Temporary Assistance for Needy Families just had its 19th birthday. It’s long overdue for an overhaul. And we just may see one before the end of the year.
Congress last reauthorized TANF 10 years ago. By and large, it made a flawed program worse — assuming, as I think we should, that it’s supposed to provide a safety net for poor families, while helping parents prepare for and find jobs that enable them to support themselves and their children.
Now the House subcommittee responsible for TANF seems poised to finish a reauthorization bill. And surprisingly, the discussion draft responds to concerns that progressive advocates, as well as some state administrators have raised for a long time.
I say “surprisingly” not only because Republicans control the subcommittee, but because Congressman Paul Ryan, who now chairs the full Ways and Means Committee, has often cited TANF as the model safety net program.
The bill, which is still a work in progress, is far from problem-free. Most importantly, it fails to do one big thing. And that will mean either no new law or some harmful consequences.
The one big thing is to boost the block grant — the federal government’s share of money for the benefits and services states’ programs provide. It’s been stuck at the same level as when TANF began. So it’s lost about a third of its real dollar value.
The draft would provide not a penny more. At the same time, it would require states to do two things they don’t have to do now — develop genuinely individualized plans for TANF families and track employment-related outcomes for those that leave the program.
The new mandates are surely promising, though the latter warrants revisions, as CLASP’s detailed comments show. They would also, however, require investments of administrative resources.
Other changes would tend to offset the administrative burden, but states would still come up short on funds to make those outcomes as good as they might otherwise be.
At the same time, the draft would eliminate the TANF Contingency Fund — a pot of money that states can tap (until it runs dry) when a recession or other hit to their economy indicates they’ll have more families to serve.
States would have as much flexibility as ever to cope with funding crunches by dropping their already-low income eligibility ceilings, reducing the lifetime time limits for participation, as some states have eagerly done, and/or by other measures to shrink their caseloads, e.g., pre-enrollment job search requirements, costly, ineffective, but still humiliating drug tests.
The draft would eliminate a major incentive states have to do reduce their caseloads by any or all of these, as well as by doling out so-called full family sanctions, i.e., total benefits cut-offs, which also reduce the caseload count.
But the fixed block grant funding level, plus the loss of extra funds in extra-bad times would leave states with another incentive to serve as few families as they can — and to forgo their new opportunities to improve employment prospects for those they do.
I’ll return to the promising features I’ve referred to — and a couple I haven’t — in a separate post. I’ve begun with the big problem because they’ll all be for naught if the federal government fails to do its share for our country’s poorest families, as it has — and increasingly so — for most of the last 19 years.