Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) originated from the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. Twenty years later, TANF continues to fail to meet the needs of those living in poverty. Ever since welfare reform, states have been given too much flexibility in how to run local programs. As we know it, reform has not helped those it intended to: the people intertwined in systematic and cyclical poverty.
States are allowed to reduce the already meager federal time limit — five years of benefits over one’s lifetime. This year, Arizona cut the TANF time limit down to just one year. Federal funding in the form of block grants gives states the freedom to spend their TANF dollars on unrelated endeavors. About a third of state TANF funds overall were diverted to unrelated programming or put toward existing costs in the state budget (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [CBPP], 2016). That funding could have been used to support programs for the poor, ensuring basic needs were met and in creating job-related opportunities.
Aside from being able to essentially eliminate programming, states will also employ additional tactics to keep the welfare rolls down and simultaneously increase the amount of TANF dollars available for spending. Almost every state — 42 out of 50 — have rules that discourage welfare enrollment. Depending on where you live, diversion tactics will differ. But in most cases, diversion will come in the form of unrealistic requirements, such as an extensive job search even before an application will be considered. States may also sanction or terminate recipients, based on state-defined rules. States have used sanctioning as a disproportionate measure of punishment. For example, terminating benefits due to the recipient being late to a job activity or missing an appointment with a case manager. In some places, those with multiple infractions could incur a lifetime disqualification.
Can we allow for such discrepancies in how we as a country care for people across state lines? More and more Americans will be at risk for falling into poverty (or deeper poverty) if the patterns of today continue without a reliable and strong safety net. The rates of poverty are growing rapidly as the number of people on TANF plummets. In the beginning of TANF back in 1996, about 68 percent of families living in poverty received assistance. That number has since dropped to just 23 percent, of those with incomes at or below poverty level, who received aid in 2016 (CBPP, 2016). For 12 states in the U.S., the percentage of those who received cash assistance was down to 10 percent or less. That means in some states fewer than 10 families per 100 in need got help from TANF. Washington state falls on the upper end of the spectrum compared to other states, providing benefits to somewhere between 30-40 percent of needy families in 2013/2014 (CBPP, 2016).
Contrary to popular misconception, decreased numbers on the welfare rolls was not a sign of reform’s success in creating lasting change for people living in poverty. Large numbers of former TANF recipients continue to receive other benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. It is necessary to re-evaluate how TANF works at the state level. To correctly address poverty, it is imperative that state flexibility is reduced regarding TANF. History shows us that we cannot rely on states alone to interpret the needs of the poor population.
A national standard or level of service in TANF programming would at the very least require minimums for program development and spending at the state level, which I believe should include extending the federal time limit and regulating TANF spending. For many, the TANF safety net has shrunk dramatically, while in some states it has virtually disappeared altogether.
Our communities are suffering at the expense of state priorities, and we need to seriously reassess our welfare state for the benefit of us all.
Tessa Wollum is a Seattle native and third-year Seattle University social work student with interest in public policy and activism.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full January 17th issue.