No Shortage of Ideas for Better, More Affordable Child Care

May 9, 2016

I’m on somewhat of a tear about high-quality, affordable child care, as you who follow this blog know. That’s in part because I’ve discovered so much that I didn’t know and felt an urge to share.

So I’ve dealt with the extraordinarily high costs of unsubsidized care and the barrier that poses to low-income families. And I’ve dealt with quality standards and related factors.

In both posts, I’ve dwelt on money — or more precisely, lack of enough to give all low-income children, especially infants and toddlers the high-quality care they need when their parents need them to have it.

So time now to look beyond the defects to policy solutions. We’ve got a range, as I’ve already said.

One focuses strictly on what childcare workers get paid — an aspect of quality, for several reasons I’ve already tried to capture. The Fight for $15 campaign has broadened its original fast-food base by recruiting childcare workers. They too are speaking out for that increase in the minimum wage.

Sad to say, a victory would probably increase average earnings for childcare workers nationwide and in the District of Columbia, though the conventional phase-in for increases makes it hard to be sure.

The District may have a $15 minimum wage in 2020 — the last phase-in year set by what could be on the November ballot and by a bill the Mayor has sent to the DC Council. If it were effective now, it would increase the average childcare work wage.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute and DC Appleseed want the District to do something that would enable childcare providers to raise workers’ wages sooner and apparently higher, without cutting back on subsidized slots or spending less on other program quality components, e.g., educational materials, professional development.

The partners recommend increasing reimbursement rates for providers that care for children with subsidies. The measure they use for shortfalls, though not necessarily for their recommendation is 75% of what providers charge for unsubsidized care.

This is what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has long recommended. Not, however, to great effect. Only one state reimbursed at about this level last year — significantly fewer than in 2001.

One can readily infer that public funding hasn’t kept pace with need. What we know for sure is that total federal funding in 2014 dropped to its lowest level in twelve years.

Yet states and the District face a further potential cost crunch now that Congress has revamped the Child Care and Development Block Grant — the single largest source of federal funds for programs that serve poor and near-poor families.

CLASP and the National Women’s Law Center suggest that it needs more funding, even for states and the District to serve as many eligible children as they have at the same subsidy rates because they’ll have to spend more to meet the new requirements, including larger quality investments.

Bills recently introduced in Congress would go further. They would create a mandatory funding stream for the block grant, leaving it less vulnerable to annual spending choices.

The bills aim specifically to ensure high-quality care for all infants and toddlers in families with incomes no greater than 200% of the federal poverty line — about $40,300 for a three-person family now and sure to inch up over time.

States could get their share only if they had a plan to both expand access to these low-income kids and to improve quality — in part, by paying providers enough so they could meet standards specifically for the age group.

Don’t look to this Congress to pass those bills. They’ve got only a handful of cosponsors. They’re not so urgent as regular spending bills — an especially troublesome matter in the House. And their effect, if any, on the federal budget would prove troublesome in its own right.

The House bill would increase federal spending by about $25.3 billion over the first five years. The Senate bill seeks to offset the cost by collecting taxes from many U.S. companies that have managed to evade them through inversions — and others that will if the gaping loophole isn’t closed.

We already know how Congressional Republicans view a similar change — and not only, one gathers, because the Obama administration didn’t leave the matter to them.

Broader solutions floated nonetheless. The Center for American Progress, for example, calls for universal pre-K — a modest proposal, also advocated by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, among others, and already adopted by the District.

This, as I’ve suggested, addresses the need for early education, but not the need for high-quality care during all the hours parents work. CAP addresses that need too, with a tax credit to subsidize such care for children under five.

There already is a tax credit for child care, but only fairly well-off families gain the full benefit. And it’s a small one — at most, $3,000 per child and only twice that, no matter how many more children receive paid care.

CAP’s tax credit would instead deliver the greatest benefit to the lowest-income families, though families with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line would qualify for some support. And it would go, on a monthly basis, to providers, as health insurance subsidies already do — thus delivering the money directly and when it’s needed.

