More Meetings Don’t Mean Better Services: House TANF Bill Falls Short of Claims

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Jessica Gehr

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reauthorization bill (H.R. 5861), passed last month by the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means, calls for “universal engagement” and would require all recipients of cash assistance to meet regularly with a case manager. However, without new resources, this requirement would not allow states to provide meaningful individualized services. Instead, states are likely to continue conducting brief assessments to identify employment barriers and developing client plans based on a standardized template with a limited menu of options.

Under current law, states are already required to develop an “individual responsibility plan” within 90 days for all adults receiving assistance. Because of the TANF work participation rate requirement, most states prioritize immediate job placement for nearly all participants. Additionally, the person who conducts the assessment and develops the plan is often responsible for cutting clients’ benefits if they fail to turn in documentation of required work activities, which can act as a barrier to building a trusting relationship. HR 5861 would rename these plans “individual opportunity plans,” mandate the initial assessment within 60 days, and require case managers to review progress with participants at least every 90 days. However, the bill would not require states to customize the plans to reflect participants’ individual skills or interests, and it would not obligate states to provide services or supports to overcome identified employment barriers. Therefore, states are likely to continue operating the same one-size-fits-all programs. 

The requirement to hold more frequent meetings, track, and document participation would create administrative bureaucracy and likely result in additional sanctions. More families would be punished if they were unable to participate in case management because of their health, children, or other life circumstances—such as irregular work schedules and unpredictable hours—that disproportionately burden people in low-wage jobs. Individuals with barriers to employment such as mental or physical health challenges, homelessness, or domestic violence are likely to be harmed the most. A study of New York City’s Personal Roads to Individual Development and Employment (PRIDE) program, a mandatory, large-scale welfare-to-work program for recipients with limiting medical or mental health conditions, found that many participants were sanctioned for not attending all required meetings, regardless of their circumstances. Therefore, the program reduced the income of many participants. 

Individualized support from a case manager who has an ongoing relationship with a participant is a compelling vision, but such services are expensive and can be difficult to scale. Only a handful of TANF programs have truly provided such services—and only to limited groups of recipients. 

The bill would also require states to assess the wellbeing of recipients’ children, as well as the adults’ employment history, skills, and work-readiness. This is an encouraging statement about the importance of TANF as a two-generational support for parents and children. However, since the bill does not provide any additional funding for case management or other services, it is unlikely to drive real change. Instead, Congress should support research on which models are most effective, and for which populations, rather than mandating more meetings and more paperwork.