In Focus

Mar 6, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

The Grand Canyon Isn't the Biggest Chasm in Arizona: Proposed Budget Widens Gap to Economic Security for Low-Income Families

UPDATE: The Arizona legislature passed a budget for FY2016 in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 7. According to the Associated Press, the budget deal included the reduction of the lifetime limit for receipt of TANF to 12 months from 24 months, as well as the elimination of all state funding for two counties’ community college systems (Pima and Maricopa), with the funding for Pinal County’s community colleges spared from cuts.

State lawmakers in Arizona are working furiously on a FY16 budget deal designed to reduce the state’s deficit. Unfortunately, Governor Doug Ducey and the Republican leadership in Arizona’s House and Senate plan to achieve these cuts by slashing funds for programs that support low-income children, families, and individuals in seeking economic security. According to reports, the proposal includes draconian cuts to community colleges and other higher education programs, cash assistance to poor families under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and child care. Reductions in these individual programs are bad enough, but this combination of cuts is especially problematic because it generates the potential for devastating effects for the future of Arizona and its labor force and economy. 

The surest path to economic security is a job that pays family-sustaining wages. And poor and low-income families need support—in the form of education, job training, child care and other assistance—as they seek to obtain and hold onto employment with decent pay. Arizona already has the eighth highest rate of child poverty among the 50 states at 26.5 percent. The rate is particularly high among Native American and Hispanic children (38.6 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively). The state can ill afford to abandon children and families who are striving for success. That’s why the proposed cuts are so concerning. 

Governor Ducey’s proposal would completely eliminate state funding for the three largest community college districts in Arizona, while also significantly cutting state support for public universities. Many low-income, minority and nontraditional students rely on community colleges as relatively inexpensive routes to getting the training, education, and skills required for career success. For instance, Maricopa Community College, which would see its state funding eliminated under the proposal, serves nearly 265,000 students annually. Of these students, half are racial or ethnic minorities, while 41 percent are at least age 25 and 72 percent attend part time. The governor’s proposal would put opportunities for career success that much farther out of reach for these and other low-income Arizonans. 

Poor families also benefit from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which is operated through block grants that allow states to determine (within guidelines) how to use the federal funds. The reported deal would slash the amount of time that the poorest parents and children could receive TANF cash assistance to meet their basic needs. Currently, Arizona provides up to 24 months of TANF cash assistance (which is already one of the shortest lifetime limits for any state); the proposal would slash that to only 12 months, which is unprecedented and far and away the shortest time limit for TANF of any state. Moreover, this time limit would apply to many cases where only children receive benefits. These cuts put children at risk of hunger, homelessness, and toxic stress that makes it harder for them to succeed in school and grow up as healthy, successful adults.

Another way to support low-income working families is by offering assistance with child care so that parents can seek and hold onto jobs while their children are being well cared for in safe and affordable settings. Governor Ducey’s proposal eliminates $4 million in funding that was just added this year to open up the child care assistance waiting list for children in low-income working families.  

Arizona policymakers would do well to consider the impact of this short-sighted budget. By drastically cutting off the support that hard-working poor and low-income people in their state need to climb up the ladder to economic security, the state’s leaders are forsaking Arizona’s overall future success. For national policymakers, a key lesson driven home by this budget—negotiated behind closed doors—is the deep risks posed by proposals to give states flexibility to alter the fundamental structure of key federally funded safety net programs.

Dec 19, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

A New Year’s Resolution: Stop the Push for Drug Testing Applicants of Public Benefits

By Randi Hall

An oft-quoted saying holds that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.   Drug testing of public benefits applicants has been repeatedly found illegal, ineffective and even unconstitutional--yet lawmakers keep coming back with such proposals.


Georgia and Wisconsin have both proposed drug testing applicants for nutritional assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).  However, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made clear, this is not permitted under federal law.


Under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, states have the authority to establish eligibility rules and have long included screening for substance abuse in the assessments they conduct as part of engaging participants in employment services.  But in recent years an increasing number of states have begun to incorporate drug screening and testing into the program’s application process. Applicants are first screened for any suspicious behaviors that may indicate substance abuse, and may be referred to take a drug test based on the results. These state laws have identified very few applicants using drugs; however, the laws have added burden and complexity to the application process and increased administrative costs.

