In Focus

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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Jan 30, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Suspicionless Drug Testing Ruled Unconstitutional; States Shift to Propose Suspicion-Based Laws

By Lavanya Mohan

On December 31, the federal District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued final judgment on the state’s 2011 law mandating suspicionless-based drug testing for TANF applicants. This judgment affirms that the law violates TANF applicants’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, and is consistent with a Michigan court’s ruling against a similar 2003 law in that state. The final judgment indicated that “the State has failed to show that the general welfare of children is at greater risk absent its drug testing or that Florida’s children will be better protected because of mandatory testing of TANF applicants.” 

The implementation and subsequent ruling against the Florida law shows that suspicionless drug testing is unconstitutional, ineffective, and costly. In the four months that Florida administered universal drug testing before an injunction was issued, the state found that  just 2.6 percent of applicants had failed the drug test. The program cost the state an additional $45,780—more than the TANF benefits that would have been paid to individuals who failed the test.

With courts across the country consistently striking down suspicionless drug testing, states should abandon these efforts and avoid costly litigation.   Many state legislators have recognized that and are shifting towards proposing bills to adopt suspicion-based testing, meaning applicants would first be screened to determine the likelihood that they may be using illegal drugs. Only those who are deemed at high risk of drug usage would then be chemically tested.

However, states should take a step back and reconsider whether up-front screening and testing is the best way to address substance abuse issues among families seeking cash assistance.  Even with a preliminary screening, it is still problematic to identify substance abuse over substance usage in the eligibility determination process. Assuming that individuals applying for public assistance are poor because of bad choices such as substance abuse is stigmatizing and costly and adds unnecessary burdens to families seeking assistance.

Many states have long addressed substance abuse issues in TANF in other, more effective ways. Screening is most effective when included as part of an employability assessment—after eligibility has been determined.  Regardless of when screening occurs, the process should lead to treatment, rather than punitive sanctions that discourage recipients from seeking help to overcome addiction. States should waive penalties for individuals who enter treatment but should also ensure treatment is available and that no TANF applicant is sanctioned while waiting for it.

TANF is a lifeline for families in crisis, a temporary support for families combatting poverty.  Suspicionless drug testing laws like those in Florida and Michigan are proven to be ineffective, wasteful and only perpetuate the struggles of low-income people. There’s a better way forward—for families and for states.

Sep 12, 2013  |  PERMALINK »

Subsidized Employment Helps Long-Term Unemployed Reconnect to Workforce

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Neil Ridley

Stimulating Opportunity, a new report from the Economic Mobility Corporation, highlights the role subsidized employment programs can play in reconnecting long-term unemployed workers to the workforce. This report examines in depth the experiences of workers and employers who participated in subsidized employment programs in five sites under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund. As CLASP documented, between 2009 and 2010, 39 states used TANF Emergency Funds to support subsidized employment opportunities for more than 260,000 workers.

Stimulating Opportunity finds that, even after the subsidy period has ended, subsidized employment can have a significant positive impact on low-income job seekers’ employment and earnings. These effects were largely concentrated among those job seekers who had been unemployed for more than six months prior to starting the program. While comparison group data was only available for one site, Florida, the pattern of employment in other sites appears consistent with these findings. This suggests that, in a period of limited resources, subsidized jobs programs may wish to target participants without recent work experience.

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