What We Know About DC Parents Up Against the TANF Time Limit

November 3, 2016

The working group deputed to advise on the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program gathered various kinds of information before making the recommendations I recently blogged on.

Among the most influential, I’d guess, were two newly-gathered sets of data that tell us — and decision-makers — more about the 6,560 or so TANF parents whose families will be at or over the 60-month lifetime participation limit next October, unless the Mayor and Council agree to an alternative.

For one set, the Department of Human Services did what seems a limited analysis of the families’ case records. For the other — and to me, more enlightening — it asked the parents some questions. The working group’s report includes an analysis of the results.

They bolster the case for eliminating the time limit because they cast grave doubts on the parents’ prospects for getting — and keeping — jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their children. Not such grave doubts for all, however, if they’re given more time in the program.

Here’s a sampling of what we learn.

Twenty-two percent of the survey respondents reported they were working, but very few of them full time. All but 39% usually worked for no more than 30 hours a week.

The fact that most of those already over the time limit have children under 10 helps explain this, but so may the hiring and scheduling practices that depress earnings for so many low-wage workers.

Nearly half the working parents earned less than $250 a week. A mother with two children would need about $388 a week, every week, just to lift the family over the federal poverty line.

About half the parents hadn’t participated in TANF for 60 months running. Three-quarters of those who’d left had done so because they’d gotten a job and/or began earning too much for their families to still qualify.

About the same percent were back in the program because they’d lost their jobs or couldn’t find a job that would enable them to support their families. These may include the 11% who said they’d re-enrolled because they couldn’t afford child care. Seems they’d lost the subsidies TANF parents get.

Their resumes may have lacked proof of the high-level skills so many local employers require. Thirty-one percent of the parents surveyed said that lack of sufficient education and/or training made it difficult for them to work.

The same percent are currently trying to get a GED or high school diploma — hardly something they could invest as much (if any) time in if kicked out of the program.

They’ll have a hard time getting any job without even this minimal credential. The unemployment rate for working-age residents with less is nearly 20%, according to the most recent analysis we have.

More than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require at least some postsecondary education by 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects.

This, of course, suggests that the job market will remain very tight — if not get tighter — for the least educated TANF parents. Hence, the need to ensure that TANF will remain a safety net for them and their children.

But it also argues for eliminating the time limit in a different way because 38% of the at-risk parents are taking college-level courses now. And scholarships the District provides exclusively for TANF parents probably help them cover the costs, as do the childcare and transportation subsidies.

Lack of work experience caused problems for 35% of the parents — perhaps some of the same who cited insufficient education and/or training as a barrier.

Far from all parents face only these barriers. More than half cited at least one sort of health problem as a reason they weren’t working, looking for work or regularly participating in a TANF training program.

Physical health problems pose a barrier for well over one in three. The case review found 18% with mental health needs that remained unmet — presumably meaning that the parents still suffered from them.

The federal Supplemental Security Income program provides modest cash benefits for people whose disabilities make self-supporting work impossible.

But relatively few who apply get them — and none who can’t prove, among other things, that their disability will last at least a year (or that they’ll die sooner) and precludes any sort of paying work.

A top-flight TANF expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put the chances that the 60-month or over parents could make up for their lost benefits with SSI at no more than 10%.

Understandably, more than half the parents facing lifetime banishments from TANF believe it will be harder for them to meet their families’ needs. An additional 25% don’t know.

They’re, of course, viewing their prospects in today’s job market. Come the next recession — and one will come — there’ll be fewer job openings and more recently-employed people competing for them.

What then for the many thousands of families tossed out of TANF — and others who’ll reach the 60-month limit during the downturn?


A Time Limit for the DC TANF Time Limit?

October 31, 2016

Maybe — just maybe — the Mayor and the DC Council will decide to do the right thing about the families who will lose what remains of their thrice-cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

I’ve written about the plight of these families often — and more recently, about a proposal to relieve those who’d suffer specific hardships.

The Council could have folded it into the budget for this fiscal year, but kicked the can down the road again — largely because the administration said it had to study the issue.

It still hasn’t taken a position, but it now has recommendations that the Department of Human Services asked a working group to produce, plus advice on what it should do to make TANF better.

