New York City Rethinks TANF Work Programs for the 21st Century

Many states and counties have not significantly changed the work programs for recipients of cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) since the federal program was created in 1996, and only some have made changes since it was last reauthorized 9 years ago. But the economy has changed significantly over the last 18 years. We also have learned quite a bit more about what kinds of employment and training programs are needed to help workers succeed, as reflected in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, recently enacted with broad bipartisan support.

If you wanted to create a TANF work program that recognizes people receiving cash assistance are not all the same and have different needs—and that incorporates what we know about what workers need to succeed in today’s economy—some of the elements you might include are:

  • Improving assessments and individualizing expectations to reflect recipients’ strengths and needs;
  • Allowing job-ready recipients with recent work history to engage in independent job search;
  • Connecting recipients to career pathways programs that lead to employment in high-wage, high-growth industries;
  • Allowing recipients who have the skills needed to attend college to do so, and providing them with the supports they need to succeed;
  • Recognizing that the labor market is particularly challenging for individuals with less than a high school degree, allowing young adults to participate in full-time sector-based contextualized literacy training and preparation for high school equivalency exams as pathways to career-focused credentials;
  • Expanding subsidized employment and internship models that have been shown effective in connecting recipients to work;
  • Developing new models for supporting highly vulnerable populations, including homeless individuals and families, victims of domestic violence, individuals with disabilities, and young adults aging out of foster care; and
  • Redesigning sanction processes to encourage non-participating recipients to engage in work activities and reduce the number of people who are “churned” from the caseload.

This week, New York City’s Human Resources Administration released a draft Employment Plan that includes all of these elements. HRA Commissioner Steven Banks and Mayor Bill de Blasio should be commended for the comprehensiveness and thoughtfulness of this plan.

Under WIOA, all states are required to develop unified plans that cover the core workforce programs to increase access to employment, education, training, and support services for individuals, particularly those with barriers to employment. States have the option of including both TANF workforce programs and programs in these unified plans. Under authorized by this year’s Farm Bill, states also have the opportunity to apply for additional funding for programs designed to increase the employment of SNAP recipients. Both the unified plan and the SNAP E&T pilots present opportunities for more states and counties to follow New York City’s lead and rethink what is really needed to ensure that low-income workers, including those receiving cash and nutritional assistance, can obtain the training and supports they need to succeed in today’s economy.