House TANF Bill Makes Small Improvements, But No New Funding to Support Them

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Renato Rocha

Last week the House Committee on Ways and Means passed H.R. 5861, a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reauthorization bill, with no Democratic support. However, members of both parties have expressed a shared understanding that TANF isn’t providing participants the education, training, and supportive services needed to find—and keep—good jobs that enable them to meet their families’ needs.

TANF gives block grants to states that are used to provide cash assistance, work activities, and a wide variety of other services for low-income families. The bill would require states to establish an employment plan, which outlines the individual’s employment obligations and the services the state will provide, for all adults expected to work and review it every 90 days. The bill would also change performance measures to include employment, job retention, and median wages to give states clear incentives to improve employment outcomes achieved by people leaving assistance for entering the labor market or meeting state’s time-limits. The changes are a helpful step toward aligning TANF performance measures with those in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). However, the bill retains the burdensome requirement that states track all hours of work activities.

Moreover, the bill does not provide any new funding to support work activities or cash assistance. Since 1996, the block grant has been nominally flat, meaning that it has lost more than one-third of its value to inflation. In the committee hearing, Democrats repeatedly attempted to amend the bill to add additional funds targeted to work activities aligned with the workforce system and child care. These proposals would have been paid for by increasing corporate taxes. These amendments were blocked by Republicans on procedural grounds.

In a step in the right direction, the bill tries to redirect existing funds by requiring for the first time a minimum 25 percent share of TANF and associated state funding to be spent on cash assistance, work activities, and other “core activities.” It would also limit TANF spending to families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. And it would phase out states’ ability to claim non-governmental spending toward their state spending requirement.  These restrictions are needed, because many states have used TANF for other purposes, filling gaps in their state budgets rather than helping needy families. These provisions received bi-partisan support in committee, with Representative Doggett (D-TX) recommending a higher core spending requirement. While these components would be helpful in preventing the continued outflow of TANF funds to fill state budget holes, they aren’t a substitute for adequate TANF funding.

Also, Congress needs to remember that TANF is supposed to be an immediate anti-poverty tool and a way to connect people to economic opportunity. Far too often, TANF has failed at both goals. As of 2015, only 26 percent of eligible people received TANF cash assistance, down from approximately 70 percent when the program was created. Without cash assistance, people struggle to meet their families’ basic needs. Parents may not be able to buy diapers, keep safe and stable housing, or pay the bus fare to look for work. These shortfalls, along with the increased stress caused by extreme poverty, have lasting effects on children’s wellbeing and economic success.

H.R. 5861 would take an important symbolic step by making child poverty reduction an official TANF goal. It would also begin to hold states accountable for the employment outcomes of TANF cash recipients. Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t make it easier for people who desperately need help to enter TANF in the first place—a major problem in many states.  States would continue to have an incentive to deny cash assistance to people with significant barriers to employment, who require more extensive services and supports in order to get and keep jobs.

As of today, it’s unclear when—or if—the bill will go to the full House for a vote. The current TANF authorization expires at the end of September, but there hasn’t been a full reauthorization since 2005 – as long as the funding is extended by the end of the fiscal year, the program can continue without interruption. Since that reauthorization expired, the program has been extended one to two years at a time. Senate Democrats have also released a discussion draft of a bill that supports job opportunities and other workforce services for disadvantaged workers, including TANF recipients. However, no hearings have been scheduled. There is still time to come up with a plan for reauthorization that addresses more of TANF’s shortcomings.