On TANF Anniversary, Time for Policymakers to Work on More than Rhetoric

Aug 23, 2012

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Helly Lee

This week marks the 16th anniversary of the signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the law that drastically overhauled the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and turned it into what is now the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.  Not much has changed since the last anniversary, but in a heated election year, TANF and work requirements for TANF recipients have resurfaced as a hot button issue.

There is widespread agreement, regardless of political party, that finding and maintaining employment is a critical component of rising out of poverty and, ultimately, no longer needing assistance.  This is both a statement of economic reality, and a reflection of a shared belief that all people should contribute to society and support themselves and their families to the extent possible.

The specific mechanism to promote work in the 1996 law was the requirement that states achieve certain targets under a “work participation rate”  the share of adult recipients of assistance who are participating in a specified work-related activity for at least 30 hours a week (or 20 hours a week for single parents with young children).  This measure was influential in promoting an employment focus in welfare programs, but has also had some negative consequences:

  • Caseworkers spend a great deal of time and effort documenting the hours that recipients participate in countable activities, rather than actually helping recipients move from welfare to work.
  • Because the law puts restriction on the degree to which participation in education and training can count toward the work participation rate, recipients are often denied access to training programs that could help them access better jobs that would get them off of cash assistance and other public supports.
  • States are not rewarded for providing services to more disadvantaged recipients, who require more time and extra help in order to achieve employment.

While still strongly committed to the goal of employment for welfare recipients, many states have asked for the flexibility to be innovative and more effectively help TANF recipients successfully prepare for, find and retain employment. Last month, the Administration proposed to do just that, by providing states an opportunity to apply for waivers that would allow them to experiment with alternative approaches that would strengthen and increase employment outcomes. 

Unfortunately, this proposal has gotten caught up in a political firestorm, with the Romney campaign and others continuing to repeat the false claim that the waiver proposal "guts welfare's work requirement."  The partisan rhetoric has spread to Congress, with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) issuing a new report that repeats the Romney campaign's specious claims, and doubles down by resurrecting the plain-inaccurate attempt to paint the TANF Emergency Fund as anti-work, when in fact states used the additional funding to create more than 260,000 temporary subsidized jobs at the peak of the recession, as well as to provide additional emergency benefits.

We can't afford to just wait until things settle down after the election, when Washington, D.C. may return to a slightly less partisan mode.  The latest extension of the TANF block grant expires on Sept. 30, 2012.  With the House of Representatives scheduled to be in session for only 8 days between now and then, Congress must act to extend TANF so that states can continue to issue benefits, expand work activities and help families pay for child care.

Somehow, Congress must get past the overheated campaign rhetoric, and come together during the limited legislative window to extend this critically needed legislation.  In the longer run, politicians should stop treating welfare recipients as a convenient way to score election year points.  Instead they should put their energy into building TANF into a program that alleviates poverty, prevents material hardship, and creates effective pathways to employment and economic opportunity.

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