Nothing new in the big picture we get from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ update on how states spend their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. But even the same-old is timely, both because of what’s going on at the federal level and because we’ve got things brewing here in the District of Columbia.
I’m going to split these into two posts because the pressing issues are as different as the proclivities of the majorities in the Capitol building and those of the leaders in the city its dome looms over.
State spending and the federal policy implications first.
As you may know, Republicans on Capitol Hill — and conservatives they listen to — still view TANF as the model anti-poverty program. Time limits, rigid work requirements, lots of state flexibility and an ever-diminishing fraction of the federal budget. What’s not, for them, to like?
So we see another House budget plan that would convert both Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) to block grants somewhat like TANF. States would get a fixed amount of funding, no matter what befalls their economies or drives up needs for other reasons. They would have the flexibility to reduce benefits and/or further restrict eligibility so as to manage with what they get.
States have had such flexibility — and then some — since welfare as we knew it ended in 1996. And they’ve received the same dollar amount in block-grant funds ever since.
Most of us, I think believe TANF should do two main things. It should provide a safety net for poor families with children. And it should help the parents get to the point where they can earn enough to pay for their families’ needs.
Yet states spent, on average, 28% of their TANF funds* on cash assistance in 2013, the latest year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported figures for. Even states that spent higher percents provided benefits too low to lift a family of three out of deep poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.
More remarkably, states spent, on average, just 8% of their TANF funds on work activities and supports to make participating in these activities possible, e.g., childcare subsidies, transportation.
Large disparities among states, as you might imagine. Yet every state spent at least some funds on programs not exclusively — or even primarily — for TANF-eligible families, e.g., child welfare services, Earned Income Tax Credit refunds, early childhood education.
However worthy these may be, states seem to be using their flexibility to shore them up at the expense of essential supports and services for TANF families. A dozen states spent at least half their TANF funds this way.
In short, a “cautionary tale,” as CBPP calls this prime example of the block-granting approach to safety-net programs.
* Here and throughout this post, TANF funds include federal block grant funds and what states claimed as their maintenance of effort, i.e. what they spent of their own funds and, in some cases, funds that nonprofits spent on any of the program’s four major goals.