A Labor Day Look at Homeless People and Work

September 6, 2016

The tool I use for this blog gives me a running account of my most-viewed posts. The list almost always includes one or both of two posts I wrote a long time ago on homeless people and work.

In both cases, the headlines — the first (and more popular especially) — might seem to announce posts that said people wouldn’t be homeless if they’d just get off their butts and find jobs. Followers know I’d never argue that.

Why Don’t Homeless People Just Get a Job?” cites some obstacles to employment homeless people face because they’re homeless, e.g., difficulties keeping clothes (and self) clean, conflicts between work schedules and shelter access hours.

Why Homeless People Aren’t Working … Or Are Working and Homeless Anyway” focuses mainly on challenges that aren’t unique to homeless people, e.g., the unfavorable ratio of job-seekers to jobs, education requirements, work-related costs, background checks.

Labor Day week seems a good time for another crack at the issues. One I haven’t dealt with is how many homeless people one could reasonably expect to work. The other, which I have, is obstacles. I’ll confine myself to a couple that I’ve come to understand better.

Uncounted Who May Work and Counted Who Probably Can’t

First off, we have an uncounted number of homeless people who are living doubled up with friends or relatives and others who are sheltering themselves in cheap motels. We’ve no idea how many are working.

Some of the counted, as I’ve said before, do work. We’ve no recent data on how many nationwide. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t include them in its annual reports.

In the Washington metro area, 26% of single adults, i.e., those who didn’t have children in their care, and 37% of adults in families, i.e., those that did, were reportedly employed last January. But employed apparently means had some income from work, not steady work for pay.

These are only those counted who acknowledged income from work. Some might have chosen not to — because they don’t have legal authority to work, for example.

Second, some of the counted are not only officially homeless, but chronically so. That means, among other things, that they have at least one disability. Not all qualifying disabilities absolutely preclude work of any sort, but some surely do.

Third, a higher portion of officially homeless people nationwide are now at least 50 years old. Some have been homeless for years and have disabilities, but not all. If the technically work-able “older” folks aren’t working now, they’ll face the same barrier to employment that older job-seekers do generally.

Lastly (at least for now), homelessness takes a toll on the body — as, of course, does advancing age. So someone who’s not so disabled as to qualify for Social Security benefits could be unable to do work requiring physical strength and stamina, but without the skills and work history for a desk job.

Criminal Records Revisited

I noted before that homeless people, like others face a formidable barrier to work if they have a criminal record. But it’s more complex than I knew back then.

On the one hand, people may be homeless because of their criminal record — and thus also disadvantaged in job searches by the other complications that have no stable housing entails.

Convictions for certain crimes bar people from public housing and deny them federal housing vouchers. Private-sector landlords can reject any tenant they choose, including those with criminal records, provided they’re not demonstrably screening out racial minorities or others covered by our civil rights laws.

As you probably know by now, a criminal record doesn’t necessarily indicate conviction of a crime. Not-guilty verdicts — even arrests that don’t lead to trials — create criminal records too.

Not all public housing authorities — and probably even fewer private-sector landlords — make this distinction. Doubtful most employers do, though “ban the box” laws limit sweeping exclusions in a handful of states, the District of Columbia and about two dozen local jurisdictions.

On the other hand, homelessness may result in a criminal record for violating any one of the various laws local governments have passed to get homeless people off the streets. Perhaps out of their communities too.

The laws mostly license police officers to hustle homeless people off park benches, out of wherever they’ve parked the car they’re sleeping in, etc. But the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, which specializes in these laws, reports arrests and even time in jail.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council cites research linking homelessness, incarceration and certain disabling conditions, e.g., substance abuse, mental illness. So a barrier to work that leads to homelessness becomes another when the temporarily housed in jails or prisons are released.

Proof of Work Eligibility

Federal law requires employers to ensure that people they hire are legally authorized to work. Americans who don’t have passports must show them another document with a photo, plus, in most cases, proof of a Social Security number.

