In Focus: Federal TANF Policy

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 17, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

New TANF Spending Categories Shine Light On State Spending

By Jessica Gehr

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, new spending data for fiscal year (FY) 2015 shows that states continued to spend less than half of their block grants and related state funds on core activities, including cash assistance, work and training activities, and child care.

Under the TANF block grant, states have great flexibility to use funds to support a broad range of activities that benefit low-income families with children. Many states have used that flexibility to support services such as child welfare, pre-kindergarten programs, and after-school care. New reporting requirements for FY 2015 broke down expenditures into more specific categories, providing a clearer path to understanding the ways in which TANF supports such activities.

In FY 2015, 25 states spent less than half of their TANF and state maintenance of effort (MOE) funds on core activities. Additionally, basic assistance, as a share of federal and state TANF funds, decreased by nearly two percent. Seven states spent less than 10 percent of their TANF and MOE funds on basic assistance, and only three states spent more than 75 percent of TANF and MOE funds on core activities. TANF is intended to promote job preparation and work, yet less than 7 percent of all funds were spent on work, education, and training activities. Moreover, that modest expenditure may not have been used for families receiving assistance. States should focus their spending on core activities that help the families who are struggling most to make ends meet and progress toward long-term economic stability.

The new, more detailed reporting for expenditures shows that states spent 8 percent of TANF and related funds on child welfare services (including foster care) and 6 percent on Pre-Kindergarten/Head Start programs. However, spending varied significantly by state. For example, Georgia and Texas spent roughly 50 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of TANF and MOE funds on child welfare services. Louisiana and Texas spent roughly 30 percent and 38 percent, respectively, on pre-k and Head Start programs. While these are important services, this is not what TANF was originally intended to do. States are leveraging TANF flexibility to fund other services, rather than spending on TANF’s core purposes. 

The real value of the TANF block grant has declined by 33 percent due to inflation since TANF was created, and the use of TANF funds to support a wide range of services has further reduced the funding that is available for core activities. The result is a weak, and deeply uneven, safety net for the poorest families with children. Congress should set standards and hold states accountable for using TANF funds to serve these families.

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