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.