But homeless people may not have them, even if they once did. And if they don’t, they may not be able to get them.

A man in one of the outdoor camps the District government has since cleared out says he woke up one morning to find that the bag with all his identification documents had been stolen. Not an unusual plight.

Homeless people may also lose their photo ID and/or Social Security card when public workers confiscate their bundles or backpacks as part of one of those clear-outs. Or they may simply drop their wallets, distracted perhaps by the need to keep moving around, with all their worldly belongings.

We securely housed people lose our wallets too, of course — or have them stolen. But we can readily replace our photo IDs because we’ve got a fixed address, proof it’s ours and the money to pay for a replacement — for the required copy of our birth certificate too, if we don’t already have one.

Well, you need a photo ID to get a new Social Security card. And getting the ID poses problems for homeless and other poor people, as I’ve written before. I focused on the District’s requirements. But the proofs, though not the fee apply everywhere.

Homeless people face other barriers to legal work, I’m sure — not necessarily barriers unique to them, just as some I’ve covered aren’t. I’ve said nothing about race discrimination, for example.

I’d welcome input for yet another crack at this topic.

Making TANF More Than Very Temporary Assistance for Some Very Needy Families

September 1, 2016

My last post dove into the thorny thicket of the work participation requirements that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law and rules impose on states.

Both the WPRs and the escape hatch for states that don’t meet them help explain why TANF has generally failed to do more than very temporarily assist some very needy families.

Both the House draft bill and the Senate bill I’ve focused on would address these and some other problems. But they’d leave one untouched (or virtually so). Here then is more about what they’d do — and not.

New Purpose(s)

You’d think that a work-focused program for needy families would have poverty reduction as a purpose. But TANF doesn’t. The closest the law comes, as I remarked before, is reducing dependency.

The House draft would make reducing poverty a purpose — not generally, but by moving more parents into the workforce, with better prospects there than has often been the case. The Senate bill would add something similar, but link it to reducing both child poverty and deep child poverty, i.e., the percent of children in families with incomes below 50% of the federal poverty line.

Both new purposes provide a partial basis for the outcome measures and related reports the bills would require. They also serve as a rationale of sorts for the tighter limits on state spending that both impose.

Shift in Success Measures

The current law holds states accountable for having their enrolled TANF parents engaged in work-related activities. And it effectively rewards them for getting families out of their programs. They needn’t concern themselves with results.

And the fact that we know very little about what happens to families after they leave TANF, however they leave, shows that most don’t. They’ve no compelling reason to invest in the tracking and analyses that would require.

Both the House draft and the Senate bill would give them one. They’d have to develop outcome measures and publicly report results.

Both bills specify the employment rates and earnings of former TANF parents. The Senate bill includes indicators related to the rest of the new program purpose it would establish. States would also have to track and report child food insecurity.

They’d still have some flexibility. So we might lack comparable data. And some outcome measures could give states another incentive to “cream” their caseloads, as CLASP experts have warned.

But what we don’t know can — and does — hurt poor families with children. So we do clearly need outcome measures reflecting what our welfare program ought to do.

Curbs on State Spending

States have enormous flexibility in how they may use their share of the TANF block grant, plus their maintenance of effort, i.e., funds they must spend to get their share. We see the results in the annual reports they must file with the federal agency that administers TANF.

They all spend some money for cash benefits, programs to get parents into the workforce and child care, which both parents preparing for work and those who’ve found it need. But nearly half spend less than 50% of their combined TANF funds on these. Ten spend less than 25%.

Major advocacy organizations have recommended a minimum spending level for the aforementioned three items — commonly referred to as core activities. The House drafters left the question of minimum spending open. The Senate bill sets a 60% minimum level, phased in over a five years. So still a lot of flexibility, but considerably less.

The bill also restricts block grant spending to aid for families with incomes no greater than 200% of the federal poverty line. The House draft does something similar. Tells us something about where this anti-poverty money is going.