  • From July 1 to August 1, 2014, 84 Mississippians who applied for TANF were required as part of the state’s application process to respond to a screening questionnaire  with subtle questions designed to identify people with a high likelihood of being substance abusers.   Of these, 38 were referred for drug testing based on the findings from the screening, and only 2 tested positive for drugs.
  • Tennessee’s drug testing law went into effect on July 1, 2014 and requires each TANF applicant to respond to three questions about any recent drug usage. If an applicant answers “yes” to any of the questions, he or she is referred to drug testing. Of the 812 applicants subjected to the law’s screening provision after one month of implementation, 802 ”passed” the screening and were not subject to being tested for drugs; 4 refused to participate in the questionnaire and were immediately disqualified; 5 who were subject to the drug test passed; and only 1 tested positive for drugs.
  • Kansas also implemented its drug testing requirement on July 1, 2014. Four months of results show that 5 applicants refused to be tested, 20 applicants followed through with testing and only 4 tested positive.


After two years of legal battles, earlier this month the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Florida’s law mandating drug testing of all TANF applicants was unconstitutional.  The law, which allowed suspicion-less drug testing of all applicants for the state’s TANF program, was held as a violation of the Fourth Amendment for its unreasonable search of applicants without evidence of “a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among TANF applicants than in the general population.” All lower courts had found the same position.  Courts had previously found a Michigan program implementing suspicion-less testing of welfare applicants unconstitutional on the same grounds. No court has yet taken up the question of the constitutionality of incorporating screening for drug use, followed by testing, into the application process for public benefits.

In spite of this history, states continue to pursue these policies.  In 2014, eighteen states proposed legislation requiring some form of drug screening of public assistance applicants. Most recently, on the same day that the Florida court ruling on testing was announced, the Michigan state legislature passed a pair of bills—HR 4118 in the House and SB 275 in the Senate—which will enact suspicion-based drug testing of applicants for temporary cash assistance under its Family Independence program.

However, the evidence from this year’s round of testing and legal cases describe a poorly fit policy based in stereotypical notions of rampant substance abuse among the poor. Such policy only serves as a barrier to low-income children and families who may be disqualified from receiving provisional assistance. The costs incurred by states to test applicants for drugs could be invested in stronger support systems for those who may battle with substance abuse but are willing to engage in work-related activities and trainings.  States should adopt a new year’s resolution of learning from the evidence and no longer pursuing these ineffective and often illegal policies.

Oct 3, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

New York City Rethinks TANF Work Programs for the 21st Century

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Many states and counties have not significantly changed the work programs for recipients of cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) since the federal program was created in 1996, and only some have made changes since it was last reauthorized 9 years ago.  But the economy has changed significantly over the last 18 years.  We also have learned quite a bit more about what kinds of employment and training programs are needed to help workers succeed, as reflected in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, recently enacted with broad bipartisan support.

If you wanted to create a TANF work program that recognizes people receiving cash assistance are not all the same and have different needs -- and that incorporates what we know about what workers need to succeed in today’s economy -- some of the elements you might include are:

  • Improving assessments and individualizing expectations to reflect recipients’ strengths and needs;
  • Allowing job-ready recipients with recent work history to engage in independent job search;
  • Connecting recipients to career pathways programs that lead to employment in high-wage, high-growth industries;
  • Allowing recipients who have the skills needed to attend college to do so, and providing them with the supports they need to succeed;
  • Recognizing that the labor market is particularly challenging for individuals with less than a high school degree, allowing young adults to participate in full-time sector-based contextualized literacy training and preparation for high school equivalency exams as pathways to career-focused credentials;
  • Expanding subsidized employment and internship models that have been shown effective in connecting recipients to work;
  • Developing new models for supporting highly vulnerable populations, including homeless individuals and families, victims of domestic violence, individuals with disabilities, and young adults aging out of foster care; and
  • Redesigning sanction processes to encourage non-participating recipients to engage in work activities and reduce the number of people who are “churned” from the caseload.

This week, New York City’s Human Resources Administration released a draft Employment Plan that includes all of these elements.  HRA Commissioner Steven Banks and Mayor Bill de Blasio should be commended for the comprehensiveness and thoughtfulness of this plan.

Under WIOA, all states are required to develop unified plans that cover the core workforce programs to increase access to employment, education, training, and support services for individuals, particularly those with barriers to employment.  States have the option of including both TANF workforce programs and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) programs in these unified plans.   Under the SNAP E&T pilots authorized by this year’s Farm Bill, states also have the opportunity to apply for additional funding for programs designed to increase the employment of SNAP recipients.  Both the unified plan and the SNAP E&T pilots present opportunities for more states and counties to follow New York City’s lead and rethink what is really needed to ensure that low-income workers, including those receiving cash and nutritional assistance, can obtain the training and supports they need to succeed in today’s economy.

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