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Looking to the Future on the 15th Anniversary of Welfare Reform

Establishing a Goal to End Poverty

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

President Clinton prepares to sign legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House Thursday, Aug. 22, 1996, overhauling America's welfare system.

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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’s 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 shift in emphasis is a logical next step for TANF. 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.

21 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 level, 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 1 in 8 low-income single mothers at the time of welfare reform to 1 in 5.

In short, TANF did not solve the problem of poverty—nor did it expressly seek to do so. A new mission to reduce poverty should continue to encompass a focus on work along with temporary income assistance for those who need it, but there should be some reshaping of those efforts and growing service access for those not tied to the income assistance part of the program along with some other additions.

Some potential items include:

Establishing a national poverty reduction goal. The Half in Ten Campaign has urged the creation of a national poverty reduction goal. This should be accompanied by regular measurements of progress towards achieving that goal.

Better connecting families to jobs. HHS should establish a permanent interagency effort bringing together government programs such as weatherization, child care, and parks and recreation that could provide job opportunities to low-income people. The effort should address crucial concerns related to connecting the TANF population and other low-income people to these jobs, training, and wages. At the federal and state levels, HHS programs should also have a place at the table of any job creation strategy efforts.

Improving what we already do. Few people have been able to rely on the TANF as a safety net during the current economic crisis. Reforms, including reversing course on the program’s legislatively mandated funding freeze, must ensure that the program is more responsive during emergencies. TANF-erected barriers such as mandatory work requirements that don’t allow for sufficient education and training opportunities needed to access living wage employment must be altered. Work supports such as child care should reach more families and experience continued quality improvements. And efforts to spur innovation must continue despite funding challenges.

Strengthening families. Welfare’s history has largely been defined by an emphasis on women and children. This approach did not pay enough attention to fathers and other family members who play a role in reducing child poverty. Efforts have better targeted fathers in recent years, but whole family service models should become more common.

Supporting high quality social workers. Although most people in poverty just need a hand up, others could benefit from quality services from professionals such as social workers and mental health professionals. These individuals may be attached to a variety of systems including TANF, child welfare, and K-12 education. A centralized national-level effort should encourage professionals to serve low-income populations, expand and appropriately target access to their services, and support their professional development and cultural competency.

Establishing a sustainable knowledge base. A useful addition would be an office within HHS that researches poverty (including causes and differences across populations) and the effectiveness of antipoverty strategies.

Effectively accounting for those who can’t work. We must ensure the well-being of those who are temporarily or permanently unable to work. Much of this will involve ensuring access to existing services like Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which is income assistance for those with disabilities, but it may also involve new services.

It’s difficult to address 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 2 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, multiplying the number of workers who can effectively contribute to our tax base and efforts to reinvigorate American competitiveness.

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

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

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org