecutive weeks and for a total of only six — or in some cases, twelve — weeks a year.

So some states create hurdles to keep these parents out of their programs, as Elizabeth Lower-Basch at CLASP recently testified. States that want to help must pay for separate programs* or risk penalties.

Finally, states get no credit for parents who perform countable work activities for fewer than the required number of hours. This, among other things, punishes them for accommodating limits related to disabilities, as federal law requires.

One result of all these rules and restrictions is that agency staff spend an inordinate amount of their time determining and recording countable hours.

This is time that’s not available to work with TANF parents so that they get — and stay — employed. (Such figures as we have suggest considerably more success in job finding than job keeping.)

No matter, so far as the law is concerned.

As CBPP says, “TANF is the only employment program in which getting participants into paid work is not a key success measure” — or so far as I can tell, a measure states need concern themselves with at all.

This is what House Republicans hope to protect from experiments that could help produce an enlightened reform of welfare reform.

* Some states — apparently not many — also use these programs to support parents in postsecondary education programs.

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3 Responses to House Republicans Defend Counterproductive TANF Work Rules

  1. Don Roberts says:

    The more I look at Workforce Development and the various programs that call for wage employment the more outraged I become. Poor people are not second class citizens and most are not responsible for their own poverty. Also add to the fact that they require people to waste time and effort asking for jobs that aren’t their from companies that don’t want to hire them – person of color, person with a disability, too long unemployed, won’t fit into our corporate culture (my favorite), the list goes on. And if a person can get a job it’s for crap wages.

    I am inclined to argue that the government doesn’t have the authority to create a workforce anyway (14th Amendment precluding involuntary servitude and employment is a form of servitude).

    This second class citizen ship crap has got to go. The ruling class get the choice “economic opportunities” while the poor get work opportunities? Please.

    The whole system does a better job of perpetuating poverty than alleviating it.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Don, I’m in total agreement with what you say about poor people, but not with what you say about workforce development programs.

    What I know of these programs suggests that many of them, as you say, don’t help unemployed people find jobs they can actually get hired for. In the case of TANF, participants sometimes just get plunked in front of computers and/or must make personal visits to employers that are hiring, go to job fairs, etc.

    There’s little, if any, skill development or help in identifying real job prospects.

    But the government isn’t creating a workforce. The intent of the programs is to help people join (or rejoin) the workforce. And we have lots of evidence that this is what they want to do.

    A well-designed workforce development program can prepare them for jobs that pay a living wage and offer opportunities for advancement. One of my main objections to the TANF work requirements is that they create barriers to this kind of program.

  3. […] No one, I think, would argue against programs that help people who can work prepare for and find jobs that will enable them to support themselves and their families. (Whether that’s a good description of TANF is another matter.) […]

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