Waiving Work Requirements in the TANF Program

Feb 28, 2013

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Below is an excerpt from Elizabeth Lower-Basch's February 28 testimony before the Human Resources Subcommittee of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee on waiving work requirements in the TANF Program. The subcommittee hearing focused on reviewing the Health and Human Services' proposed waivers of TANF work requirements.

In the statement calling this hearing, Mr. Chairman, you said that welfare should "empower able-bodied recipients with the tools to secure a job, lift oneself out of poverty, and provide for one's family."  I agree.  Stable employment in a well-paying job is the best pathway out of poverty and into the middle class.  Moreover, employment is one of the key ways that people contribute to society. 

Where we may disagree, however, is whether the work participation rate under TANF is an effective way of promoting this goal.  I do not believe that it is. 

The work participation rate only measures attendance.  It does not make any attempt to measure the effectiveness of states' employment programs -whether these programs are getting people into jobs.  It forces states and caseworkers to focus on documentation, rather than helping clients, and unnecessarily limits the range of activities that can be counted.

In an economy where family-supporting jobs are increasingly limited to those with at least a postsecondary credential - and where those without at least a high school diploma find it harder and harder to find any employment - low-income parents need access to the training that would allow them to escape a cycle of low-wages, unstable work and poverty.  Many states have particularly highlighted as a problem the limitations on counting basic education and GED classes towards the work rates.  States have learned much about work-focused education in the decades since such programs were last evaluated, and we are also in a very different economic context.

While the labor force participation of low income mothers increased dramatically during the 1990s, this was not primarily due to the work participation rate.  Rather I would credit the combination of the strong economy, the messaging effect of welfare reform, and the package of  improvements that "made work pay" for low-income single mothers.  These included a rising minimum wage, and expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), child care subsidies, and public health insurance.

States would almost certainly continue to enforce a work expectation even in the absence of any federal requirements. Moreover, the vast majority of low-income parents themselves value work and want to support themselves and their families.  They do not need more work requirements, but work opportunities and employment supports.

Read Ms. Lower-Basch's entire testimony.

For a full discussion of CLASP's priorities for TANF reauthorization, read Goals for TANF Reauthorization.

For policy briefs on TANF recipients, see CLASP's TANF publications page.



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