So a brief review of the issue, plus an update seem in order.

Families Facing a Crisis

Less than a year from now, roughly 6,560 families, including more than 10,000 children will lose their TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to reprieve at least some of them.

These families — and more as time goes on — will not only lose those benefits, but have no chance of ever getting them again because the current law sets a 60-month lifetime limit on TANF participation, with no exceptions, no matter what.

They’ll have little or no cash income, unless the parents manage to find steady work on their own. Not a likely prospect, given what we know about TANF “leavers” elsewhere.

We can reach a similar conclusion from the District auditor’s report on parents over the 60-month limit who’d recently received services designed to get them into the workforce.

How the Program Would Change

As I’ve said, the report includes many recommendations, but its main purpose is to guide action on the time limit. To that end, the working group’s first preference would do three things.

First, it would split the per-family cash benefit into a child grant and a parent grant. The child (or children) would get 80% and the parent (or parents) 20%.

This, the report says, would support children, give parents an incentive to participate in work activities and protect the most vulnerable. It would also shield children from sanctions, i.e., benefits cuts imposed when someone in authority decides that parents aren’t doing what their work activity plans require.

Second, it would eliminate the time limit for both child and parent grants. Families would remain eligible so long as they met already-established requirements.

Third, it would adjust the benefit reductions imposed as sanctions — these, recall, to the parent grant only. The initial sanction would remain the same — a 20% cut. The second would be 10% less than now — and the third 40% less, rather than the total cut-off in the current rule.

The less drastic cuts would indirectly help protect children because both grants will, of necessity, go to the parents. Infants, after all, don’t buy their own diapers, preschoolers their own shoes, etc.

And many of a family’s largest costs can’t be divvied up among members — housing, for example, and food, which poor and near-poor families generally have to buy, even if they receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Advantages to Recommended Approach

The overhaul has one obvious advantage. No families would be plunged into dire poverty, with the long-term harms we know that often inflicts on children, e.g., brain damage, chronic physical and mental health problems, neglect and even abuse from over-stressed parents.

Children would also have some protection from the harms stemming from such practical consequences as homelessness and malnutrition. Rolling all these together, they’d have a better chance of completing high school “college and career ready,” as our public schools intend.

The other advantage to the working group’s preferred option is that it’s far simpler to administer than the extensions the pending bill would establish. And it’s free from cracks some families could slip through, e.g., the need for victims of domestic violence to share their problem with virtual strangers.

Instead of various criteria, each with its own tracking system and potential time limit, there’d be only two clear reasons for ending a family’s participation in TANF.

Either it moved out of the District or the parent gained more income than the maximum for eligibility. Parents would still have every reason in the world to prepare for jobs, look for them and do their best to keep them because cash benefits would remain very low.

But there’d always be a safety net for those who initially succeeded, then fell on hard times again. What we now know about the parents over the current time limit or soon to reach it shows how important that’s likely to be. (More about this in a followup.)


Clinton Unveils Anti-Poverty Reforms to Child Tax Credit

October 17, 2016

Clinton firmed up her agenda for children and families last week with a plan to reform the Child Tax Credit. Her announcement headlines it as a “middle class tax cut,” but it would deliver needed income support to poor and near-poor families with children, especially the very young.

We can see that Clinton attends to progressive advocates and members of Congress who attend to them. Basically, she’s borrowed from bills previously introduced in Congress, which borrowed from a proposal by the Center for American Progress.

They all would make the CTC available to working parents who can’t claim it now and deliver the greatest benefits to those with children in their early years.

CAP argues that those families’ needs are greatest — a combination of relatively low earnings, student debt and the costs of necessary things for babies, e.g., cribs, diapers.

One might add the costs of child care, which are extraordinarily high for infants and toddlers. They’re probably a bigger stretch for parents who’ve no student debt because they, at best, finished high school.

Low earnings alone surely justify the inclusion of a more robust CTC in an anti-poverty agenda — optimally, one that would boost the credit for all minor-age children.

The poverty rate for children under six was 17.3% last year, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. But it was 15.6% for older children. Their parents would fare better under Clinton’s plan too, though not as much better.

