The House Subcommittee on Human Resources is still holding hearings to provide a basis for the overdue overhaul of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. No issue has proved as controversial as the work activity requirements.
Progressive experts want them modified so that parents can readily engage in activities that will improve their employment prospects, e.g., by allowing states to count toward their required participation rates longer-term job-related education, high school enrollment and GED prep for adults and services to reduce personal barriers to work.
Others the subcommittee has heard from object to any such expansion. Robert Doar and colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, say they fear it will “shift the focus of TANF away from a work-first model.” Clearly a bad thing, since TANF “has been a success,” Doar claims elsewhere.
His view — and not his only — is that the program should aim to get parents into the workforce swiftly. No matter that the jobs they can get often pay little. They’ll develop more skills, plus a work history and so move up to higher positions.
A recently reported study of parents who left Maryland’s TANF program casts grave doubts on this scenario. It does so by tracking a sample of nearly 4,770 leavers for five years — longer than most prior studies.
Even first-year outcomes strongly suggest that a majority weren’t work ready, though that’s the intent of the work activity requirements — or if ready, not able to find steady work.
Only slightly more than one in three worked all four quarters — whether part time or full time the report doesn’t say. It does, however, tell us that only 18.5% earned $20,000 or more — enough, in other words, to boost a family of three over the very low poverty line.
More than one in four didn’t work at all. And of those who did, the highest percent — roughly one in three — earned no more than $5,000.
Steady employment — even by the researchers’ liberal standard — was relatively rare. By the fifth year, only about one in five had consistently worked either three or four quarters.
The percent that never worked barely shrunk. And in the fifth year, it outstripped those who worked all four quarters, making it the most common outcome then.
A similarly dismal earnings picture. True, the number earning more than $20,000 was 7% higher by the fifth year. But nearly 48% earned $5,000 or less, not counting those who had no earnings whatever.
Over the whole five year period, more leavers than not “remained mired in jobs” in which they never earned more than the equivalent of a half-time job at the minimum wage. Far, far less than the self-sufficiency TANF programs aim for.
And indeed, 58% of the leavers returned to Maryland’s program — this presumably because they’d left before they’d participated for the 60-month lifetime limit, which Maryland, like a majority of states, imposes. (Most of the rest cut families off sooner.)
On a local note, the District of Columbia’s TANF program adhered to a work-first approach until late 2011 — and took some considerable time after that to fully convert to more individually-tailored activity plans.
The District hadn’t even used such opportunities as federal rules allowed to permit a year of “education directly related to employment” at a community college or voc-tech school. Nor had it used these opportunities to meet needs for basic literacy or English as a Second Language education.
What this means is that the first round of families who’ll lose what remains of their benefits spent years in a program that prepared few, if any of the parents for jobs that pay enough — and for long enough — to even lift them out of official poverty.
We didn’t need the Maryland study to tell us this. Earlier followups have indicated something similar for leavers after the first few years to TANF — those the program’s enthusiasts always cite.
A fairly recent audit of the District’s own 60-month-plus parents found, among other things, that only 38% who’d received employment services got jobs that could have provided steady, full-time work.
Of all those who’d gotten jobs of any sort since early 2012, fewer than half had jobs of any sort in October 2014. And as my review of the findings noted, the fall-off starts before the second month.
These results skew toward the positive because the auditors looked only at the 40% or so of at-risk parents whom the Department of Human Services had assessed as work-ready.
Ready perhaps, but apparently unlikely to work steadily for wages that are anything like what they’d need to support themselves and their children.
And unlike the Maryland leavers, they won’t have a chance to recover the protections against dire poverty that TANF provides — unless the District concludes that establishing a rigid time limit was a short-sighted mistake.