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Looking to the Future of Welfare Reform

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This was originally published in The Hill.

August 22 marks the 15th anniversary of the signing of the welfare reform bill, making this a good time to reflect on the future of what is now known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. One would expect that during this unprecedented time of high unemployment and hardship that TANF—one of the biggest programs serving people in poverty—would be of interest to Congress.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Instead, the tragic state of the political debate has kept certain topics off the table and has generally limited Congress’ ability to solve any of the major problems our nation is currently facing. Meanwhile, TANF is overdue for reauthorization. Necessary hearings and debates have yet to occur, and the program is now poised for another inevitable extension without full consideration. 

There has to be a better way forward. In the coming months Congress should seriously work toward defining the next era of the program. And what makes the most sense is a shift to a singular mission of ending poverty.

This must involve ensuring access to employment opportunities by connecting low-income workers to bold and sorely needed job creation efforts and subsidized employment opportunities. It must remove barriers to income by increasing education and job training, and improving access to childcare and transportation. Those who need them should also have access to social workers and other professionals. In addition, Congress should set national poverty reduction goals and measure progress, and establish a think tank within the government that studies poverty and evaluates programs.

This shift in emphasis is a logical next step for the program. Before the program was reformed, welfare’s primary aim was income support. Not enough attention was paid to successfully supporting families’ participation in the world of work. Welfare reform encouraged work and produced positive results for many families, but it left some serious loose ends with many mothers entering the ranks of the working poor or being poor because they totally fell of the grid.

Twenty-one percent of working single mother households today live below the poverty line of $17,285 for single parent families with two children. Nearly half make do with incomes that fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, suggesting that these households are struggling to get by. And there is an additional group who are poor, not working, and not on TANF due to significant barriers such as limited education, physical or mental illness, substance abuse problems, and full-time caretaker responsibilities for sick children or other family members. The number of women in this group has grown from one in eight low-income single mothers at the time of welfare reform to one in five. Trends like these make it clear that ending poverty must be TANF’s mission.

It’s difficult to raise the poverty reduction issue—or any issue for that matter—without answering the question of the day: How do we pay for it? The answer includes simple common sense approaches. First, we can make smarter use of existing resources, making programs run more efficiently and effectively coordinating services. Second, we can prioritize some items for immediate targeted investments, reversing the current mandate for flat funding of the program, and begin careful long-term planning for future investments. 

The Center for American Progress argues that the nation can invest $70 billion more a year on crucial national priorities ranging from education to infrastructure and including poverty reduction. This will, however, require raising revenues, but simply allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans to expire would produce $69 billion more a year. 

This balancing of priorities will sit squarely within the hands of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. If they make the right decisions, there could be some stepping stones toward creating a next-generation program that specifically aims to end poverty and multiplies the number of workers who can effectively contribute to our tax base and efforts to reinvigorate American competitiveness.

This was originally published in The Hill.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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