The Make It Work campaign reaches even further, advocating subsidies for all but wealthy families with children not yet in their teens. Costs to families would be capped at 10% of what they earn. And “providers” — presumably childcare workers — would get that $15 an hour wage.

Much pie in the sky, one may think. But the U.S. had something near to universal child care during World War II and would have had it again if President Nixon hadn’t viewed it as overly-costly and threatening to families.

All the proposals I’ve summarized here do have a price tag, of course. But the return on investment would be very high. We’d have more parents (mainly mothers) in the workforce — and more working full time. So there’d be more tax revenues flowing in, as well as going out.

The long-term returns, especially from quality care for low-income children would be greater and more various, as the Center for Equitable Growth shows.

We’d see, among other things, fewer needs for remedial instruction, less child abuse and neglect, less criminal behavior, better health, higher earnings and so both more tax revenues and fewer needs to spend them compensatory measures, including safety net benefits.

Seems to me family-strengthening. Strengthening for our economy and the frayed bonds of our society too.

 


Can’t Short Childcare Funding If We Want High Quality for All Kids

May 2, 2016

My last post focused mainly on childcare costs because they’re a high barrier to access, especially for low-income children. But access is only one key issue. The other is quality. And here too, money matters, for better or worse. So some words on that.

We know, from the growing body of research, that the experiences children have in their early years play a major role in how they develop — the mental equipment they have for learning, relating to others, dealing with setbacks and more.

That puts a high premium on the environment childcare programs provide, their curricula, how they translate those into day-by-day activities and what teachers and aides know and do as they interact with the children entrusted to them.

The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council dove into the research on early childhood development and came up with three basic types of knowledge and four related competencies that all adults with professional responsibilities for young children should have.

These aren’t things one can just pick up by raising children or working in a childcare center. I find it hard to imagine anyone having the requisite knowledge or how to use it without specialized formal education — or at the very least, intensive training.

The IOM and NRC rely in part on standards some national organizations have developed to certify early childhood educators. These, however, don’t translate into standards that childcare centers and home-based programs must meet. Some standards there are, however — mostly set by state agencies.

Agencies may have more work to do now that Congress has ramped up quality requirements in the Child Care and Development Block Grant — the single largest source of federal funds for subsidized child care.

The reauthorized CCDBG requires states and the District of Columbia to develop and enforce some quality standards, but they must address only health and safety.

They must also spend some small portion of their federal funds to improve the quality of care, plus a very small portion specifically for infants and toddlers. They must also have some quality-related requirements for caregivers, e.g., annual training.

Agencies may already have some quality standards built into their licensing requirements. The District does — a formidable set, including education and/or training, duties for everyone from top to bottom, daily activities, space and what’s in it.

The District also has quality standards specifically for childcare providers eligible for reimbursements to partially close the gap between what they ordinarily charge and what they charge parents with subsidies.

These differ so as to set higher reimbursement rates for providers that meet higher standards. Most don’t meet the highest, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and DC Appleseed recently reported.

Nor can they — in large part because reimbursements don’t fully cover even the ongoing costs of care — at least for infants and toddlers, the focus of the partners’ study. Providers reported a range of trade-offs — things they didn’t do, but would if they had the money.

The most commonly cited was an increase in staff wages — obviously a critical need. Childcare workers in the District earned, on average, $28,380 about a year ago — less than 150% of the federal poverty line for a family of three.

Childcare workers nationwide made even less, leaving those who earned the average only $230 above the same poverty line. So, as with many of the childcare issues I’m dwelling on, the wage problem isn’t unique to the District.

Nor the consequences. those very low wages are unlikely to attract people with a college education — or to enable workers with less to pay for specialized training. Not saying that’s the be-all-and-end-all. But mastery of the must-haves the IOM and NSC lay out does seem to require it.

The wages help account for high turnover rates — an extra cost to providers and a further loss in quality of care, since workers depart, having gained experience and oft as not are replaced by others who’ve less.