Her plan would do three major things. First, it would make the CTC available from the first dollar earned, rather than the first after $3,000 — a change that progressives have advocated for years.

Second, it would selectively increase the rate at which the CTC phases in. It’s now 15% of earnings over the threshold to claim it, up to a $1,000 per child maximum. Clinton would triple the rate for children under five.

And third, she’d double the maximum parents could claim for those kids.

So, for example, a single mother who has an infant and a toddler and works full time at the federal minimum wage would get $4,000, instead of about $1,800, i.e., less than the current full credit for the kids.

Now, the CTC, as you may know, is a refundable credit, like the heftier Earned Income Tax Credit. So if a parent owes less than zero when she claims it, plus deductions and the EITC, she gets a check (or the equivalent) from the Internal Revenue Service.

The refunds help account for the credit’s anti-poverty impact — and its potential. The CTC lifted about 3.1 million people, including some 1.7 million children over the poverty threshold in 2013, the Center on Budget reports.

An additional 13.7 million, including about 6.8 million children were less poor than they’d have otherwise been.

Clinton’s proposals would lift about 1.5 million more people out of poverty, the Center estimates. This figure includes roughly 400,000 children under five.

And about 5.2 million people, including 1.1 million young children in deep poverty, i.e., at or below half the applicable threshold, would also gain income. Still poor, but less so.

Not only poor families would benefit. Eligibility for the CTC would apparently plateau at the same maximum adjusted gross income and then phase out at the rate current law sets.

So a single parent with two children could get some tax reduction until her income exceeded about $115,000. A cut-off about $45,000 higher if she married and filed jointly.

The CTC, however, benefits primarily lower and moderate-income working families. It still would. But the Center for Tax Justice finds that eliminating the threshold and tripling the phase-in rate would deliver the greatest benefits to families in the bottom fifth.

The Center on Budget’s analysis indicates a tilt toward families way down in that fifth. About 77% of the people the CTC expansions would benefit are poor, according to its estimates.

The reforms would cost the federal government an estimated $208.7 billion over the first 10 years, if they became law this year, which, of course, they won’t.

The revenue losses would be a miniscule fraction of the federal budget, which was somewhere around $3.9 trillion for just last fiscal year.

And Clinton’s total tax plan would offset the CTC reforms many times over. The Tax Policy Center estimates revenue gains at about $1.4 trillion over the same 10 years its CTC estimate covers. More than 90% of the increase would come from the very wealthiest households.

So we’re highly unlikely to see the whole package pass in the next Congress. But say — oh, let’s say — that Clinton becomes our next President.

Might we see the CTC expansions or something like? Dylan Matthews at Vox thinks not, unless the Democrats win a majority in the House. Jordan Weissman at Slate views all Clinton’s tax proposals as DOA unless Democrats gain control of the Senate too.

I’m inclined to feel more hopeful. Democrats got the current CTC threshold converted from temporary (and expiring) to permanent as part of a big, urgently-needed budget deal.

That won’t be the last near-crisis because Congress tends to put off politically difficult decisions until the last minute. And a whole lot of decisions have become politically difficult as rifts within, as well as between the parties have grown.

Grasping at straws, it may seem. But I do think the CTC expansions have a chance. And I hope that when an actual bill emerges, they provide more relief for families with older children, as Clinton suggests they might.

 


Another Right-Wing Way to Decimate Anti-Poverty Programs

September 29, 2016

Seems that the notion of a universal basic income has gained traction since I last blogged on it. Or perhaps it’s regained traction, since it’s had moments in the spotlight dating back to the Nixon administration.

Two books, I think, account for this. One is by Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. The other, by Charles Murray, isn’t brand new, but rather a second version of his 2006 book.

Stern tees up a UBI because, he says, the growing uses of technology will create more low-wage jobs — and fewer jobs altogether — regardless of our traditional policy solutions, e.g., investments in infrastructure, minimum wage increases.

Murray also cites the impending replacement of human workers by robots and the like. But that’s not the real reason he argues for a UBI.