Federal Funding Shortage

Neither the House draft nor the Senate bill remedies a problem that’s partly responsible for others — the continually shrinking value of the block grant.* It’s been flat-funded ever since Congress created it.

This, as I (and many others) have said, means it’s worth about a third less now. Likewise states’ required MOEs. At the same time, many have more needy families.

Not, however, in their TANF caseloads. Even states that resist other perverse incentives, understandably feel they can’t afford to provide all poor families with the benefits and services that would even just lift them out of poverty.

Nor to pay all the caseworkers truly individualized plans would require, though both the House draft and the Senate bill set new standards for these.

The President’s proposed budget — DOA, of course — would increase the block grant by $8 million over the next five years. That would require states to increase their MOE spending.

The block grant increase, however, would only “partially address its erosion in value,” the Department of Health and Human services says. And we’ve got about 5.2 million more poor families now than in 1996.

But even a fully restored block grant, with all funds channeled to families below the poverty line would seem less than needed. How much less is hard to say because we can’t know how much inflation will again erode it. Nor how many families will need assistance in upcoming years.

The proposed budget does, however, look ahead to the next recession — or recessions. It would build a reserve for infusions during economic downturns, with a trigger to release them.

So extra help for states and the needy families they should serve would no longer depend entirely on the whims of Congress. The premature demise of the Recovery Act’s Emergency Contingency Fund shows why an automatic, economy-sensitive alternative is preferable.

In not-so-short, the next Congress and President will have proposals to work with if they decide, at long last, to reauthorize TANF. They’re fairly modest proposals, but they’d give us a much better “welfare” program than what we’ve got.

* The House draft would increase the block grant by $25 million for each of the five years it covers. This is a fraction of the real-dollar loss to date.


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.



Measuring Poverty the Way We Understand It

August 22, 2016

It’s a well-known fact that the official poverty measure we use doesn’t accurately tell us how many poor people live in the U.S. It was never supposed to be more than an initial baseline for War on Poverty programs.

But here we are, more than 50 years later, and it’s still the basis for setting income eligibility levels for most safety net programs, plus some others that fund services in low-income communities.

The Census Bureau has a better measure — prudently named the Supplemental Poverty Measure so as to not imply it will supplant the official measure. It’s still unfinished in some important ways, e.g., sufficient adjustments for differences housing costs.

But even a more refined measure would still produce poverty rates based on pre-tax income, plus the income equivalent of some near-cash benefits, e.g., SNAP (food stamps), and the refundable tax credits.

We’ve had other measures proposed. Some economists, for example, recommend a consumption-based measure — basically, what a household owns, spends and, in some cases, has through government spending.

A team at Columbia University, supported by the Robin Hood Foundation is using a different definition to track poverty in New York City. The aim, the Foundation says, is to “take a deeper, more realistic look at disadvantage.”

This, we see, involves several things. First, the researchers use Census data, its poverty thresholds, adjusted for local rental housing costs, and an adapted version of the SPM to measure poverty in the city.

Second, the team surveys a sample of households in all income brackets, asking questions to identify those that experience “material hardships, i.e., deprivations due to lack of money.

In other words, the project uses a concept of poverty more like the way we actually think about it — not how much money a family has, but whether it has enough to meet basic needs. The survey implicitly defines them as food, housing, utilities and medical and dental care.

A household that sometimes comes up short is said to experience “moderate material hardship.” The hardship becomes “severe” if a household experiences it chronically or acutely — for example, is so short of money for housing that it has to move to a shelter.

The hardship concept isn’t altogether novel here in the U.S. For example, a household that has very low food security, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it, can’t always afford to buy enough food for everyone to have enough to eat.

The Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation includes a section it classifies as “adult well-being.” The questions are actually about the household’s well-being, including food security, the conditions of the housing it lives in and whether it can afford housing-related expenses.