The churn also affects quality because, as everyone knows, little kids need stability to thrive, including adults they can count on.

Loss of a caregiver and the need to adjust to another — and then another — will often compound other destabilizing experiences common among low-income families, e.g., food insecurity, frequent moves.

So the need seems clear enough. Childcare providers must take in enough money to pay their employees a decent wage and, one way or another, public policies must ensure they do. At the same time, we don’t want a trade-off that would further reduce access.

What might those policies be? We’ve got a range of proposals — some more far-reaching than others, some fully-developed and some still in the visionary stage. So one more brief post to survey the landscape.

Needless to say (I hope), what the landscape will look like a year from now depends a lot on what happens in November. But we do seem to have a growing consensus that all is not well with our childcare system.

And we’ve some evidence that voters — Republicans, as well as Democrats — would support more federal spending to expand access to early childhood education.

So we just might see some legislation that would ensure low-income children a genuinely even start — and fewer of those children in families that depend on a childcare worker’s income.


Childcare Costs a High Barrier to Access for Low-Income Kids in DC and Nationwide

April 28, 2016

Picking up where I left off, access to child care is one of the big issues facing parents and policymakers. Low-income children, especially the youngest apparently don’t have equal access to the sort of care that would give them more equal opportunities during the rest of their lives.

So how might we parse access?

In one sense, it obviously means having enough slots in childcare centers, home-based and publicly-funded programs for all children whose parents want them there.

The slots must also, of course, be for their children’s age group and where parents can get their kids to them fairly quickly and at a reasonable cost.

But an age-appropriate slot in a conveniently located program will mean nothing if the parents can’t afford it. Nor if the program doesn’t provide care during the hours they themselves can’t.

We know how costly unsubsidized child care is nationwide and in each state, plus the District of Columbia, which racks up the highest costs of all.

Care for an infant in a local daycare center, for example, cost, on average, $22,631 last year — more than what a single parent, working full time, year round at a minimum wage job earned. Only about $4,790 less for a four-year-old.

The parent is technically eligible for a voucher. But the priority list for awards casts doubt on whether she could get one.

Even if she could, finding a slot could be hard because the District’s reimbursement rates are so low that providers either won’t accept children with subsidies or limit the number they will — a long-standing problem the District still hasn’t remedied.

The District also, however, has Early Start — a spin-off from Head Start for infants and toddlers in families with incomes no higher than the federal poverty line, plus some who may have more, but not enough to get by.

Little hope for poor parents here, it seems. The program enrolled only 12% of eligible children, according recent Census data.

For somewhat older children, the District has Head Start — an enrollment figure reportedly over 100% of those eligible. It also has pre-K programs in its public school system. These, of course, are also free.

But none of the programs operates on weekends or during evening and nighttime hours, when low-income parents must often work. Nor during summer months. So the programs may be accessible, but they don’t fully meet the need.

I’ve focused on the District, but we see generally the same problems in communities across the country — except, of course, for wealthy enclaves. Head Start and Early Start don’t provide nighttime care for children anyplace, for example.

Last year, child care was the single largest family expense, Care.com reports. But that’s only for parents who could scrape up the money — an average nationwide of about $9,775 a year for just one child in a center.

Obviously an access barrier for many others, unless they got vouchers to subsidize child care.The main federal funding sources subsidized care for only 15% of eligible children in 2012, the latest year we’ve got reliable figures for.

More recent figures from CLASP suggest that the gap between need and access has grown since, though we don’t — and to my knowledge, never had — a hard number for this.

We do, however, know that low-income parents must often make do with makeshift arrangements — sometimes parking a child with a relative, sometimes with a neighbor, sometimes just where they can keep an eye on their kids or not even that.

Most such arrangements may keep children safe, fed and the like. But they probably don’t provide the early learning experiences that a high-quality childcare program does. Money isn’t enough for that, but it’s the foundation.


What We Look for in Child Care for Little Kids and Why

April 25, 2016

When I was three, I was sent for half the day to what was called a nursery school, though it included a kindergarten for the five-year-olds. It truly was a nursery and garden for growing children.

