In Focus

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.

Sep 19, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

TANF Extended through Continuing Resolution

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Before departing to campaign, members of Congress extended the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant through December 11, 2014, as part of the continuing resolution to keep the government running.  Without this legislation, TANF would have lapsed on September 30.  Since 2010, TANF has been operating under a series of short-term extensions, often tied to appropriations bills.

While the TANF extension did not include any policy changes, it did include two funding cuts:

  • The Contingency Fund was cut to $598 million, down from the previously authorized level of $612.  In FY 2014, 20 states requested funds from the Contingency Fund. States must qualify based on high levels of unemployment or receipt of nutrition benefits, and must spend state dollars above historical levels on services for needy families. 
  • No money was provided for TANF-related research, which has been set at $15 million per year since TANF was created in 1996.   If these funds are not restored, several major studies of employment strategies currently under way will be at risk.

There is still the possibility that these cuts could be restored when Congress returns in November and grapples with how to provide for funding for the rest of the year, either through appropriations bills or an additional continuing resolution.

In addition, before recessing, the House of Representatives passed by voice vote HR 4137, which would add stores that sell marijuana to the list of locations where states are required to prohibit TANF recipients from accessing their benefits through EBT transactions.  This builds on a provision, enacted in 2012, that requires states to block recipients from withdrawing TANF benefits at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.  There is no evidence that either provision addresses a real problem; rather, like proposals to require recipients to submit to drug tests, they are based on unfounded stereotypes about welfare recipients. 


Aug 22, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

TANF Came Up Short in Response to the Recession

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

A recent Brookings blog post poses a provocative question: “was the TANF welfare program's response to the Great Recession adequate?”  While the blog post asserts that it was, the answer is actually a resounding “no.”  As our colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) have shown, while state programs varied in their response to the recession, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance overall failed to keep pace with sharp increases in unemployment and poverty.

The blog draws on a new Brookings paper (authored by Ron Haskins, Vicky Albert, and Kimberly Howard) that claims TANF largely met increased need during the recession.  But Brookings’ two major arguments are extremely flawed and don’t hold up to scrutiny.

TANF’s Responsiveness to Recession Unemployment Compared to the Old Program

Brookings argues that TANF is more responsive to unemployment during recessions than its predecessor program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was replaced by TANF in 1996.  While that’s technically true, it ignores important context.   Under TANF, poor single mothers are expected to work whenever possible.  AFDC had no such expectation, even when jobs were available.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that there was little correlation between AFDC single-mother caseloads and unemployment rates.  The number of families receiving cash assistance fell sharply when TANF replaced AFDC; even in the states where TANF grew the most in response to the recession, caseloads remained well below their AFDC levels.  Too often, low-income single mothers who lost their jobs in the recession often received neither TANF cash assistance nor unemployment benefits.

How to Measure TANF’s Growth During Increased Unemployment

Brookings asserts that because the recent recession hit states at somewhat different times, analyzing TANF growth during the period recognized as the “national recession” (as CBPP’s report did) does not fully capture the program’s responsiveness to increased unemployment.  Brookings offers two alternative measures: one that captures changes in a state’s TANF caseload during a period of rising unemployment, and another that captures caseload increases relative to their lowest level during the recession (completely ignoring the fact that caseloads declined in many states even as unemployment levels climbed). The first alternative is somewhat reasonable; the second is absurdly weighted in favor of caseload growth.

With its second measure, Brookings categorizes states based on whether they had higher- or lower-than-median percentage increases in unemployment rates and higher- or lower-than-median increases in TANF rolls.  Their analysis concludes that only seven states were unresponsive and problematic: Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.  But many of the states that they describe as “status quo”—lower than average in both categories—still had extremely high unemployment rates.  For instance, Michigan is considered a “status quo” state because its 109 percent growth in unemployment during its state-level recession was slightly less than the national average, even though  its unemployment rate climbed towards 15 percent.  That’s why it’s extremely misleading that the authors cite South Dakota, which peaked with 6 percent unemployment, as the illustrative example of a “status quo” state.   By using the median to determine a state’s responsiveness to the recession, Brookings is (by definition) asserting that just 25 states experienced high increases in unemployment—a claim with which almost no one would agree.

Michigan's total TANF family caseloads and unemployment rates from 2007 to 2011.

Having obfuscated TANF’s weakness with misleading statements, the  report then shifts to the safety net as a whole, concluding: “all in all, the American system of balancing work requirements and welfare benefits worked fairly well, even during the most severe recession since the Depression of the 1930s.”  This is true—but not thanks to TANF.  The elasticity of the safety net is largely owed to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly called Food Stamps), Unemployment Insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit—all of which respond automatically to recession and received additional boosts as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  This distinction is critically important because some politicians, such as Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), want to use TANF as a model for other programs—a change that would severely undermine the safety net success of which Haskins and his co-authors cite. On the 18th anniversary of TANF, its impact on “ending welfare as we know it” remains to be seen.

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