He comes at his proposal from the far right, just as Stern comes at his from the left. He’s indebted to conservative economist Milton Friedman, whose negative income tax bears some resemblance to his UBI.

But he’s also a surprising heir apparent of the traditionally liberal architect of Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan — an early stab at ending welfare as we knew it. And of liberals whose labels need no qualification — Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.

He’s among less strange bedfellows at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, which has him on the payroll and published his book. Helped him promote it too by hosting a dialogue between him and Jared Bernstein, who’s in a relatively comparable position at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That’s what got me started on this post, though I’ve thought of returning to the UBI for some time. So here’s the pared-down final draft, focused solely on Murray — what he advocates, why and why we who advocate for low-income people should care.

Murray would have the federal government give every adult citizen $13,000 a year. Nothing, one notes, for children, though they do cost money.

Nor for immigrants who aren’t citizens, but live here legally, including those who qualify for major safety net benefits if they’re poor enough.

But there’d be no such benefits. Murray would blow away all so-called transfer programs, both safety net and social insurance, i.e., Social Security and Medicare.

His privileged adults would have to spend $3,000 of their UBI for health insurance — not nearly enough for a policy that kicks in before very high out-of-pocket costs. They could, of course, spend more for a better policy, if they had the money.

If they didn’t, they’d be left with $10,000 for all other expenses — $1,180 less than the current federal poverty line for a single person. Murray admits that’s not enough to live on.

He seems to think that more people would work — or work for longer hours and/or higher wages — because they’d no longer have the “disincentives” built into safety net programs, i.e., the fact that benefits phase out and ultimately end as incomes rise.

Those purported disincentives probably don’t cause the vast majority of poor and near-poor people to remain so when they could instead earn enough to support themselves and their families.

But they too aren’t the main reason Murray wants to do away with all safety net and social insurance programs — obviously, since the latter mostly benefit people whom no one expects to work.

Not, of course, instead of donating to faith-based and other nonprofits that help our poor neighbors — many of which we taxpayers also collectively support through grants from federal programs.

The civil society Murray refers to is somewhat like the one House Speaker Paul Ryan claims our federal programs crowd out. But it’s also individuals. He suggests, for example, that a guy who’s got just that $10,000 a year could live with his girlfriend. (Not making this up.)

He also, however, thinks that the $10,000 would halt the declining marriage rate — and enable people, notably women to choose not to work. So they could “contribute their social capital” as they don’t now.

Set aside, if we can, this hostility to women in the workforce and the nostalgia for a golden age that never was. The Murray-type UBI may seem appealing mainly because it’s simple.

We do have a lot of programs exclusively for poor and near-poor people, though not so many as conservative opponents claim. And they do form a complex maze of differing eligibility requirements, administering agencies and the like.

All gone. Instead, a monthly deposit in your bank account. (Yes, you would have to have one.) And if you’re not dirt poor, you’d better keep some of your UBI there because Murray’s plan includes “clawback” tax on incomes over $30,000.

It would nevertheless transfer more of what we pay in taxes to people who need the extra income less. At the same time, more would need more than they do now — the elderly especially, though not us only.

One can imagine a UBI that replaces only programs for low-income people and gives them enough to live on, plus some to save for emergencies and investments that will make life better for them and their kids, e.g., a college education, a supplement (not replacement) for Social Security retirement benefits.

That’s what King had in mind for his “guaranteed income,” which would have been pegged to “the median for our society” and increased as total national income grew.

But even a UBI lower than Murray’s would cost an enormous amount. At $10,000 a year, it would consume about three-quarters of the entire federal budget — and nearly all the tax revenues the federal government collects, according to Center on Budget estimates.

So, of course, there’d be no money for safety net programs — or many other things we value, e.g. public education, medical research. And, as Bernstein noted, our economy would lose the corrective effects our responsive safety net programs provide during downturns.

Well, our federal policymakers won’t replace all our safety net and social insurance programs any time soon. Large majorities support them — Social Security and Medicare most of all, but the principle underlying safety net programs too.

So why should we concern ourselves with anything like the Murray plan? In part because it’s a better arrow in the quiver of anti-government types like him — and has been for a long time.