Lots of outdoor space. A little house among the trees. “Wheel toys” to push or pedal up and down the paved drive. Two playgrounds — sandboxes, a jungle gym with rings to hang from.

Easels with pots of tempera and big brushes, jars of finger paints, mounds of molding clay. Time together in  circles, where we sang and had stories read to us. And caring teachers. I recall a sad little boy snuggled up in a teacher’s lap.

I’ve no idea how much the school cost. It couldn’t have been all that much because my parents didn’t have all that much to spend on what today we call “enrichment.” That’s partly because my father was the sole family breadwinner.

The upside of that was a mother with ample time to spend on free enriching experiences for me — and later, my sibs.

Child Care Not So Optional Now

Fast forward more years than I care to mention. Sending children to some form of child care isn’t just something parents like mine can do to give their kids opportunities for creative play, hands-on-learning, socializing, etc.

It’s often a necessity because they’ve got to have someone caring for their kids while they work for pay — or go to school or training to prepare for that. And making sure the kids are safe, fed and diapered, if they’re very young, is only part of it.

Care like what I got is extra important for low-income parents, working or otherwise, because their kids often need learning experiences they don’t get a home.

Without them, they’ll begin school already behind. And their parents probably can’t do enough to catch them up for the same reasons they didn’t — and most likely couldn’t — do what would have put them on a level playing field from the get-go.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that low-income children still start kindergarten with less developed skills — both cognitive, e.g., reading, math, and non-cognitive, e.g., persistence or, as it’s often called now, grit, the ability to work with and simply get along with peers.

These relative disadvantages increase over time, showing up in test score gaps, graduation rates, employment prospects and so forth. In short, lifelong inequalities begin “at the starting gate,” as the report’s title indicates.

Major Childcare Issues for Families and Policymakers

We’ve got two big issues, I think. One is access, the other quality. They’re obviously issues for parents, especially those who’ve got limited, if any income to spend on child care.

They’re also issues for our country — and thus our policymakers — because the growth and fairness of our economy hinges on the opportunities we provide for children who’ll otherwise remain stuck in poverty or near-poverty.

And they’re issues for all of us in the nation’s capital, where some 32,000 children under six live in families with no non-working parent and childcare costs are extraordinarily high — a special challenge for the low-income parents of about 10,440 children too young for preschool.

Much to cover — in part because we have a wealth of research, in part because the childcare system is a complex business and, in part, because, as I hope to show, the two issues I’ve laid out converge in a third.

So I’ll leave off here and tackle access and quality in separate posts. You can guess, I suppose, what links them and will loom large in both.

It’s money, both how much families have (or don’t) and how much government programs supply. Not enough, as you also probably guessed.


Why DC Should End “One Size Fits All” TANF Time Limit

February 18, 2016

We often see “one size fits all” used to characterize programs of various sorts, including the District of Columbia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The services aren’t that way any more. But the time limit is.

Families can participate for a lifetime total of 60 months. For some, that’s enough. For many, it’s not because the parents can’t get — and keep — a job paying anything like what they need to support themselves and their children.

We can get a handle on the barriers these parents face from the extensions the bill I recently mentioned would provide. They signal the sweeping nature of the time limit in another way too — specifically, that it denies benefits to children, who, of course, can do nothing to support themselves or make their parents more employable.

Different Extensions for Different Situations

Some of the proposed extensions would apply to parents who just need more time to surmount the barriers they face. Others recognize that some parents or substitute caregivers will probably face barriers until the kids are grown — longer, in fact, but they won’t be eligible for TANF any more.

This isn’t to say that we can use the extensions to neatly classify each TANF parent who might qualify. In some cases, it’s hard to say whether a parent just needs another year or so of cash support and services or whether further services probably won’t boost her over the barrier — or barriers — between her and gainful work.

The plural here because we shouldn’t assume that each parent faces only one barrier, as the Urban Institute’s analysis of the District’s TANF caseload clearly shows.

