TANF's Role in Expanding Economic Opportunity

Apr 22, 2010

Below is an excerpt from Julie Strawn's April 22 testimony before the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support. The subcomittee hearing focused on the role of education and training in the TANF program. 

By Julie Strawn

Past welfare reform debates have often centered on the question of which route is more effective to economic independence, education or work.  I've followed research and practice in this area for more than 20 years, and it now seems quite clear that the answer to the education or work question is yes. Both education and work experience are critical for economic success.

It seems just as clear that it is not always possible for people to be good students, workers, and parents all at the same time, given the daunting logistical, financial, and time requirements of each of these roles. It is time to put aside old debates and start a different conversation that grapples with today's realities.

Changes in our economy have made it increasingly hard for workers with only a high school education or less to earn enough to support a family. Workers without even a high school diploma have been especially hard hit. According to administrative data, 41.5 percent of adult TANF recipients have less than a high school degree, and more than half have exactly a high school degree.  Less than 5 percent have any postsecondary education.

Fortunately, education and training services for adults are adapting to respond effectively to the changing economy and today's worker and employer needs. Leading states and communities are creating new pathways to careers for lower-skilled adults and combining them with the financial support and advising services that low-income adults, especially parents, need to succeed.  Federal policies across a range of programs need to be updated to support these reforms.   

Unfortunately, TANF policies are more often part of the problem than the solution. Federal policies, especially the work participation rate calculation, force a preoccupation with the minutia of program participation rather than attention to the long-term economic outcomes we want to achieve for low-income families. While a few states manage to provide effective education and training services for low-income parents in spite of federal policy barriers, their achievements are the exception, not the norm.  Too many states are frozen in the policies they adopted in the mid 1990s and have not recognized the ways in which both the economy and educational systems have evolved over the past decade and a half. Read more


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