In Focus

Oct 4, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

Stop-Gap Continuing Resolution Passes Congress


Last Wednesday night—with about 50 hours to go until the start of federal Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17) and members of Congress eager to return home to campaign—the U.S. House and Senate passed a “Continuing Resolution” (CR) that will keep the federal government funded until December 9, 2016.

After negotiations, Republicans and Democrats reached a compromise that, among other things, includes $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus and $500 million for natural disaster relief, notably in flood-stricken Louisiana. Congress also reached a bipartisan agreement to reconcile the difference between the House and Senate on the amount of federal aid for the urgently needed and long-overdue replacement of lead water pipe lines in Flint, Michigan, where many people still cannot safely drink, bathe, or cook using tap water. However the final legislation to help Flint was not included in the CR and will have to wait until Congress returns after the election. The CR also temporarily continues mandatory programs that needed extensions, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

While this stop-gap measure will keep the government running until after the general election, the CR leaves considerable unfinished business because it fails fundamentally to meet the resource needs of programs that support low-income families. By temporarily continuing the inadequate funding levels in the FY16 budget for all annually appropriated federal programs, Congress did very little to address the needs of the 13.5 percent of Americans who live in poverty, according to the latest Census report on poverty.

As the nation looks ahead to a new president and Congressional leaders plan for 2017 and beyond, policymakers must fully fund effective investments in education, employment, young children, and anti-poverty strategies that ensure all benefit from the economic recovery. After the election, Congress will enter a “lame duck session” in which some members who will not be returning in January may feel unencumbered by future elections. The consequences are grim if Congress fails in the lame duck to sharply raise funding levels as it deliberates over the FY17 budget. For example: 

  • Holding child care funding at its current levels means that fewer children will receive the stable and healthy child care they need to thrive and their parents need to succeed on the job. Recent data show that participation in child care funded through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program has fallen to a 16-year low, with just 1.4 million children being served in 2014, and spending at an 11-year low as of 2013.  
  • Fewer workers will receive the skills training and postsecondary credentials they need to move toward better jobs, since this year’s funding level for adult education  is more than 6 percent below the FY 2017 amounts authorized in 2014’s bipartisan reauthorization of the federal workforce development law. Moreover, current funding for key adult and youth employment and training is more than 3 percent lower than levels authorized for next year by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). This would continue a decline in funding for these programs of more than 30 percent in real terms over the past 15 years.
  • Communities of color have been hit especially hard by federal disinvestment in key programs such as child care, workforce training, and Head Start. Youth of color, particularly out of school youth, simply don’t have the resources they need to succeed, and young children cannot get the start they need and deserve without help. With children of color soon to be half of all children—and already half of children under five—their success matters deeply to America’s future.

We can drive down the damaging prevalence of poverty and economic insecurity if the next president and Congressional leaders make a strong commitment to addressing poverty. Such a commitment should start with the enactment of an FY2017 budget that expands and invests in the crucial education, child care, safety net, and workforce development programs that help people get and keep a job, stabilize families, and promote success. In addition, the commitment must focus resources and attention on those who face the most barriers—children, youth, and families of color, immigrant families, and those whose opportunities are limited by pervasive poverty in their neighborhoods and communities.

CLASP urges Congress to pass a 2017 spending bill with additional resources to support low-income families as they seek economic security. 

Sep 30, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

OFA Brief Incorporates CLASP’s Recommendations for TANF Work-Study Programs

By Jessica Gehr

Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Family Assistance (OFA) published a brief outlining how Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) agencies can support postsecondary completion for TANF recipients. OFA recommends using TANF dollars to fund work-study programs, an approach CLASP has supported for years.

TANF benefits are time limited and relatively small. Consequently, parents can only escape poverty and become economically secure by obtaining stable employment with higher-than-minimum wages. Postsecondary credentials are essential to securing these jobs in today’s economy. Unfortunately, many states fail to provide TANF recipients access to postsecondary education or training opportunities because of TANF’s work participation rate (WPR) requirements, which incentivizes states to place recipients in low-wage, low-skilled jobs in order to meet federal quotas.

To address these challenges, OFA recommends engaging TANF recipients in work-study programs, allowing students to earn money at part-time jobs while they participate in education or training that leads to economic stability. This approach also eases the burden on state TANF agencies; under federal guidelines, work-study can be counted as “core” activities toward the WPR. Taken alone without a work component, TANF recipients’ postsecondary education can only be counted toward work requirements for 12 months over their lifetime.

Federal Work-Study (FWS) provides part-time employment to students who demonstrate financial need; these jobs are typically on campus and designed to accommodate student schedules. However, these funds are limited, and schools typically provide just 10-15 hours per week (not enough to meet the federal WPR). The OFA brief highlights several states, including Kentucky, California, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, that use TANF funds to provide additional work-study opportunities for TANF participants.