We can nevertheless find in the extensions various reasons families shouldn’t get tossed out of the program because they’ve reached a fixed, across-the-board time limit.

Parents Who Just Need More Time

Some extensions imply barriers parents can often surmount. For example, we find one for parents who’ve experienced domestic violence and are still receiving counseling or other such services to help them cope with the trauma.

Another extension would apply to parents who’d have an unusually hard time finding a job because the local unemployment rate for workers without at least a high school diploma is 7% or higher.

Two extensions would tend to reduce the number eligible for the above. One would apply to teenage parents enrolled in high school or a GED program.

The other would buy time for parents enrolled in a postsecondary education program or a credential-granting program that’s passed muster with the Department of Employment Services.

If TANF is supposed to reduce dependency, as the federal law says, then forcing these parents to quit their studies and seek low-wage, unstable jobs — the only sort most could get — is obviously counter-productive.

Parents Up Against Seemingly Permanent Barriers

Here we find an extension for parents who have severe mental or physical disabilities, but haven’t qualified for either of the two main federal sources of cash support for people too disabled to work.

Another extension would apply to parents with learning disabilities that preclude employment. Still another, which might overlap, is for parents who can’t read at the level expected of eighth graders.

Another would apply to any parent or “caretaker” who’s at least 60 years old — this, of course, because anyone in that age bracket who’s jobless and has been for long enough to hit the time limit will more than likely remain so.

Parents Behaving Responsibly

The bill specifically conditions some extensions on a parent’s compliance with her Individual Responsibility Plan, i.e., the set of activities she’s required to regularly engage in and the services she should receive.

Some parents may not qualify for any of those I’ve highlighted, but are dutifully following their plans. They too would qualify for extensions, as well they should, since they’re doing their best to move from welfare to work.

Families Likely to Suffer Specific Hardships

The bill would provide extensions for families that suffer certain hardships due, at least in part, to the very low benefits they receive — and for others that would suffer them without the benefits.

These include families that are homeless or likely to be. Also reprieved are those that would effectively cease to be families because the children would be put in foster care. This itself is a child protection — and anti-poverty — measure, since we’ve ample evidence that children who grow up in foster care tend to fare poorly.

More generally, all children would have some protection from poverty so dire it’s commonly referred to as “extreme.” Even if their parents didn’t get an exemption, their own share of their families’ benefits would continue until they themselves became ineligible — when they reached legal adulthood, for example.

Reprieves, Not Repeal of the Time Limit

The bill doesn’t extend benefits indefinitely for the families it would protect. Generally speaking, their cases would be reviewed every six months, though the Mayor could set longer review periods — a sensible choice, given the nature of some barriers.

The bill does, however, do more than avert worse hardships. It rolls back benefits for exempt families to what they would be if the DC Council, with then-Mayor Fenty’s apparently hearty approval, hadn’t established the across-the-board time limit.

Both the extensions and the rollback tacitly admit the policy was a mistake. And I suppose that’s the best we can hope for — at least, in the near term.

And near term is where we need to focus because, as I (and many others) have said, 6,000 or so families, including more than 13,000 children will have no TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to change the policy — and thus on a budget that covers the District’s share of the costs.

 


Budget Cap Will Cap Dad’s and Daughter’s Futures

October 19, 2015

I first met Peter* on a street corner, where he was selling Street Sense, the newspaper for homeless people in the District of Columbia. He now does work for me that I don’t have the strength for.

Peter has in-demand skills, but won’t seek a regular, full-time job because he has to drop whatever he’s doing to pick up his daughter Joanne — and sometimes rush her to a hospital.

She’s prone to seizures due to a severe case of epilepsy. She also has some developmental disabilities. Peter has sole responsibility for her, as well as an older daughter.

Though he must patch together short-term, flexible jobs, the family has a home and basic needs met. For this, we can partly credit the Supplemental Security Income benefits he receives on Joanne’s behalf.

