TANF Cuts Holes In the Safety Net

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.

27 Responses to TANF Cuts Holes In the Safety Net

  1. Thanks for this overview, Kathryn. I look forward to keeping tabs on TANF reauthorization as these conversations continue.

    Is your opinion that we fix the program, along the lines of the Legal Momentum recommendations, or is it so broken that we scrap it and create a more effective anti-poverty program?

  2. kathrynbaer says:

    You’re asking an excellent question, Joni. At this point, I don’t feel I know enough to assess in detail the fixes Legal Momentum recommends. But I hope I will by the time reauthorization moves to the forefront. I’m sure you will too.

    What I am quite sure of is that a move to scrap TANF and build a better program from scratch will get nowhere. It’s going to be difficult enough, I think, to get a Congressional majority on board with changes to the most problematic aspects of the program. So policy experts, advocates and service providers have to get busy identifying these and building the case.

    What I’m also quite sure of is that we need to do something about the assumptions underlying the current requirements—that TANF recipients just want to sit around the house and watch TV, that they’re thoroughly capable of finding jobs now and just don’t want to, etc. That’s one reason I’m looking forward to the report that you at SOME and partners at DCFPI are working on.

  3. I think your point about harmful stereotypes is a really good one. I knew it was important before, but recent events in DC have convinced me that it deserves as much attention as policy and program improvements.

  4. […] Mayor Proposes Cuts In TANF Benefits I’d just finished reading about the punitive aspects of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) when Mayor Fenty released his proposals for closing the […]

  5. […] these to discourage enrollment. That could happen here too. Recall that federal rules give states incentives to reduce their caseloads. At the very least, the requirements could delay delivery of […]

  6. […] Families Worse Off Under Welfare Reform I wrote awhile ago about a range of problems with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). A new […]

  7. Steve Lehman says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    I hope you are still tracking responses to this post.I came across your post while researching for a project on current social policy problems. As a child welfare worker I am deeply concerned with the effects of current TANF policy on the lives of families. In New York State I have seen many families be sanctioned and lose assistance due to the highly inflexible appointment and job search requirements. It is interesting that while caseloads are decreasing,poverty is increasing. This leads me to believe that many families are being denied to give the illusion that the program is successful. What are your ideas on how the current policies can be reformed to meet the needs of families, not just a states agenda.

  8. Kathryn Baer says:

    You’re asking a fine question, Steve. I wish I had as fine an answer. I think many things could be done at the state level. The program is after all extremely—even excessively—flexible. However, I think the remedy lies in the reauthorizing legislation. A few thoughts on that.

    The program must be fundamentally reoriented from an emphasis on caseload reduction to an emphasis on preparation for and placement in living wage jobs. This means, among other things, eliminating incentives for caseload reduction, redefining work-related activities to better accommodate participation in education programs and shifting performance measures from gross work activity numbers to successful employment outcomes.

    Funding for TANF block grants must be significantly increased. The program has been level-funded ever since it was created and will be again in FY 2011 if Congress accepts President Obama’s recommendation. Inadequate funding provides a perverse incentives for state and local agencies to erect barriers to participation and to impose the sanctions you cite.

    The program should be redefined to strengthen its safety net function in other ways. The five-year time limit is, to my mind, outrageous. It fails to recognize the serious long-term barriers to self-sufficiency that many TANF recipients have and the fact that TANF “graduates” can experience recurrent or new serious problems even after some considerable period of self-sufficiency. Along the same lines, I’d like to see a ban on full family sanctions.

    Federal oversight over the state programs must be strengthened. We read about some outrageous practices because local nonprofits monitor their programs and provide legal assistance. But this is no substitute for official oversight.

    More generally, I’m not comfortable with the wide latitude states have under TANF. I’d like to see the program focused on helping participants get and maintain gainful employment and supporting those who can’t. This would, of course, allow continuing funding for child care. And I don’t have a problem with permitting states to shift some limited percentage of their TANF funds to the child care block grant so that assistance is extended to other low-income parents. But, if the federal government wants to continue funding to promote two-parent marriages and discourage childbirth out of wedlock, it should put it someplace else. Since this probably is pie-in-the-sky, I’d like to see states’ uses of funds for these purposes limited.

    When I wrote my posting, I thought TANF would be reauthorized this year. Judging from the President’s budget, that’s apparently not in the cards. What will happen next year remains to be seen. But there’s a critical need to build support for the program and to address some misconceptions and also deep-seated hostilities against participants.

  9. Steve Lehman says:

    Hello again Kathryn.
    I see that president Obama has given additional funding for TANF progrmas as part of the recovery and responsibility act 2009. I have been waiting to see how those increases would help the families in my area. So far I have not seen any improvemnts. A single mother with a infant child only receives $450 per month in assistance which is not enough to support her child or herself. The mother was just sanctioned so her Cash assistance is reduced by a few hundred dollars. Funding for child care has been cut, as well as more and more people losing assitance for sanctions for things such as not having a survey in on time. It seems that there is less and less help for people who need assistance, especially families with children. I am curerently working on a project for a course which will give some ideas on how to improve outcomes for families reciving TANF assitance, but it seems that it may be a lost cause. TANF is not working, and is not helping people as much as they need to be helped. My question is, what can I do as a social advocate to realy influece change in this area. This is not just a course project for me, it is a real interest, it seems that our society is letting the poor and struggling families to fall through the cracks which in my opinion is unacceptable.

