Welfare Reform TANF

Welfare Reform -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

The Congress of the United States is set to consider the reauthorization of a program called the "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families" (TANF). Should Congress keep the program going? Are some revisions necessary? Has TANF accomplished what it set out to do -- ending the dependency on government benefits and increasing self-sufficiency among poor families?

First of all, before responding to the first question, a brief review of what has taken place and the ramifications of policy change is worthy of mention. To wit, while the overhaul of the welfare program has not created the dire conditions of poverty that some progressives had predicted, it has not solved all the problems it was designed to resolve. And for some former welfare mothers the transition has created a painful conundrum. For example, a single mother like Connie Rounds, who was removed from the welfare rolls and now works for $7.90 an hour, now finds that she is "no better off" than she was because the small increase in earnings has made her "ineligible for health insurance and food stamps" (Glazer, p. 603).

Moreover, Glazer mentions that according to research, teens whose parents are in "welfare-to-work" programs do not succeed as they should in school, and have "more behavior problems" than adolescents that live with welfare parents or guardians (Glazer, p. 603). It isn't rocket science to discover that with less supervision -- due to mom working 32 hours a week -- adolescents have the potential to get into trouble and hang out with peers who don't have their best interests at heart.

ONE: has TANF increased self-sufficiency and ended the dependency on federal benefits? The answer is yes to a degree. Certainly those who got off welfare are less dependent on government help, and in many cases they are more self-sufficient. Whether they are more secure remains to be seen. While the welfare rolls have been cut about in half, there are still serious issues for struggling families. Studies of about 30,000 households reflect that former welfare recipients are bringing fewer dollars than before and are home less often to care for the children. Indeed, they lose food stamps and health insurance when they work and earn a bit too much money to continue to qualify.

This is not to say that the government should go back to the old welfare system. But how many former welfare recipients are now filling up homeless shelters? We don't have those figures, but we do know that about 40% of former recipients are not employed, so they are surviving somehow, and probably in cases, barely eking out a living. Critics of the old welfare system -- like Mickey Kaus from the conservative Brookings Institute -- are quick to cryptically point out that the transition out of the old system wasn't really about "reducing poverty" but rather it was about "altering the culture of poverty" (Glazer, p. 605).

A positive financial incentive that is part of TANF is the $4,000 in tax credit money and $2,000 in food stamps value that a mother with two children who leaves welfare -- and earns up to $10,000 -- is eligible for (Glazer, p. 606). Another positive from TANF is that the employment rate for never married mothers went from 49% in 1996 to 65% three years later, Glazer explains on pages 606-07.

Some of the plusses and minuses -- related to the dynamics in the job market -- in the aftermath of the transition away from the old welfare tend to balance out and become a wash, when one reads the reports and responses closely.

But why did unemployment numbers drop after the reform measure was signed into law? Some say the high-powered economy was responsible for the jobs landed by those who got off welfare; other say all those former welfare mothers who went to work are responsible for the drop in unemployment. Still, the question has not been answered, are families more self-sufficient?

It is clear that there is less dependency on government money, but is there a sense that self-sufficiency is resulting from the transition? Let's hammer down the answer to the first question, "Are those moving from welfare better off?" Research by the Urban Institute reveals the following: a) one-third of those leaving welfare in 1997 and 1998 say they skipped meals or scratched around for meals; b) those leaving welfare report "more health problems" than those who had gotten out earlier; c) "forty-six percent" of those leaving welfare could not pay their mortgages (only 39% of those leaving in 1997 had those same mortgage problems); d) the poorest two-fifths of families (with single mothers in charge) saw "disposable income" rise by just $643; e) but at the "very bottom" of the ladder (including about 700,000 families) those folks are "worse off" Glazer explains on page 609; and f) research from 12 states shows many families opting out of welfare aren't getting food stamps albeit they are eligible (Glazer, p. 609).

Another study, this one conducted by the University of Wisconsin, showed that a year after leaving welfare for work only a third of mothers had "higher incomes" than before, and 60% "remained in poverty" (they lost food stamps and other benefits) (Glazer, p. 609).

Yet another study referenced by Glazer (from the Oregon's Center for the Study of Women in Society) shows that "half of the women who left welfare" will still below the poverty level up to 21 months later; that happened because "only a minority" of women leaving welfare "got good-quality jobs" including benefits, consistent hours and "decent wages" (Glazer, p. 612).

TWO: Should the rule limiting benefits to five years be modified or eliminated? The answer is yes -- the rule should be modified. The Democrats have it right when they suggest that the TANF legislation should be aimed toward reducing poverty, not just making changes in entitlement programs. After all, looking back at the time this legislation passed, the House and Senate were under Republican control and the White House (executive branch) was occupied by a member of the Democrat party (Clinton). One has to assume the parties on both sides of the aisle were sincere, and this wasn't just a compromise in Clinton's part to mollify the GOP.

To get to the point regarding the five-year limit, if a person has done well in the transition from welfare to work, but he or she just found a good paying work in the 4th year of the transition -- one that provides self-sufficiency for the recipient and his family -- why cut that person off at an arbitrarily arrived-at date? If the program is aimed at getting people out of the dregs of poverty and into the middle class, then providing extensions beyond the existing five-year limit is an imperative. How that should be done has to be worked out between the two parties. Of course states have the option of exempting up to 20% of their caseloads (beyond the 5-year cut-off) based on "hardship" situations (p. 619).

In a sense it is within reason to take the position that conservatives take, e.g., if you don't give recipients a time frame, some will tap into federal money as long as it is there. However, an advocate with hands on experience working with poor people -- Don Friedman, with the Community Food Resource Center in New York City -- believes that "Poverty doesn't have time limits, so helping people shouldn't have time limits" (p. 619). He adds, "It's inhumane and outrageous to arbitrarily decide someone isn't entitled to assistance" (p. 619).

THREE: Should the work rules be modified or eliminated? Answer: yes, the work rules should indeed be modified for several reasons. First, it should be possible for a single mother…