The benefits are far from generous — $733 a month. This is far less than the estimated costs of raising a child with an intellectual disability, including the earnings a parent must forfeit.

Bills introduced in the last Congress would, among other things, have restored the value SSI benefits have lost. But they’d stand even less of a chance now than then.

Meanwhile, the caps on spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations threaten the special education Joanne is receiving.

She’s entitled to a free and appropriate education under federal law, but the amount states and the District receive to help pay for it comes from one of those programs — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Peter recently enrolled Joanne in a program that focuses on independent living skills, both work-related and basic everyday. He’s thrilled by the progress he sees and his opportunities for “hands-on” involvement.

He can perhaps look forward to steadier, more gainful employment as Joanne becomes able to manage more on her own — to count cash, for example, wash clothes and prepare meals for herself and her family.

But she’ll gain such skills only if the program continues to receive enough money to provide the high-quality, individualized education that she and her fellow students need. The federal government surely hasn’t been doing its share.

The law that created IDEA commits the federal government to providing states with 40% of the average they spend per student, multiplied by the number of special education students they have.

Funds actually appropriated for the 2013-14 school year fell short by more than $20 billion, the Education Commission for the States reports, saying this is the most recent year it has figures for.

The under-funding didn’t begin with the Budget Control Act that’s responsible for the caps. But both the cut it initially made and the caps have caused IDEA grants for programs like Joanne’s a real-dollar loss of  9.6%, First Focus reports.

Now we’re less than two months away from the end of the short-term bill that’s keeping federal funds flowing to all the programs that depend on annual appropriations. It takes an across-the-board nick from the non-defense programs to keep spending on them below this year’s cap.

Both the House and Senate bills to fund Department of Education programs would provide very small increases for IDEA — nowhere near enough to make up for the shortfall. They may, in fact, not even support the same level and quality of services for the same number of children.

Whether the House and Senate will come together to pass an actual budget for education is an open question. What the squeeze on funding due to the budget cap isn’t.

The caps, recall, were never supposed to go into effect. They were intended as an incentive, if you will, for the bipartisan “super committee” to agree on a sensible plan for reducing the deficit.

A “sizable contingent” of Congressional Republicans still seem bound and determined to preserve the cap for non-defense programs. Defense, as I’ve previously noted, would get an increase through a backdoor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly mulling over a “major” budget deal that would require cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, which don’t depend on annual appropriations. That’s almost surely going to mean no deal at all.

Everybody who lives in this country will suffer harms from the further ratcheting down of federal funding — some more directly than others. Peter and Joanne are mere drops in the ocean. But there are millions like them, doing their best in difficult situations — and vulnerable.

Large coalitions of advocacy organizations are campaigning to get Congress to #StoptheCuts — the hashtag they’ve been using on Twitter and will use for a Twitterstorm, i.e., massive blast of tweets, on Wednesday. This is an opportunity for all of you with Twitter accounts to ramp up the pressure.

You’ll see tweets to many blog posts invited and pulled together by Moms Rising. A shorter version of this post will probably be part of the “carnival.”

*  This isn’t his real name. I’ve changed both his and his daughter’s to preserve their privacy.

 


Much to Like (Though Not Everything) in Draft TANF Bill

August 27, 2015

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources styles its bill to revamp Temporary Assistance for Needy Families a discussion draft, indicating that it’s still a work in progress. A good thing that, since as I’ve already said, it’s far from problem-free.

The biggest problem, to my mind — and the one that may prove the biggest sticking point — is its failure to increase the block grant, which gets divvied up among states to help cover program costs.

The draft nevertheless has enough promising features for us to hope that it addresses this and other problems progressive experts have flagged.

Here’s a summary of features that particularly struck me, with apologies to you policy wonks and service providers who understandably would like more details. The law and the rules that govern what states must, may and can’t do are dauntingly complex.

A New TANF Purpose. Surprising as it may seem, the general purposes Congress has defined for TANF don’t include poverty reduction. The discussion draft would.

What it wouldn’t do, however, is hold states accountable for reducing poverty among families that participated in their TANF programs. Nor for those their programs currently serve — let alone all they should.