But also because versions, more and less fleshed out, span the political spectrum. And one can see how some form of guaranteed income could help reduce poverty.

 


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

August 29, 2016

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 Thumb Up for Washington Post Piece on TANF Benefits Cut-Offs

August 24, 2016

The Washington Post celebrated the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families with a well-meaning, but disappointing article on District of Columbia families who may soon lose what remains of their benefits.

It’s well-meaning because it focuses on what will happen unless the DC Council passes a bill to extend benefits for at least some of them. And it includes some potent warnings about costs the District will incur if it cuts off their cash assistance, thinking to save money.

But it doesn’t make the best case it could have for the extensions the Council is considering. And it leaves out an important piece of the cost issue.

First off, the TANF mom it chooses to focus on isn’t “the typical District welfare client,” as it claims. She and her partner live in a subsidized apartment. So her family’s receiving far more in safety net benefits than most who’ll lose what they get from TANF.

We don’t know how many TANF families are living with accommodating friends or relatives because they don’t have subsidized housing. But we do know that TANF was recently the most common source of reported income for homeless families the District counted, i.e., those in shelters or limited-term transitional housing.

More importantly, the profiled mother has worked in a series of jobs and has a certificate in emergency medicine technology. She says the couldn’t keep working because she couldn’t afford child care for the toddler she then had.

But if I understand correctly, she could have a childcare subsidy now — and for at least awhile longer if she found a new job. Both her work history and the unpaid work she’s doing now to comply with her TANF work activity requirement strongly suggest she could.

Many TANF parents have what are commonly referred to as severe barriers to work. We don’t have current public information on those who’ve exceeded — or will soon exceed — the rigid time limit the District imposes.

But a study of the caseload before the District set the time limit identified a range of barriers — some not swiftly (if ever) overcome, e.g., physical and mental health problems. At least one — learning disabilities — will last until the affected parents’ children are too old for the families to qualify for TANF.

Others, as I remarked before, could prove temporary if the parents have more time and the opportunities they need — a chance to complete high school or a GED program, for example, or to keep looking for a job so they won’t have to divert their energies and perhaps endanger their health the way some adults in extreme poverty must.

These are among the “hardship” cases that would gain extensions of their TANF benefits under the bill awaiting Council action — and, I should add, a formal response from the Bowser administration.

By far and away the largest number of District residents who’ll suffer extraordinary hardships if they lose their benefits have a work barrier they can’t possibly surmount in the near term because they’re children.

Plunging them into the deepest depths of poverty will put them at high risk of lasting mental and/or physical health damages.  So they’re like to have severe barriers when they’re old enough to work.

There’s a reason to refer to the potentially reprieved parents and children as hardship cases — one the Post article fails to mention.

The District could extend benefits for a fifth of its total caseload, based on a combination of domestic violence and “hardship,” however it defines that, and still use its federal funds for the families’ benefits. Benefits here include not only the cash assistance the article focuses on, but all the work-related services the program provides.

Any discussion of the cost of extensions should include this significant fact, as well as the costs of sweeping all the time-limited families out of TANF. Roughly 5,800 of them, including nearly 10,400 children will get swept out in October unless the Council and Mayor agree to reprieve at least some of them.*

But more families will reach the time limit every month unless and until the District adopts an extensions policy, as virtually every state already has. The cumulative impact is something else I’d like to have seen mentioned.

Ah well, that’s what blogs are for.

* These are figures the Department of Human Service recently provided, not to me or for public consumption. They are substantially lower than figures the department has reported earlier, for reasons as yet undetermined.

 

 


TANF Turns 20, Still Failing Poor Families

August 18, 2016

Next Monday is the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The celebration, if we should call it that, has already featured more than the customary annual bashing. And I plan more than that too.

But I do think it’s worth a fresh look at how poorly poor families with children have fared since TANF replaced welfare as we knew it — and why it’s done so little to help enrolled parents move on to steady, decent-paying work.

These two are closely related, of course. And the evidence for both dates back to some time around TANF’s fifth anniversary, when parents with minimal marketable skills and little or no work experience could no longer get jobs because the very tight labor market loosened up.

