The verdict is out: 20 years later, the only federal cash assistance program for low-income families desperately needs an overhaul.
In 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was enacted — a historic welfare reform initiative whose core values have since gone askew. States have overwhelmingly used TANF funds for everything except its original intent: reducing child poverty and getting families back to work.
Under the program’s constricting work and time-limit requirements, just under 25 percent of all poor families with children receive cash assistance today. States have placed such harsh restrictions on benefits that families can’t access the help they need and can’t escape the cycle of poverty.
If reformed properly, TANF can still work. Studies show that when families receive a boost in income, it promotes their children’s healthy development and increases their chance of future success. Lawmakers must make this a priority and put children front and center in any future TANF reform.
Here are some ways Congress can improve TANF to directly impact child poverty:
Make child poverty reduction an explicit goal of TANF
Since the 1996 welfare law, the share of children below half of the poverty line rose from 2.1 to 3 percent (1995 to 2005), and the number of children in deep poverty increased from 1.5 million to 2.2 million.
By making child poverty reduction an explicit goal of TANF, it would help ensure that states use TANF funding in ways that have a direct effect in reducing child poverty – and that a state’s acceptable use of TANF funds is evaluated based on the number of children and families below the poverty line who are lifted out of poverty.
The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget, the 2015 House Ways and Means Committee discussion draft and the recent bipartisan EMPOWER Act (S 3091), led by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, all include adding child poverty reduction as an explicit purpose of TANF.
Hold states accountable for using TANF to reduce child poverty
TANF can lift children out of poverty by helping parents secure and maintain quality jobs that allow them to sufficiently provide for their family. Congress should allow TANF funds to be used to pursue basic education, skills training or vocational education that leads to quality employment. This includes providing child care assistance while parents are pursuing education. An evaluation of Maine’s Parents as Scholars program, created during the first years of TANF, found that enrolled parents were more likely to find jobs that provided economic mobility.
For TANF child-only cases, where the eligibility for TANF funds is based solely on the children, states need to evaluate the effectiveness of these grants in reducing poverty and improving well-being among child recipients. The makeup of households receiving child-only grants vary from state-to-state, and increased data is needed to understand their characteristics. These child-only grants need to be accompanied by assessments to determine how the children in the household are faring and if they need increased support, as well as whether a child would be better served through other systems and resources.
Some states use a large percentage of their TANF dollars to fund their state child welfare systems. While it is important for states to fund services that provide critical support to children experiencing abuse and neglect, we must ensure states are using TANF funds strategically. Rather than just plugging budget holes, states should use TANF funds for evidence-based prevention, intervention and kinship services, and ensure families are not pushed into the child welfare system because they were not able to access cash assistance to provide basic necessities for their children. TANF funds used for child welfare services, including kinship care, should be a complementary and coordinated service that assists families that enter either program.
Reform TANF to be more responsive during times of economic downturns
Due to TANF’s design as a fixed block grant, the program doesn’t respond to times of increased need. In 1996, TANF could provide assistance to 68 percent of families in poverty; however, now that number has dropped to just 23 percent.
The Obama administration’s 2017 budget proposes a new Economic Recovery Fund that improves TANF’s ability to respond to increased need during a financial crisis. This is modeled after the successful TANF Emergency Fund that was authorized in 2009 after the recession hit but has since expired.
Adjust TANF to inflation
The TANF block grant has fallen in value by 32 percent due to inflation since 1996. The Obama administration proposes an $8 billion increase over five years. A failure to increase funding and address 20 years of inflation will not just weaken TANF-assisted families with children, it will undercut child care and child welfare services across the nation.
In order to ensure TANF improves child well-being and helps lift children and families out of poverty, we must take a holistic approach to reform and meaningfully discuss how the program is serving — and failing to serve — children across the nation.
Cara Baldari is the senior policy director of family economics for First Focus Campaign for Children, a nonpartisan children’s advocacy organization. John Sciamanna is the vice president of the Child Welfare League of America.