In Focus: State TANF Policies and Data

May 29, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

California to Repeal Rule Denying Cash Assistance to Thousands of Poor Children

UPDATE: CLASP is disappointed to report that the maximum family grant repeal was not included in the budget agreement announced by Gov. Jerry Brown on June 16, despite bicameral support in the state legislature. We will continue to partner with state and local advocates working to secure a stronger safety net for California's low-income families.

By Randi Hall

Within the upcoming weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the California state budget which includes repeal of the maximum family grant (MFG) rule, which permanently denies cash assistance to babies born while a child is receiving CalWorks, California’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Both Subcommittees on Health and Human Services within the state Senate and Assembly recommended the MFG repeal in their respective versions of the budget. With over 27,000 California families sanctioned by the MFG rule in 2012, this repeal signals a  victory for policymakers and state advocates promoting the well-being of over 140,000 of California’s children negatively impacted by the policy.

With California’s repeal of the MFG rule, also known as a “family cap”, just 15 states now have a family cap policy in place under their TANF program; a number of states that once included the cap have since repealed the law, such as Minnesota in 2013. Family cap policies have been promoted with the purpose of deterring the growth of out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families receiving welfare benefits, based on the hypothesis that welfare recipients might intentionally conceive a child to receive an increased benefit, to become exempt from mandatory work requirements or activities, or to remain eligible for the program.  However, these policies have been wholly ineffective in reducing birth rates among poor mothers in TANF.

Instead what family caps have done is exacerbate poverty and its long-term effects on children’s health and well-being. Studies indicate that a family cap significantly increases deep poverty rates among single mothers and their children by at least 12 percent.  Without the MFG rule, most affected households in California would receive an additional $128 per month in assistance for a newborn child—hardly enough to meet an infant’s basic needs, but still an amount that would mitigate the financial burdens associated with deep poverty. In some circumstances, family cap policies can also result in a “zero-grant” situation which prevents a household that would be otherwise eligible to receive aid from doing so.

Repeal of the MFG has been a high priority for California anti-poverty advocates for years, and has drawn support from pro-life groups as well as those who advocate women’s reproductive choice.   California's repeal of the MFG rule has been championed by Senator Holly Mitchell over the last three years, and has received essential support by Senate Pro Tem De Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. CLASP strongly encourages Gov. Brown to accept the state budget with the MFG repeal in place, granting a much-needed reprieve for thousands of California's poor children and families.

Mar 6, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

The Grand Canyon Isn't the Biggest Chasm in Arizona: Proposed Budget Widens Gap to Economic Security for Low-Income Families

UPDATE: The Arizona legislature passed a budget for FY2016 in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 7. According to the Associated Press, the budget deal included the reduction of the lifetime limit for receipt of TANF to 12 months from 24 months, as well as the elimination of all state funding for two counties’ community college systems (Pima and Maricopa), with the funding for Pinal County’s community colleges spared from cuts.

State lawmakers in Arizona are working furiously on a FY16 budget deal designed to reduce the state’s deficit. Unfortunately, Governor Doug Ducey and the Republican leadership in Arizona’s House and Senate plan to achieve these cuts by slashing funds for programs that support low-income children, families, and individuals in seeking economic security. According to reports, the proposal includes draconian cuts to community colleges and other higher education programs, cash assistance to poor families under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and child care. Reductions in these individual programs are bad enough, but this combination of cuts is especially problematic because it generates the potential for devastating effects for the future of Arizona and its labor force and economy. 

The surest path to economic security is a job that pays family-sustaining wages. And poor and low-income families need support—in the form of education, job training, child care and other assistance—as they seek to obtain and hold onto employment with decent pay. Arizona already has the eighth highest rate of child poverty among the 50 states at 26.5 percent. The rate is particularly high among Native American and Hispanic children (38.6 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively). The state can ill afford to abandon children and families who are striving for success. That’s why the proposed cuts are so concerning. 

Governor Ducey’s proposal would completely eliminate state funding for the three largest community college districts in Arizona, while also significantly cutting state support for public universities. Many low-income, minority and nontraditional students rely on community colleges as relatively inexpensive routes to getting the training, education, and skills required for career success. For instance, Maricopa Community College, which would see its state funding eliminated under the proposal, serves nearly 265,000 students annually. Of these students, half are racial or ethnic minorities, while 41 percent are at least age 25 and 72 percent attend part time. The governor’s proposal would put opportunities for career success that much farther out of reach for these and other low-income Arizonans. 