Yet some leading Republican policymakers seem invincibly ignorant, as Catholic theology terms it, or willfully so, since they’re still proposing safety net program overhauls based on the TANF model.

A summary then of where things stand now — not for them, but for you who might advocate for a better TANF program, both nationwide and in your state (or would-be state if you live in the District of Columbia).

Fewer Poor Families Aided

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — my main source here, as often for TANF data — shows what’s happened to poor families and their children in several different ways.

We see, for example, that TANF served only a third as many families in 2014 as the program it replaced did in its last year.

We’re reminded that TANF enrollment barely grew during the Great Recession, while SNAP (the food stamp program) responded well to the large increase in households without the income jobs had provided.

Families With Benefits Still in Deep Poverty

CBPP also updates figures on cash assistance — basically, still shrinking as a percent of the federal poverty line, though some states and the District have increased benefits.

The maximum for a three-person family leaves it in deep poverty, i.e., below half the FPL, no matter where it lives.

Adjusting for inflation — and thus purchasing power — benefits have shrunk in all but three states. They’ve lost more than 30% of their value in nearly half.

These figures, recall, are based on the maximum a three-person family can receive. Very poor families may receive less because the parents — and necessarily their children — have been punished with benefits cuts.

The District has made three across-the-board cuts for families that have participated in TANF for 60 months or more. A three-person family up against the rigid time limit now receives $154 a month — 9% of the FPL.

Little Spent to Move Families From Welfare to Work

The assumption behind CBPP’s analyses (and others) is that TANF is supposed to reduce poverty among families with children. That’s not among the purposes the law specifies, however much it should.

But it does name reducing dependency. This means, among other things, enabling parents to get jobs that pay at least enough to push their families over the income eligibility threshold for their state’s TANF program.

The law requires states to have a set percent of parents engaged in “countable” work-related activities for a set number of hours each month. But states can spend whatever they choose on programs and services to prepare parents for work and help them find it.

They, by and large, choose to spend very little — on average, 6.5% of their block grant share, plus the funds they must spend to get it. This is even less than what they spent the year before.

They spent, on average, an additional 16.9% on subsidized child care — obviously a necessity for most parents who must participate in programs to ready them for gainful work.

But those childcare funds may not have benefited only TANF families, current or former. States may transfer up to 30% of their TANF funds to the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

They may use that block grant’s funds, plus (again) what they must spend to get them to subsidize child care for families with incomes up to 85% of the median for all families of the same size.

Needless to say (I trust), that’s a whole lot more income than any TANF family can have. Probably more than most who’ve moved into the workforce too.

A Lot Spent to Shore Up Other Programs

Child care is only one — and not the best — example of how states have used the flexibility TANF law gives them to fund programs and services that don’t help only poor families.

In 2015, states, on average, spent more than half their block grant, plus their own required share on things other than cash benefits, work activities and child care.

An average of 8.1% went for refunds from states’ own Earned Income Tax Credits — arguably a legitimate anti-poverty expenditure. But about a third shored up programs that have nothing to do with work or help for parents who don’t have it.

In some cases, CBPP says, they’ve used their TANF funds to replace what they’d previously spent — or would have had to spend — for programs that may benefit poor families, but not them exclusively, e.g., child welfare services, pre-K.

Much More to This Story

This post, simple as it seems, was hard for me to write because the simple kept getting swamped in exceptions, explanations, etc.

On the one hand, the summary figures obscure wide variations among states. You can see some of them in the CBPP analyses I’ve linked to and in this core-purpose spending map from HHS.

On the other hand — and what you can’t see — is that the federal law gives states more perverse incentives to cut their caseloads than the flexibility to use TANF as a slush fund, e.g., a way to avoid penalties for not meeting their work activity targets.

At the same time, it effectively deters them from letting parents pursue a work activity that would lift a goodly number of families out of poverty — participation in a postsecondary education program for long enough to get a degree or specialized certificate.

And, as I’ve written, who knows how often, Congress has put the squeeze on all states by funding the block grant at the same dollar level for what’s now 20 years. It’s now lost a third of its real-dollar value.

In short, it’s well past time to reform welfare reform. Perhaps we’ll have something real to celebrate next year.