August 20, 2015; Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Many of your younger colleagues might shrug at the mention of a program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), but that was the formal name for “welfare” support for families. Nineteen years ago, the federal welfare reform legislation of 1996 that came out of the Republican Congress led by Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Democratic White House under President Bill Clinton replaced AFDC with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).

Like much of social policy caught in the scrum between the White House and a gridlocked Congress, TANF hasn’t been formally gone through a full reauthorization since 2005. Rather, it has chugged or stumbled along on with short-term extensions since 2010.

The two nonprofit sources of essential information on TANF—its problems, prospects, and current status in Congress—are the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Writing for CBPP, Liz Schott calls on Congress to make some improvements in TANF because the program “serves few poor families with children and hasn’t provided an effective safety net that could give poor children an opportunity to succeed in school and life.”

The notion behind the welfare reform transformation from AFDC to TANF was supposed to be a focus on work, but Schott points out that “in reality, states invest few TANF funds in preparing parents for work or helping them obtain good jobs. State efforts related to work activities often focus on documenting and measuring participation in a limited set of activities—those that often are a mismatch for the skills employers need and the training and education that could help TANF families most.”

Schott’s several recommendations for TANF reform include:

  1. “Shift the focus from engaging recipients in activities to improving employment outcomes.” By this, Schott is referring to the generation and use of measures that look at whether TANF recipients participate in activities that help them get and keep jobs, not simply whether they are simply engaged in a requisite number of hours in employment-related activities.
  2. “Put basic education and skills training on par with other work activities.” Schott observes that “many TANF recipients lack basic skills and education to compete in today’s labor market”—that is, the skills that employers need. She indicates that the current TANF work participation rate measure “discourages states from allowing and supporting successful participation in basic education or skills training programs.”
  3. “Support alternate pathways to work for individuals with the greatest barriers.” By this, Schott is recognizing that “many TANF recipients face significant barriers to employment, including mental and physical health issues that limit their employment prospects,” but there is little in TANF that addresses their personal or family issues.
  4. “Redirect staffing resources from documenting participation to helping parents be successful at work.” Too much of TANF is focused on complex and confusing work and verification requirements when TANF recipients and TANF staff would find their time better spent “providing real assistance to families seeking to move from welfare to work.”
  5. “Shift incentives from reducing caseloads to providing access to TANF to ensure opportunity for all.” In the current political environment, it seems that politicians and program administrators like to show reduced caseloads, even if it means pushing people off the TANF rolls, rather than demonstrate success in helping TANF recipients deal with the hardship of poverty. Schott notes that in 2013, the ratio of families in poverty receiving TANF cash benefits was just 26 for every 100 compared to 68 out of every 100 poor families in 2006, and in 10 states, fewer than 10 out of every 100 poor families receives TANF cash assistance. She argues that Congress shouldn’t simply reward states for reducing TANF caseloads no matter how they do it.
  6. “Target state and federal TANF funding to core welfare reform purposes.” Schott argues that “core welfare reform” areas such as support for child care and other work supports and basic assistance account for less than half of federal and state TANF assistance and only 25 percent or less of TANF expenditures in eight states. She suggests a 50 percent minimum floor requirement on TANF expenditures on theses core welfare purposes.

This CBPP analysis has significant areas of overlap with the testimony from Elizabeth Lower-Basch of CLASP submitted to the Ways and Means Committee on TANF reauthorization. Much of what Schott recommended actually reflects her analysis, shared by Lower-Basch, that TANF should be brought into better alignment with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Lower-Basch also recommends other improvements to better connect TANF with other programs, specifically the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBC). Her testimony includes concern with states’ efforts (and Congressional endorsement) for caseload reduction aimed at reducing cash assistance caseloads regardless of need and other incentives that do not lead to programs that are more effective in helping TANF recipients deal with and overcome financial hardships.

Congress will be debating the elements of the TANF reauthorization when it returns from its August recess after Labor Day. Changing the rules and regulations of TANF may be important, especially with the inclusion as members of Congress seem to support, with more focus on crafting individual opportunity plans for TANF recipients. However, as Charles Lewis of the Congressional Research Institute on Social Work and Policy notes, “the basic (TANF) block grant—set at $16.5 billion since 1996 has not been increased and as a result has lost one-third of its value due to inflation.” In the hands of a budget-cutting, Republican-led Congress, TANF needs more than changes in measures and procedures, and nonprofits concerned about low-income families have to make sure their voices are heard.—Rick Cohen