20 years later, welfare is grim: TANF fails at both providing a safety net and promoting work
By Olivia Golden
Twenty years ago, Congress redesigned America’s cash assistance for deeply poor families to create the Temporary Assistance for Needy Familiesprogram (TANF), a fixed grant to states for time-limited assistance, rapid employment and other state-selected purposes.
At the Health and Human Services Department, I was responsible for the law’s two key missions: providing a safety net and promoting work.
Fast-forward 20 years, and the result is grim: TANF fails at both. It helps less than one in five poor children and offers few meaningful work activities. Funding has stayed flat, reducing the grant’s value by a third. States spend barely half on the core mission, and too many poor children live in families without jobs or cash assistance.
One problem is the block grant structure — ill-suited to the nation’s core safety net, because it creates wide disparities among states and fails families when they need help most. The 2008 recession created historic unemployment, yet states cut off families unable to find jobs because of a lack of resources, and state flexibility created incentives to restrict help.
Another problem is the program’s outdated assumptions. It envisioned an economy where even the lowest-skilled workers could find jobs, and it penalizes states for training people in the skills they need. These counterproductive work requirements, far from a model, are a relic.
To reduce child poverty, we should build on success. In the 1990s, the strong economy combined with expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit, child care assistance and health insurance enabled low-income mothers to work. Since then, those programs have worn better than Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
To build on that success, we should expand affordable child care, promote good jobs at decent wages, keep health insurance and nutrition assistance strong, and create a national floor for poor children’s income so their future doesn’t depend on where they live.