In the 1990s, the nation reformed the ways in which we help those among us in need. The Conference of Catholic Bishops was among those urging fundamental reform of a system that did not serve recipients, taxpayers and our society as well as it should have. The debate over how to change that system culminated in the 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children entitlement program with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grants to the states, a time-limited assistance program focusing heavily on reducing welfare caseloads and moving people into work. In the end, our Conference opposed the legislation in large part because it hurt legal immigrants more than it encouraged work.
This was the first phase of welfare reform. It was effective in reducing caseloads, but its impact on poverty is mixed: while some families have moved out of poverty, others have simply moved to low-wage jobs without benefits or been left to fend for themselves and are still struggling in poverty. The reauthorization of TANF presents an opportunity and a challenge to focus on the persistent problem of poverty in the most prosperous of nations. As the Congress addresses TANF reauthorization, we must make clear that reducing poverty is a central goal of our national welfare policy.
The USCCB Statement, Moral Principles and Policy Priorities for Welfare Reform, outlines six criteria for reform:
- Protects human life and dignity
- Strengthens family life
- Encourages and rewards work
- Preserves a safety net for the vulnerable
- Builds Public/Private Partnerships to overcome poverty
- Invests in human dignity
Strengthening family life and marriage, by
- Removing barriers and disincentives to two-parent families seeking assistance.
- Affirming the value of marriage, while continuing to assist single parent families.
- Involving non-custodial fathers in their children's lives, through strategies such as allowing child support payments to go directly to their children.
- Expanding the definition of work to give states greater flexibility to count genuine job training, vocational and post-secondary education, and substance abuse treatment as work
- Ensuring that those leaving welfare have access to transitional food stamps and Medicaid benefits for one year, to help them successfully move from welfare to work
- Giving states more flexibility on time limits
- Providing funding for adequate child care assistance for working parents
- Ending state family cap laws, which encourage abortion over life
- Restoring benefit eligibility to legal immigrants
- Allowing TANF recipients to care for very young children and disabled family members
- Insisting that states do more to work with families at risk of sanctions, before and after sanctions are imposed and benefits are cut off
Because of the caseload reduction credit, most states only have to meet a low federal work participation rate in some states, it's zero. So why shouldn't we increase the work requirements?
On average states did have 34% of their caseloads meeting the work requirements in 2000. And most proposals do more than just tighten up the credit a little. For example, some would increase the participation rate and the number of hours TANF recipients must work each week in some cases, more hours than the average for the kinds of jobs TANF leavers are likely to get. Many states worry such changes would mean they'd have to set up more costly "work experience" programs, instead of programs that get TANF recipients into jobs, to meet the new requirements and force them cut back on key work supports like training, child care and transportation services. We support continuing TANF"s emphasis on work, but we urge against changing the work requirements in ways that could that put undue burdens on parents or limit states' flexibility to run programs that get recipients decent jobs so they can support their families.
Since caseloads have declined since 1996 and fewer people are receiving welfare cash assistance, why shouldn't we just keep the same funding levels as under current law?
States spend more TANF dollars on work support activities for low-income families, such as helping parents find jobs, child care or transportation assistance, than direct cash assistance. These services cost more than cash assistance, and benefit many low-income families that aren't on the welfare caseload. Last year, for the second year in a row, states spent $2 billion more in federal dollars than they received, using unspent federal reserves from prior years reserves that will soon be gone. TANF funding has not increased with inflation, so the block grants are worth less now than they were six years ago $16.5 billion in 1997 was worth only $14.7 billion in 2002. Plus, funding for the Social Services Block grant promised in 1996 was later rescinded leaving fewer resources for programs that help families leaving welfare. Child care funding is too meager to meet the need only 14% of eligible children receive federally funded child care, and many states have waiting lists. Caseloads are beginning to creep up again, and with the growing state economic crises, it is even more important to increase federal funding for programs that serve low-income families, whether on TANF or not.
Congress included several family formation goals in TANF, but states haven't done much to further those goals. What should we do about that in TANF reauthorization?
Strengthening marriage and families is an important goal and an important part of the effort to reduce poverty especially among children. One essential step Congress can take is to eliminate provisions of federal and state welfare law that place greater burdens on married parents. Congress could also change the law so that states can give more child support collected for kids who are or were on TANF to the children's custodial parent, instead of to the state or federal government. This would enhance the children's economic well-being and enable the parent who pays child support to have a clear and direct impact on his child's life. Also, additional funds could be provided, separate from the basic block grant, for counseling resources to low-income couples, where appropriate, and for research and technical assistance aimed at strengthening marriages and families.
For Further Information: Kathy Curran, 202-541-3188, firstname.lastname@example.org