Why Are Most Poor Families Disconnected From TANF?

We’ve had briefs, policy proposals and programs for disconnected youth. We’ve had research on disconnected low-income men. And now we have new research on an overlapping group — disconnected families. They’re the subject of a recent Child Trends post, which previews a forthcoming brief.

Disconnected families, as Child Trends defines them, are families with children that lived at or below the federal poverty line last year and included no adult who worked more than 50 weeks or received cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Yet when we look at the findings, we see the families aren’t all that disconnected. The parents aren’t necessarily disconnected from the labor force, though, by definition, they don’t have long-term jobs.

More than 90% of the children in the families were enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. More than 75% received free school meals. And a slightly lower percent of the families received SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

So there are relatively few poor families with children that are altogether disconnected from major safety net programs.

Some who are might be disconnected because of their immigration status. Federal law denies major safety net benefits to undocumented immigrants, except for free and reduced-price school meals, WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and emergency Medicaid.

It also generally bars families who’ve lived in the country legally for less than five years, though there’s a child-only exception for SNAP and, if states choose, for CHIP and Medicaid for pregnant women and children.

What all the families are disconnected from is TANF — and not, in most cases, because of the restrictions on immigrant eligibility. It’s largely because of the ways states have used their much-touted flexibility to restrict participation.

One is the extraordinarily low income ceilings that states have established for income eligibility. The rules are complex and various.

But to give you an example, the earned income maximum for a family of three is below 50% of the federal poverty line in 28 states and the District of Columbia. In 2012, it was a mere $269 a month in Alabama and only $10 more in Arkansas.

Another major restriction is the time limit during which a family may receive TANF benefits. Most states and the District use a 60-month lifetime limit because federal law sets this limit on their use of block grant funds to pay benefits, except when only children receive them.

States may exempt up to 20% of families from this time limit. Only about half do, however. And 11 states set shorter time limits — only 24 months in four.

Families may also become disconnected from TANF before their time limit expires. Some are “sanctioned off,” i.e., denied all benefits, because the parents failed to comply with the work activity plans developed for them or with other requirements their caseworkers impose.

At least, they’ve allegedly failed. As Legal Momentum has persuasively shown, some TANF agencies hand out sanctions very enthusiastically — and often when the parent has done nothing she should be punished for.

Now, I don’t want to let any state off the hook here — or the District either, for that matter. But our federal government provides incentives for keeping families out of TANF and disconnecting those in it.

One is increasingly inadequate funding. The block grant that constitutes most of what states and the District receive is the same in nominal dollars as when TANF was created — and thus worth nearly a third less.

So states would have to plow more and more of their own funds into their programs just to sustain what they’d established.

Another incentive is the credit states can get for reducing their caseloads. This protects them from penalties for failing to have enough parents engaged for enough hours in authorized work activities.

Still another is that they can use both their block grant funds and the funds they must spend to receive them — their so-called Maintenance of Effort — on a wide variety of programs.

These needn’t be exclusively for TANF families — or even families in poverty. Some clearly aren’t, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported. They include, for example, child welfare services and refunds from the states’ Earned Income Tax Credit.

The less states spend on cash benefits and work-related activities, e.g., education, training, job support services, the more they can spend on things that command more political support than welfare.

So it’s hardly surprising that roughly 75% of poor families are disconnected from TANF. Or that children raised in these families are far more likely than their better-off peers to join the ranks of disconnected youth.

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