Poor families also benefit from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which is operated through block grants that allow states to determine (within guidelines) how to use the federal funds. The reported deal would slash the amount of time that the poorest parents and children could receive TANF cash assistance to meet their basic needs. Currently, Arizona provides up to 24 months of TANF cash assistance (which is already one of the shortest lifetime limits for any state); the proposal would slash that to only 12 months, which is unprecedented and far and away the shortest time limit for TANF of any state. Moreover, this time limit would apply to many cases where only children receive benefits. These cuts put children at risk of hunger, homelessness, and toxic stress that makes it harder for them to succeed in school and grow up as healthy, successful adults.

Another way to support low-income working families is by offering assistance with child care so that parents can seek and hold onto jobs while their children are being well cared for in safe and affordable settings. Governor Ducey’s proposal eliminates $4 million in funding that was just added this year to open up the child care assistance waiting list for children in low-income working families.  

Arizona policymakers would do well to consider the impact of this short-sighted budget. By drastically cutting off the support that hard-working poor and low-income people in their state need to climb up the ladder to economic security, the state’s leaders are forsaking Arizona’s overall future success. For national policymakers, a key lesson driven home by this budget—negotiated behind closed doors—is the deep risks posed by proposals to give states flexibility to alter the fundamental structure of key federally funded safety net programs.

Aug 22, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

TANF Came Up Short in Response to the Recession

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

A recent Brookings blog post poses a provocative question: “was the TANF welfare program's response to the Great Recession adequate?”  While the blog post asserts that it was, the answer is actually a resounding “no.”  As our colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) have shown, while state programs varied in their response to the recession, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance overall failed to keep pace with sharp increases in unemployment and poverty.

The blog draws on a new Brookings paper (authored by Ron Haskins, Vicky Albert, and Kimberly Howard) that claims TANF largely met increased need during the recession.  But Brookings’ two major arguments are extremely flawed and don’t hold up to scrutiny.

TANF’s Responsiveness to Recession Unemployment Compared to the Old Program

Brookings argues that TANF is more responsive to unemployment during recessions than its predecessor program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was replaced by TANF in 1996.  While that’s technically true, it ignores important context.   Under TANF, poor single mothers are expected to work whenever possible.  AFDC had no such expectation, even when jobs were available.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that there was little correlation between AFDC single-mother caseloads and unemployment rates.  The number of families receiving cash assistance fell sharply when TANF replaced AFDC; even in the states where TANF grew the most in response to the recession, caseloads remained well below their AFDC levels.  Too often, low-income single mothers who lost their jobs in the recession often received neither TANF cash assistance nor unemployment benefits.

How to Measure TANF’s Growth During Increased Unemployment

Brookings asserts that because the recent recession hit states at somewhat different times, analyzing TANF growth during the period recognized as the “national recession” (as CBPP’s report did) does not fully capture the program’s responsiveness to increased unemployment.  Brookings offers two alternative measures: one that captures changes in a state’s TANF caseload during a period of rising unemployment, and another that captures caseload increases relative to their lowest level during the recession (completely ignoring the fact that caseloads declined in many states even as unemployment levels climbed). The first alternative is somewhat reasonable; the second is absurdly weighted in favor of caseload growth.

With its second measure, Brookings categorizes states based on whether they had higher- or lower-than-median percentage increases in unemployment rates and higher- or lower-than-median increases in TANF rolls.  Their analysis concludes that only seven states were unresponsive and problematic: Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.  But many of the states that they describe as “status quo”—lower than average in both categories—still had extremely high unemployment rates.  For instance, Michigan is considered a “status quo” state because its 109 percent growth in unemployment during its state-level recession was slightly less than the national average, even though  its unemployment rate climbed towards 15 percent.  That’s why it’s extremely misleading that the authors cite South Dakota, which peaked with 6 percent unemployment, as the illustrative example of a “status quo” state.   By using the median to determine a state’s responsiveness to the recession, Brookings is (by definition) asserting that just 25 states experienced high increases in unemployment—a claim with which almost no one would agree.

Michigan's total TANF family caseloads and unemployment rates from 2007 to 2011.

Having obfuscated TANF’s weakness with misleading statements, the  report then shifts to the safety net as a whole, concluding: “all in all, the American system of balancing work requirements and welfare benefits worked fairly well, even during the most severe recession since the Depression of the 1930s.”  This is true—but not thanks to TANF.  The elasticity of the safety net is largely owed to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly called Food Stamps), Unemployment Insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit—all of which respond automatically to recession and received additional boosts as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  This distinction is critically important because some politicians, such as Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), want to use TANF as a model for other programs—a change that would severely undermine the safety net success of which Haskins and his co-authors cite. On the 18th anniversary of TANF, its impact on “ending welfare as we know it” remains to be seen.

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