TANF Turns Fifteen

Fifteen years ago today, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — the bill that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

He’d promised to end welfare as we knew it. And, with a stroke of the pen, he did.

Cash assistance would henceforward be time-limited — a five-year lifetime maximum, with some limited, optional exceptions. None for program “graduates” who later suffered setbacks.

The federal government would pay states a fixed amount, based on what they were spending under the program TANF replaced. But they’d get bonus rewards for “decrease[s] in illegitimacy.”

States would have a good bit of flexibility, but they’d have to construct programs that, as the bill’s name implies, promoted personal responsibility and provided work opportunity, i.e., got recipients off the rolls and into jobs.

Big focus on personal responsibility — not be be confused with responsible personal choices.

The PRWORA includes, among other things, detailed work activity requirements, beefed-up child support enforcement, a related benefits cut for single parents who didn’t cooperate, a mandatory program component to reduce the rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, especially among teenagers, and some extra requirements for teens who had babies anyway.

The legislation was controversial from the get-go. Clinton reportedly wasn’t altogether happy with it, but went along because he’d already vetoed two more extreme Republican alternatives.

Peter Edelman resigned from a high-level position in the Health and Human Services Department because, as he later explained, the bill wasn’t welfare reform at all.

It wouldn’t promote work effectively. It would “hurt millions of poor children.” And it would deny federally-funded assistance to “hundreds of thousands of immigrants” who were legally authorized to live here — children included.

Similar views from other prominent poverty experts, including Senator Daniel Moynihan, who called the bill “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction.”

Needless to say, conservatives thought it was quite a fine thing. And they generally still do, though an upcoming hearing suggests that some Republican House members want to further tighten up on those work requirements.

I’ve put in my two cents on a number of occasions. Basically, I’m persuaded by the substantial body of research showing that the “success” the Republicans tout has little or nothing to do with enabling TANF recipients to find — and keep — living wage jobs.

Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich, best known for her classic Nickled and Dimed, sum up the evidence well.

Legal Momentum offers an even broader point-by-point indictment in its review of what’s happened to poor women and children in the 15 years since “welfare reform” began shredding the safety net.

What I think we need to understand is that the defects don’t reflect poor implementation. They’re an outgrowth of why welfare was “reformed” to begin with.

I recall TANF’s pre-history well, from my husband’s days in the Carter administration’s social policy planning office. The big deal then, as it was under Clinton, was to put a curb on federal welfare spending — especially support for single mothers.

By this measure, TANF has succeeded.

Congress has consistently level-funded the program, notwithstanding rising living and program operations costs and the growing number of families in need. At the same time, it’s allowed states to use unspent TANF funds for other, more politically-popular programs.

States have responded by adopting policies and condoning — if not actually encouraging — practices that minimize their caseloads.

The end result, says Ehrenreich, in a scathing review of our poverty policies, is that some recipients refer to TANF as “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.”

TANF will expire at the end of September unless Congress reauthorizes it or, as it did last year, passes a short-term extension. The latter seems more likely, given the other preoccupations — and hyper-partisan battles — on Capitol Hill.

But sooner or later, the White House and Congress will turn their attention to reauthorization.

One would hope that they’d reform welfare reform to provide a genuine safety net for parents who can’t support themselves and their children, plus education, training, child care and whatever else those who can work need to embark on career paths that will lead them out of poverty.

But, as Legal Momentum observes, “Congress could also consider proposals that would take TANF an even less effective safety net.” Might even pass some of them in one of those bad compromises that gave us the program we have today.

In the meantime, watch out for what happens to TANF when Congress gets busy on the spending cuts required under the new debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal.


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