Federal Policy Should Improve TANF and Expand Work Supports
The current deep recession has exposed gaping holes in our country's safety net for individuals and families that are unemployed, underemployed or temporarily unable to work. By September 30, 2010, Congress must take action to reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. This provides an opportunity to revitalize a flawed, but essential part of the safety net for very low-income families with children. In most states, TANF has been strikingly non-responsive to the increased poverty and hardship caused by the recession, with only modest increases in assistance caseloads. This comes after a historic decline in the share of poor children receiving cash assistance from the program, from 62 percent in 1996 to 27 percent in 2008. As part of its 2010 Federal Policy Recommendations, CLASP recommends that Congress and the Obama Administration do the following:
Reauthorize-and improve-TANF in a timely fashion. The goals of TANF reauthorization should be: a renewed focus on poverty alleviation and preventing material hardship among children and families, especially those who are particularly vulnerable due to circumstances such as disability, domestic violence, or homelessness. Reauthorization should also create of effective pathways to economic opportunity, including access to mainstream education and training and individualized services for those with barriers to employment.
To achieve these goals, federal funding must be increased to make up for the erosion of purchasing power due to inflation since 1996, and the "maintenance of effort" (MOE) requirement must be revisited so that it serves its original purpose of ensuring that states continue to invest their own funds in serving low-income families as they did under AFDC.
State flexibility has been a major feature of TANF since its creation, and a reauthorized TANF program should continue to give states room to innovate, to respond to state and local variation in economic conditions, and to provide low-income families with the range of benefits and services they need to succeed. In return for state flexibility, the federal government should hold states accountable for the outcomes experienced by low-income families.
TANF was created at a time when the economy was booming, and many of its policies were based on the assumption that jobs would be plentiful. The work participation rate must be revised to give states flexibility to serve recipients with individualized work activities, including education and training, and to make appropriate accommodations for individuals with disabilities. The caseload reduction credit, which rewards states for reducing their welfare rolls, whether or not parents are employed or receiving other supports, must be replaced with a system that rewards successful outcomes. States that are willing to be held accountable for the outcomes they achieve in their programs, including both employment and child well-being, should have the ability to opt out of the process-focused participation rate entirely.
Examine how the full range of income- and work-support programs fit together. President Obama should appoint a commission to evaluate the full range of work-support/safety net programs, identify the gaps, and find ways to improve the programs. Because many of the "disconnected" appear to be falling in the gap between a work-focused TANF program and the requirement that individuals be completely and permanently unable to work in order to qualify for SSI, a subgroup should focus on specific needs of individuals with disabilities. A group should also look at low-income workers who do not qualify for unemployment insurance benefits when they are out of work.
Support efforts to make it easier and less time consuming for low-income families to apply for and maintain enrollment in the programs for which they qualify. Too many low-income families who are eligible for income- and work-supports do not receive them, thus weakening their effectiveness in reducing poverty. AFDC was once the entry point into a range of programs, but TANF does not fill that role for most low-income families. A key reason is unnecessarily time-consuming and complicated procedures that create barriers to application and enrollment.