In Focus

Jul 1, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

A Step in the Right Direction, Minnesota Expands Access to TANF Education and Training Activities

By Lavanya Mohan

The state of Minnesota is taking steps towards increasing access to education activities for poor adults receiving TANF. Signed into law by Governor Mark Dayton (D-MN), bill HF2458, which was sponsored by state Senator Jeff Hayden (D-MN) and Representative Susan Allen (D-MN), expands access to adult basic education (ABE), General Educational Development (GED), English as a Second Language (ESL) and postsecondary education for participants receiving cash assistance from the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), the state administered TANF program. The legislation, which takes effect July 1, 2014, allows MFIP participants unlimited participation in these education activities as part of their employment plan without requiring enrollment in other work activities.

Almost 40% of MFIP adults have not earned a high school diploma or GED. Prior to the new law’s passage, an MFIP participant who wanted to pursue a degree or credential had to jump through a number of procedural hoops in order to have these activities included in their work plans and could be required to participate in other countable work activities in addition to their studies. This legislation removes these barriers by easing time and hour limitations on education and training work activities and by alleviating the burden of documentation previously required to participate in ABE, ESL or post-secondary activities. Furthermore, MFIP participants will now have the opportunity to pursue four-year degree programs while receiving TANF benefits, and caseworkers must inform participants with a high school diploma or GED that they have the opportunity to participate in postsecondary education or training while receiving TANF. Poor parents, who are MFIP participants, can now pursue educational activities without harsh restrictions.

Another component of the Minnesota legislation allows all participants 12 weeks to pursue job search activities, rather than the previously allowable 6 weeks of job search. This flexibility will provide MFIP participants more opportunity to secure a well-paying job. The changes in the legislation will affect the nearly 70,000 parents – and their children – in the state of Minnesota who receive TANF benefits.

This legislation was promoted by a broad coalition of state advocates in a campaign called “Prosperity for All.”  The campaign highlighted that these changes to the MFIP rules would be good for employers and the economy, as well as participants and their children:

  • Increased educational attainment will lead to increased earnings for parents. In Minnesota, wages for those who have four-year and advanced degrees have risen while wages for high school graduates have stagnated and fallen, making it hard for poor families to make ends meet.
  • As mothers pursue postsecondary education activities, children also fare better academically.
  • Minnesota is facing a skills gap – two out of three employers cannot find skilled employees. Allowing MFIP participants to acquire skills through credentials and degrees will help meet employers’ needs. By 2018, about 70% of jobs in Minnesota will require some postsecondary education.

Arbitrary restrictions on education and training for TANF recipients are poorly matched to the demands of today’s economy, and trap TANF families in poverty. CLASP applauds the success of Prosperity for All and Minnesota lawmakers in expanding access to education and training activities and urges other states, and the federal government, to follow suit.  

Jun 30, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

TANF, SNAP Improvements Come to New York City

By Lavanya Mohan and Elizabeth Lower-Basch

In May, Steven Banks, the new Commissioner under Mayor de Blasio of the Human Resource Administration (HRA), the city’s social services agency,  announced key initiatives that will improve access to income supports and training, thereby reducing barriers to self-sufficiency for poor people. In the past, New York City has pioneered innovative anti-poverty programs, such as a pilot that expands the Earned Income Tax credit (EITC) for low-income childless workers, including non-custodial parents.  However, the city has not previously focused on improving access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

One of these key HRA initiatives is accepting a federal waiver to ease restrictions for receipt of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) due to high unemployment rates. Without the federal waiver, ABAWDs are subject to strict eligibility rules – only receiving SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years if they are not employed at least 20 hours per week or in a qualifying work activity (for more information, see SNAP Works: SNAP Work Requirements and Time Limits). Childless workers, including non-custodial parents, often do not qualify for any other safety net benefits. The change in rules will affect 40,000 SNAP recipients in New York City who fall within this category. 

Another important reform that HRA plans to adopt will allow TANF recipients the opportunity to meet their work requirements by attending school leading to a four-year college degree.  This does not remove the time limit on full-time education and training, but lifts the arbitrary limit on the type of degrees that may be counted. TANF recipients will also be able to count school, homework and work-study hours in their employment plan. This reflects a corresponding change in the state rules passed as part of the New York State budget earlier this year.

Along with these reforms, additional measures aim to improve agency follow-up and engagement with SNAP applicants and recipients.  The final approved budget met HRA’s request of $9.7 billion, an increase of $195 million from the previous year. The budget will also provide universal free school meals for all students at public middle schools in New York City.  CLASP applauds these efforts that decrease barriers poor individuals face as they strive to secure employment and become self-sufficient.

Apr 1, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

States Missing Opportunities to Count Education and Training Toward TANF Work Rates

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Lavanya Mohan

In today’s economy, individuals with a high school diploma or less make less money and are more likely to be unemployed than other workers.  More than 2 in 5 adult recipients of cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have less than a high school diploma.

While TANF recipients are allowed to participate in education and training activities, federal rules limit the extent to which participation in such activities can be counted toward the work participation rate (WPR) that states are required to meet.  Since this is TANF’s primary performance measure, states that do not meet their target WPR can lose a portion of their funding. These spending constraints are further compounded by the failure of states to take full advantage of the flexibility they do have. Even at the peak of the recession, only about 10 percent of recipients were counted toward the work participation rate based on education or training activites. 

Under federal regulations, up to 30 percent of parents counted in the TANF work rate may be teenagers who attend school or recipients who participate in vocational education as a standalone work activity.  However, in FY 2010, the majority of states came nowhere near that limit. 

In a recent publication, Ensuring Full Credit Under TANF’s Work Participation Rate,  CLASP highlights the opportunities that states have to count individuals participating in education and training toward the TANF work rate.  In addition to taking full advantage of the 30 percent cap on full-time educational activities, states can also help participants combine educational activities with subsidized employment (such as work-study) or work experience (including practicum classes).  Allowing more parents to engage in education and training activities will help them get the credentials they need to secure good jobs provide for their families. 

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