  10. Kathryn Baer says:

    Hello again, Steve. Good to hear from you.

    I’m not surprised to learn that funds from the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund are resulting in higher cash assistance benefits or other services for families in your area. The contingency funds were intended primarily to help states cope with caseload increases.

    The answer to your question, I think, is that social advocates should press for substantial changes when TANF is reauthorized. One thing, as your comment suggests, is that accountability measures should be shifted from activities to outcomes. If, for example, states had to account for how effectively their programs lifted families out of poverty, we might well see improvements in both training and supportive services. The CLASP reauthorization agenda has things to say about this.

    Another thing that should definitely happen is an increase in the federal block grant, which is the same as it was when the program was created—actually less, given the ongoing impact of inflation. I’m not saying that states can’t make up the difference, but the budgetary pressures probably contribute to flat funding for cash assistance, enthusiastic applications of sanctions, etc.

    In the meantime, Congress should extend the Emergency Contingency Fund, which is due to expire at the end of September. You could write your Representative and your Senators and tell them to do this. Also suggest that others you know do so.

  11. Steve Lehman says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    it’s been a while since I last posted a comment, but I have had some time to solidify my concerns and questions about approaches to TANF reform.

    I have signed a petition online to extend the emergency contingency fund, which I hope with get the attention it needs. I am learning that a large problem with TANF if the level funded block grant. With economic times as they are, I am not confident that TANF funding will increase, and if it is possible I am not sure where the additional funding will come from.
    I have concluded that if increased funding is not currently feasible, then there has to be some approach that will help improve outcomes for TANF recipients. I believe that relaxing the program requirements, and eliminating unreasonable sanctions will help with this. I also think that providing additional services to help participants with barriers will help. This approach again faces some monetary barriers. I think that organizing a political action group may be helpful to get some ideas from various advocates, and target population participants.
    I am relatively new to the social policy scene, and I am still learning how to facilitate such action. I have two questions. First, if increasing funding is not foreseeable, what are some relatively inexpensive approaches to TANF reform that can be worked toward in the short term? I have some ideas of my own such as utilizing non for profit human services agencies to help with employment services, literacy,substance abuse and mental health barriers, and homelessness which I have seen is becoming a big problem for TANF clients. Secondly, would the formation of a political action group further TANF reform, and how would someone like me who is new to the arena go about joining or facilitating such a group?

  12. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thanks for signing the petition, Steve. If you found it on Change.org, then it was one I created.

    I agree that the under-funded block grant is a big problem. Also that getting an increase will be difficult. But I wouldn’t want to give up without trying. It seems to me there’s a compelling argument for at least restoring the block grant to the value it originally had. There have, after all, been many ratchets of inflation since 1996.

    If by “program requirements” you mean the work activity requirements, then I’m pretty sure that arguing for a “relaxation” will prove a non-starter. What could get traction is an expansion of the definition to include more lengthy postsecondary education and training.

    It would also, however, be possible to change the rules so that states could get some credit for clients who can participate in work-related activities, but not for the regular number of hours. Alternatively, as you suggested before, accountability measures could be changed to focus on outcomes, rather than activities.

    Unless I’m much mistaken, TANF programs do use nonprofits. But you certainly don’t want a situation where the nonprofits are expected to provide services for free. They’re having a hard enough time as it is. That said, it would be worth finding out if TANF programs generally do the best job they could to link participants to other community services. I rather doubt it.

    Lastly, forming your own advocacy group would be an enormous amount of work—both initially and on an ongoing basis. And you’d need the expertise and resources to develop and execute a strategy that would impact outcomes. Better to look for a group that’s working or going to work on TANF issues.

    The only organizations I personally know are national. You could support them by using your Facebook page and whatever other social media tools you use to broadcast their action alerts and/or promote donations.

    Alternatively, you could hook up with a local organization or coalition. One possibility here would be to promote and then collaborate on an assessment of the TANF program you’re already looking at. This, I think, is the level where uses of sanctions should be addressed.

    Two organizations in D.C. did such an assessment and then took the results to the head of the Department of Human Services and the DC Council. They’ve gotten some good results. A brief overview and link to the report are on this blog at https://povertyandpolicy.wordpress.com/2009/11/12/new-report-aims-to-improve-dc-tanf-program/

    Hope some of this helps.

  13. jan says:

    You are doing a great job in getting people to think. But how do those in the KNow get newspapers to cover the Holes, in American aids?

  14. jan says:

    Oh Maine has opted out the 5 year limit. Federal government gave special permission. Their are very few on TANF, who go beyond 5 years, anyway. But its nice to have it.
    I love your point that 1.7 milion single mothers make less than $3,000 a year. I intend to use that fact in the Octs Conference on Human rights.