SIPP uses the same sample of households repeatedly — some for as long as four years. It’s similar, in this way, to the third aspect of the “deeper, more realistic look” that gives the Robin Hood Foundation project its name.

It too tracks the select material hardships over time by surveying the same households for several years running. But it’s focused on them, rather than participation in programs that compensate for lack of enough income.

The survey does, however, include some questions about receipt of public benefits as part of its effort to localize the SPM. And it asks what I infer are half a dozen questions about requests for help and responses. (I’ve looked in vain for a copy of the survey itself.)

The project aims ultimately to capture the dynamics of poverty — and certain related material hardships. Understanding them, the partners say, will better equip policymakers, nonprofits and private-sector donors to develop solutions.

We’ve had three reports thus far. Each slices and dices the survey results differently. Here’s a handful of things we learn about the poverty/hardship dynamics — none, I suspect, peculiar to New York, except at the data level.

Far more New Yorkers experienced at least one material hardship than fell below the relevant poverty line. Far more, in fact, experienced at least one severe hardship. Poverty was nevertheless a major factor, as you’d guess.

Very few New Yorkers lived in poverty both when first surveyed and a year later. Slightly more fell into or rose out of it, presumably by losing or gaining income, certain cash-equivalent benefits or both.

Material hardship seems more persistent. Of the eye-popping 48% identified as experiencing at least one, nearly half still experienced it — or maybe some other — a year later, if not longer. (The first survey, as reported, didn’t ask how long respondents had already experienced the hardships covered.)

Not all New Yorkers who suffered a material hardship sought help. But majorities did — more for some needs than others. Very few said they got all the help they needed — at least, within the short timeframe the survey then covered.

Help they may have received somewhat later didn’t do all that much good. Slightly less than a third no longer experienced the hardship — a troubling finding for the project’s target audience.

Help did even less to lift households out of poverty, though the survey asks about help that could have — finding a job, for example, or getting public benefits. Only 2% more households that said they got no help remained poor than those that said they got all the help they needed.

On the other hand, getting timely help apparently averted poverty for a higher percent of those that swiftly sought it and said they got all needed. This may include people who sought help with a health problem, rather than a hardship that a health problem may have caused.*

Some of the dynamics Poverty Tracker reports aren’t altogether new. The Census Bureau, for example, has used its survey data to follow near-poor people, including their lapses into full-blown poverty.

A study by an economist at the University of California, Davis tracked transitions in and out of poverty, linked to factors that help explain them. The Urban Institute cites many other studies that have parsed the in-and-out (and back in) dynamics.

But we don’t, to my knowledge, have anything as expansive for material hardship. Some other countries are far ahead of us, as a complex study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) indicates.

The authors say what seems a suitable conclusion here. “Poverty is a complex issue, and a variety of approaches are required for its measurement and analysis.”

* The survey asks separate questions about health problems. These are certainly a disadvantage — the overall scope of the project. But analyses thus far have not linked them to material hardships, though one did look at the correlation to poverty.




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.


Social Security Administration Backs Off Text Messaging Mandate

August 16, 2016

Turns out I was far from the only one upset by the Social Security Administration’s decision to block access to online accounts for people without text-enabled cell phones. The Tennessean reports that the agency faced such a backlash that it’s made the extra protection optional.

“The policy impacted not only those who don’t text message, but also people who live in rural areas with limited cell phone service,” says a Congress member who represents one of those areas.

Two other Tennessee Congress members weigh in too. We can, I think, assume that SSA heard from a broader swath of members, responding to constituents’ concerns — and from other quarters too.

The agency hasn’t yet told us online account users that we don’t have to have text messaging. Presumably it will. And we’ll reportedly have another way to ensure that we’re the people accessing our accounts within six months.

So all’s well that ends well, assuming that the new option doesn’t impose other burdens. We’ll nevertheless endure long wait times when we need services only staff can provide. Nothing SSA can do about that.