Hopes for TANF Work-Related Provisions That Work for Poor Families

The 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has occasioned more than the usual bashings, as my own bashing post noted. We’ve had a spate of proposals for reform — and not only from progressives.

I see a glimmer of hope for TANF, assuming, as I think we must, that the time isn’t ripe for ending welfare reform as we know it. The glimmer is what seems an emerging consensus on some of the program’s major flaws and fixes — not unanimity, mind you, but we don’t need that.

One big exception here, which I’ll return to. But here’s the first part of an overview of what might bring enough Democrats and Republicans together to pass long-overdue changes in the law.

I’ll focus on what everyone, left to right, views as a core TANF purpose — moving families from welfare to gainful work — and on what’s already percolating in Congress.

We now have not only the House committee draft I earlier blogged on, but a bipartisan bill recently introduced in the Senate. No votes on either this year, of course, but blueprints perhaps for the next Congress.

Broader Work Preparation Options

The law and related federal rules have created a very complex work activity system. Basically, states must have a certain percent of parents participating in work activities for a certain number of hours per week — an average of 30 for most single parents, for example.

But not all activities that might prepare a parent for work count. And only nine of the dozen that do can count for all the required hours. The other three can count for only a third of them in any given month.

You can see, I think, what a bookkeeping burden this is for caseworkers. And it’s actually worse because one of two different minimum hours per week apply when both parents live together.

Both the draft House bill and the Senate bill would eliminate the distinction between core, i.e., fully-countable, and non-core activities.

This wouldn’t only relieve caseworkers to focus on working with families. It would effectively enable parents to focus on activities that surely can prepare them for gainful work — job skills training, for example, and postsecondary education.

The current law hamstrings states in another way. They can count participation in a vocational education program for only twelve months — a very short time for gaining in-demand skills.

Still another limit prevents states from assigning as many parents as might benefit to these programs. They can count no more than 30% toward their required work participation rate. But they’ve also got to count teen parents in high school or a GED program.

For teens, that’s a core activity. Not so for older parents whose job prospects are equally dismal because they lack a diploma or the equivalent.

Both the House draft and the Senate bill would lift both the age cap and the WPR cap on participation in a vocational or postsecondary education program. They’d also extend the time limit for the latter, though not equally.

The bills also loosen up two further limits — one for parents by no means ready for training, the other for those ready to work.

The current law allows states to count only six weeks a year — and only four at a time — for “job readiness assistance.” This is a catchall term for services to help parents overcome certain high barriers to work, e.g., drug or alcohol addiction, a mental health problem.

Needless to say (I hope), a month is hardly enough time for anyone so disabled to start engaging in regular work activities for at least 20 hours a week.

But the WPR is all-or-nothing. No partial credit for fewer hours — either for these parents or for others who may miss too many for all sorts of reasons, e.g., a child too sick to go to school, an auto accident. Both the House draft and the Senate bill would let states take partial credits.

The law applies the same countable limit to job searches, except when a state’s unemployment rate is much higher than the nationwide rate or it qualifies as “needy,” based on its SNAP caseload.

This limit doesn’t make good sense either. Some parents, after all, just need some financial support while they look for another job or a job they’re now qualified for because of the education and/or training they’ve received.

Why then constrain states to put them into something else (and pay for it)? Why make it even harder for job-ready parents to move to work?

End to One Perverse Incentive

States, as I said, face a penalty when they don’t meet their WPR targets. This, in itself, gives them an incentive to limit enrollment to families headed by parents who seem likely to consistently put in their required hours on activities that count.

But they’ve got another incentive to get families out of their programs — and keep other needy families out. They can get a credit against their potential penalty by reducing their caseload. And they’ve responded accordingly.

Some have imposed lengthy pre-enrollment job searches or other work activities, for example. Some require humiliating drug tests. Many offer parents a relatively small lump sum instead of ongoing TANF benefits.

Virtually all states and the District of Columbia cut off benefits when parents don’t comply with their work activity requirements — in some cases even when they do, a report from Legal Momentum suggests. Full-family sanctions, as they called, eliminate the punished parents (and their children) from the caseload.

More generally, the caseload reduction credit is one, though not the only feature in the current law that encourages states to get parents into jobs as swiftly as possible — even if they’ll get paid a pittance, even if they’re likely to be jobless again soon. What we know suggests either or both are common.

Both the House draft and the Senate bill would do away with the caseload reduction credit. States that fail to meet their WPR targets would instead have to increase their own spending.

Only the Senate bill, however, requires them to invest their additional funds in what it, hearkening to many experts, defines as “core activities” — cash assistance, work-related programs and child care. We know what would happen otherwise.

Those of you still with me can see that the law gives states far too much flexibility in some ways and not enough in others. In both respects, it undermines at least one of the law’s express purposes.

More about needed changes to follow.



One Response to Hopes for TANF Work-Related Provisions That Work for Poor Families

  1. […] last post dove into the thorny thicket of the work participation requirements that the Temporary Assistance […]

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