    An Adequate Living is a human right. Only it is a forgotten Human Right. Many Human Rights Causes and Groups ignore this right.

  15. Kathryn Baer says:

    Glad to see you here, Jan.

    It’s not easy to get a particular type of story into a newspaper, especially now that newspapers are shrinking and have fewer “beat” reporters.

    What I know from people who specialize in media relations is that you develop stories or, at the very least, story lines and take them to the reporters who cover the type of issue you want covered. Try to hook them to something current, e.g., the latest unemployment figures, or something else the newspaper has recently covered.

    You have a better chance of getting reporters to look at what you’re offering if you’ve developed relationships with them. You can do this by providing information that can be helpful to them. This can include clients that are willing to talk with them. Your best chances, of course, are with local reporters.

    In addition (or as an alternative) you can write op-eds for papers that accept them from members of the public. It’s easier to get these placed if you’re writing as the spokesperson for an organization. So you can consider linking up with one that would be interested.

    Another option that seems particularly timely, given what you’re saying about your upcoming presentation, is to write and disseminate a press release. You can find models for press releases on the web.

    That said, I wouldn’t discount the value of coverage on blogs. As you know, lots of people read them. They’re also a source for news reporters.

    P.S. The District of Columbia also allows TANF participants more than five years. However, the federal government subsidizes only the first five. I wonder if this isn’t also true for Maine.

  16. […] Cash Benefits. The biggest safety net holes here. No surprise given the major flaws in the program — insufficient federal funding, other incentives to reduce caseloads, […]

  17. […] Legal Momentum, just 10% of single-mother families received TANF benefits in 2010. This continues a long downward slide dating back to “welfare reform” and largely attributable to a combination of the […]

  18. […] Momentum, just 10% of single-mother families received TANF benefits in 2010. This continues a long downward slidedating back to “welfare reform” and largely attributable to a combination of the policies and […]

  19. […] usually 10% of single-mother families perceived TANF advantages in 2010. This continues a long downward slidedating behind to “welfare reform” and mostly attributable to a multiple of a policies and […]

  20. […] By this modest measure, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has egregiously failed — no surprise, given past performance. […]

  21. […] By this modest measure, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has egregiously failed — no surprise, given past performance. […]

  22. […] frequently vented about problems built into the TANF law and regulations, often drawing on briefs Legal Momentum has […]

  23. Mommy says:

    TANF requires ppl to go to a program for 35 hours a week and it’s in another town. You get only 240 a month. If I had the ability to go to somewhere for this many hours in the first place I’d be making more money. WT actual F. And the gas it would cost me to go to the place would be almost all of that money. grrrrrrrrr. Hello! Woman with a baby here. Do I just get flushed down the toilet of society? I’m trying to get an education to better myself and so I can try to get by while putting myself in debt with student loans paying my bills.

  24. Lordjusttakeushome says:

    Tanf has not helped my life. I am a married mom with two kids, and unfortunately I was the sole breadwinner before I came down with a serious chronic illness. My husband was in his last semester in college(only 1 1/2 months of school left) at the time I got sick. Well we go to get Tanf, and we get $300 per month to support a family of 4. The workers keep pushing my husband to quit school and find a job. We are currently homeless and all the shelters are filled. So what does he do, quit school to work for minimum wage, or finish school to make 3x minimum wage. Remember, you are not allowed to go to college and be on welfare. I hope Jesus returns soon, as I am tired of living in this world.

  25. Kathryn Baer says:

    This is such a sad story. I’ve written before about constraints the federal TANF rules place on gaining a college education. But in your husband’s case, I think either your state rules or the caseworkers are to blame.

    The federal rules now allow states to count as a permissible work activity up to 12 months of participation in a degree-granting program, though only for 30% of families in the caseload. Your husband had such a short time to finish, I think the caseworkers could have found a way.

    I know this is cold comfort. I do hope things get better for you.

  26. Lordjusttakeushome says:

    Thank you for your compassion Kathryn. In AZ, you must attend their workshops even if you are in school. Their workshops are a week long, so he would have to choose between school or tanf.

    What makes matters worse is that prior to being evicted, an organization paid our rent for us(arranged 1 month in advance). However, the landlord chose to evicts us prior to check arriving. So even if I had the money, I still wont be able to find a home because of the eviction.

    Poor people should stay far away from this godforsaken state.

  27. Kathryn Baer says:

    I’ve read enough to know that Arizona is indeed a very unfriendly place for poor people. I still feel, as I think you do, that caseworkers could have made a temporary exception to the work activity requirements so that your husband could finish out his semester. It seems so contrary to a primary goal of TANF that they didn’t.

    Maybe they felt under pressure because of the work participation requirements that Arizona must meet. The state will lose part of its federal funding if not enough parents are meeting their work activity requirements — unless it cuts its caseload, which Arizona certainly has done.

    The bottom line is that TANF is, in many ways, a deeply flawed program. You and your family are victims of that.

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