Back in 1996, then-President Clinton and the Republican Congress agreed to “end welfare as we know it.” And, indeed, they did.
The old welfare program–Aid to Families with Dependent Children–guaranteed benefits to all families whose resources were below state-determined eligibility levels. The replacement–Temporary Assistance for Needy Families–set a maximum lifetime participation of five years and generally linked receipt of benefits to participation in work-related activities.
States receive their federal TANF funds in a block grant. Within certain limits, they can establish their own eligibility standards, set their own benefit levels and otherwise administer the program as they see fit.
A recent report by Legal Momentum documents the results:
- Since 1996, the number of welfare recipients has decreased by almost two-thirds, mainly due to less participation by poor single women with children.
- The percentage of poor children receiving welfare dropped by 62% in 1995 to 24% in 2007.
- In 2004, more than 1.7 million single-mother families had annual incomes–benefits and earnings combined–of less than $3,000.
The last figure here points to a serious problem with benefit levels. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2008 benefits were less than 50% of the federal poverty line in all but one state and less than 25% of the FPL in 20 states.
Both the Legal Momentum report and a 2006 review of TANF by CBPP identify a range of problems underlying the low participation rates. They include:
- The lifetime limit, which applies even to beneficiaries who are trying to find jobs or have serious barriers to employment, e.g., mental and physical health problems. (States can waive this limit for 20% of cases, but beyond that have to foot the whole bill.)
- Incentives to reduce caseloads. These include a caseload reduction credit that allows states to avoid penalties for failing to meet their work participation quotas and the fact that states are allowed to use unspent TANF funds for other programs.
- Various practices that control the caseload, e.g., intake procedures that deter participation, case closures unrelated to loss of eligibility.
- Full family sanctions, which terminate assistance to an entire family when the adult(s) don’t comply with work activity requirements.
And then there’s the whole matter of work-related activities. Current rules require that half a state’s TANF recipients be actively engaged in preparing for work, looking for work or actually working for at least 30 hours per month. (Hours can be lower for a single parent with a very young child. Both the quota and hours are higher for two-parent families.)
But what counts as work preparation is highly restrictive. For example:
- “Job search and readiness” activities are limited to six weeks per year. Substance abuse and mental health treatment and rehabilitative services count as activities of this sort.
- Enrollment in vocational training is limited to 12 months and can’t include participation in a program leading to a four-year or advanced degree.
- Only 30% of recipients can be participating in vocational training at any time–unless, of course, they’re doing it in addition to their officially-sanctioned work-related activities.
- Study time for permissible training doesn’t count as a work-related activity.
- Participation in adult education and/or ESL courses counts only if related to a specific occupation or job. Homework time for these courses doesn’t count unless supervised.
No wonder that TANF “graduates” generally don’t achieve ongoing employment at wages sufficient to lift them out of poverty. The figures are, to my mind, truly damning. For example:
- A fairly recent three-city study found that only 26% of “caregivers” who left TANF were working and that their wages averaged $7.44 per hour.
- According to a soon-to-be-published study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and So Others Might Eat, only 45% of D.C. TANF recipients who got a job were still working six months later and at an average wage of $9.00 per hour.
Bottom line is that TANF should provide a safety net for poor families and a pathway out of poverty. And it doesn’t do either nearly as well as it should.
Legal Momentum has produced an agenda for reforming TANF when it’s reauthorized next year. I expect we’ll see others. But what we need first and foremost is a wholesale rejection of the “welfare mother” stereotypes that got us this mean program to begin with.