In Focus: State TANF Policies and Data

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, 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.

Jul 28, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

In TANF’s Twentieth Year, Prioritizing Education and Training is Needed

By Randi Hall

New work participation data released this week from the Office of Family Assistance shows that recipients of cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant have little access to education and training activities, even though today’s labor market increasingly requires workers to have postsecondary credentials in order to access steady well-paying jobs. Specifically, the recent share of work-eligible TANF recipients who participated in relevant activities—including education related to employment, vocational education, job skills training and satisfactory school attendance—was only 15 percent, down from 18.3 percent in 2013.

In a new policy brief, CLASP reviews the evidence for the need for postsecondary credentials for labor market success and the effects of obtaining such credentials for TANF recipients. The brief reiterates the importance of emphasizing educational and job training pathways for TANF recipients, and highlights recent state policy changes that reflect the realities of today’s economy and the opportunity to make further changes by aligning employment programs for TANF recipients with the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

The brief also identifies federal policy changes that would support states by giving them credit toward the federal work participation rate for engaging TANF recipients in education and training, such as those included in last year’s discussion draft bill for TANF reauthorization put forth by the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources. While we largely supported the initiatives outlined in the draft bill to strengthen TANF’s core purposes and improve the measure of its work participation rate, we raised concerns over the lack of additional flexibility and funding to address and support recipient families' needs and barriers to employment. Senator Angus King’s (I-ME) recently introduced Enhancing and Modernizing Pathways to Opportunity through Work, Education, and Responsibility (EMPOWER) Act, would go further toward support education and training for TANF recipients. The summary of the bill highlights how the EMPOWER Act would  allow states to incorporate education and training opportunities as a pathway to move TANF recipients into stable jobs that pay adequate wages.

While the EMPOWER Act received bi-partisan co-sponsorship from Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV), Congress has now adjourned for the Presidential conventions and the August recess. Given the limited time in which Congress will be in session during this election year, it is unlikely that either the House or the Senate will take up TANF reauthorization this year. However, these bills provide good starting points for a discussion next year

The U.S. economy has vastly transformed since TANF was created, but TANF has not. TANF should be redesigned to improve its effectiveness as both a safety net and an employment program, so that it can truly reduce poverty.

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