Strategies to create and enhance work-study programs for TANF participants include:

  • Combining work-study with education and training to meet federal work participation requirements;
  • Providing on-campus support staff for work-study participants;
  • Ensuring work-study income does not affect TANF eligibility;
  • Supporting work-study positions with fair wages in relevant experience areas; and
  • Targeting campuses with the greatest institutional need.

States should encourage postsecondary completion for TANF-eligible parents by funding work-study programs. This will help families achieve economic stability and mobility while allowing state agencies to count postsecondary education activities toward the WPR. CLASP also supports innovations that improve students’ access to income support programs, promoting college completion and future self-sufficiency.

Aug 22, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

20 Years After Welfare Reform: College Students and Benefits

By Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield

On TANF's 20th anniversary, I was interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education on how benefits can support students attending college as well as the policies that restrict their access.

The number of college students receiving TANF cash assistance dropped dramatically after welfare reform because of new time limits on education and training that sharply limited access, and because the total number of people receiving cash assistance dropped so much. However, students may receive other benefits, such as food assistance under SNAP or help paying for child care. A 2013 study found that 18.6 percent of students reported receiving a public benefit, including TANF, SNAP and free school meals, but not Medicaid. We know that benefit receipt is often underreported, so that may be a low estimate.

Today’s economy increasing requires post-secondary credentials for good jobs.  President Obama has said every American should have at least one year of postsecondary education and training, leading to a credential. Yet our anti-poverty programs have rules that directly contradict those goals by requiring too many work hours in combination with education, or time limiting education and training to such a degree that it hampers the ability of low-income students to attain credentials that allow them to get a family-supporting job.

Because of space limitations, the Chronicle didn’t run my answer to the question of what policy changes would make the most difference to students. Here’s the answer I gave:

First, it's important to recognize that this isn't simply about making the programs more user-friendly to low-income students, but also ensuring these program goals are aligned with our economic development and global competitiveness goals.  Even an  associate's degree or one-year certificate offers much better chances of placement in a job that offers family-supporting wages, instead of immediate placement in a minimum-wage job, or very short-term training programs with less economic payoff.  Society is far better off if people receive benefits for a little bit longer while they're in school, but are able to complete a degree or certificate that is valued in the labor market and gets them into a better job for the long run.

The answer to what could be done varies quite a bit by program.  For SNAP, the biggest change would be to remove the restrictions on student eligibility. That's the single biggest barrier to more low-income students receiving SNAP.  That would require federal legislation; however, even under the current rules, states could do much more to make sure that students who qualify for exemptions know about SNAP, and to make sure that students in employment-focused education and training qualify.

For TANF, even though the federal rules restrict how much education and training can count toward the work participation rate, states still have the flexibility to make different choices, such as not requiring 20 hours of work in conjunction with full-time college attendance.   Some states, such as Kentucky, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania have done so, recognizing that education and training supports the long-term goal of helping people get better jobs so that they don't need assistance in the future. 

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which was reauthorized in 2014, significantly improved the health and safety standards and provided for more stable care for families by requiring 12-month eligibility. However, the reauthorization came with very little additional money causing states to have to make difficult decisions about how to spend money and where to invest. The most important improvement that could be made for this program is a significant investment to ensure that more children can access high-quality care. Currently, about 1 in 7 eligible families receive child care subsidies, whether the parents are working or going to school or both.  As a result, even in a state where students are eligible to receive child care for their children, it’s certainly not a guarantee that they will.

The rules related to student eligibility for subsidized housing assistance for low-income individuals are complex. A student may receive Section 8 housing assistance while living separately from his or her parents only if both the student and the student’s parents are income eligible. The restriction does not apply to students who are veterans, married, have a dependent child, or are 24 years are older. Most independent students are eligible if they meet the income requirements, but definitions of eligible “families” sometimes exclude or deprioritize full-time students.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development should encourage local PHAs to treat full-time students similarly to working families, encouraging greater eligibility for public housing. In addition, financial aid for education-related expenses, such as fees, books, supplies, and transportation to school, should not be considered “income” for the purposes of determining Section 8 eligibility. 

And finally, for health insurance, the 19 states that haven't expanded Medicaid for all poor adults should do so. In these states, people with incomes under 100% of poverty who are not eligible for Medicaid under their state’s existing income eligibility limits and who don’t make enough to receive subsidies to purchase health insurance through the ACA marketplace fall into a coverage gap. In many states, adults without dependent children are not eligible at all for Medicaid, no matter how poor they are, and parents are only eligible at very low income levels.

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