A dismal record on several counts. The new purpose wouldn’t improve it. But at least one other feature could. (Read on.)

Expanded Work Activity Options. Few features of the current TANF law are as problematic as the limits on activities states can count toward their required work participation rates, i.e., the targets they supposedly have to hit to avert penalties. (Again, read on and you’ll understand why “supposedly.”)

On the one hand, we’ve got core activities, which states can count for all the hours they’re supposed to have parents engaged, and non-core activities, which states can count only for parents who engage in core activities for a specified minimum number of hours per week.

On the other hand, we’ve got limits on countable core activity time for participation in vocational education programs, other education programs directly related to employment and high school attendance. The first counts only for a year — and for no more than 30% of parents. The latter two only for parents still in their teens.

Together, these tend to deny TANF parents opportunities to gain the formal education credentials and marketable skills, including basic literacy, that will enable them to get jobs that pay enough to support themselves as their children — or indeed, any jobs at all.

One need only look at the unemployment rate for all but the youngest working-age adults who don’t have a high school diploma or the equivalent for evidence of one of the defects in the current scheme.

The draft would extend the vocational education limit to two years and the high school age limit to twenty-five. It leaves open the question of whether to adjust the voc. ed. cap.

It also loosens up countable time restrictions that could benefit TANF parents ready to enter the workforce — or far from ready. For example, states could count toward their work participation rates more job search time and more time in so-called job readiness activities like mental health counseling.

Simplified Work Participation Rate. What states can count toward their required work participation rates depends not only on how the rules classify activities, but on whether participants are in one-parent or two-parent families. More core activity hours required for the latter.

The end result of these various distinctions is a large administrative burden, as you can imagine. The director of a nonprofit partnership that provides TANF services recently testified that their career counselors spend more than half their time on documentation.

The draft would do away with both the core/non-core distinction and the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the higher work participation rate for parents who are living together. It would also allow states to get partial credit toward their rate for certain parents who participate for fewer hours than the standard minimum.

Steps Toward Accountability for Results. Though the draft doesn’t hold states accountable for poverty reduction, it does require them to measure two related outcomes — employment and median wages for parents who recently left the program.

States would have to measure these outcomes for all parents who no longer receive cash assistance, whether because they’ve moved from welfare to work or for some less hopeful reason, e.g., because they’d reached the end of their state’s time limit.

CLASP, among others, has alerted the subcommittee to problems with the outcome measures. But making states responsible for what their work-related services achieve, rather than merely parents’ participation in them is another smart, overdue move.

No More Caseload Reduction Credit. Many states have had a deuce of a time meeting the work participation rates. They face a penalty — loss of some of their block grant funds — if they don’t.

But they can avert the penalty by reducing the number of families they serve. They’ve thus got an incentive to keep eligible families out of their programs and to get those who’ve surmounted the barriers out — work-ready or otherwise.

As I’ve written before, states — and the District of Columbia — impose sanctions, up to and including full benefits cut-offs when parents don’t do what they’ve been told to. Or rather, when some authority decides they haven’t.

A family that’s lost its benefits altogether doesn’t count as part of the caseload. So it’s not surprising to learn that some agencies have seized on every occasion to impose so-called full family sanctions — or in some cases, reportedly trumped one up.

The discussion draft would eliminate the caseload reduction credit — and thus, one hopes, overuse of sanctions, which inevitably punish children.

These aren’t the only features that make the draft a surprisingly strong step toward improving the altogether worst part of our safety net. (Ruthless cutting here to control post length.)

What will come of the draft remains to be seen. But we can at least hope for a bill with all the draft’s good features, plus good revisions, good answers to the open questions and a substantial block grant increase.

Better that than to focus on the hurdles such a bill would have to clear to get to the President’s desk.

Note: Those of you who wish I’d left the other features in may find them in two of the publicly accessible sources I used — comments by CLASP’s chief TANF expert and testimony by her counterpart at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

 


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