Revised August 28, 2002
KEY ISSUES IN THE HOUSE TANF REAUTHORIZATION BILL
by Sharon Parrott, Shawn Fremstad and Zoë Neuberger (1)
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During the first week of May, the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved companion TANF reauthorization legislation. These two bills have been combined into a single piece of legislation that was passed by the House on May 16, 2002. The House-passed bill (H.R. 4737) raises a number of issues and concerns, including the following:
- New work participation requirements would reduce state flexibility to design effective welfare-to-work programs. Under the bill, states would be required to place a substantially higher proportion of cash assistance recipients in work activities. In addition, the bill would increase significantly the number of hours parents would have to participate in such activities to count toward those participation rates. Under the House bill, parents would have to participate in activities for 40 hours each week to count fully toward the state fulfilling its work participation requirements. Moreover, the bill would require parents (with very limited exceptions) to participate in a very narrow set of activities far narrower than those allowed under current law for at least 24 hours each week. This narrow set of activities does not include various types of activities states are increasingly interested in making use of to help some parents move from welfare to work. For example, activities that help parents with a physical, mental, or learning disability overcome that disability and move toward employment or targeted, intensive training programs that can help recipients find stable jobs that pay more adequate wages generally would not count toward the participation rate.
- Despite imposing costly new work mandates on states, the bill would freeze TANF funding at its current level and provide only a modest increase in child care funding. The increase in child care funding would be insufficient to maintain the current purchasing power of the mandatory child care block grant even before taking the increased child care costs of the new work mandates into account. Over the next five years, the purchasing power of the TANF block grant would erode steadily with inflation at the same time that states would be required to meet escalating and costly work requirements. The bill adds only $1 billion in mandatory child care funding (the bill also increases the discretionary child care authorization level, but there is no assurance that these additional funds would be appropriated). CBO estimates that more than $1.36 billion is needed over the next five years in order to maintain the purchasing power of the mandatory child care block grant if the TANF work requirements are not changed. Thus, the bill provides no additional "real" child care resources with which to meet the increased work requirements or address the substantial unmet need for child care assistance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if states are required to enforce the 40-hour requirement under the House bill, the cost to states of meeting the work requirements would total up to $11 billion over the next five years. This includes $6 billion in TANF-related work program costs and $5 billion in increased child care costs for work program participants.
- States would be required to terminate all assistance to a family (including the children) if a parent failed to meet program expectations for just two months. In a notable departure from the Administration's welfare plan, the House bill would mandate states to impose so-called "full-family" sanctions if an adult TANF recipient failed to meet program requirements for two months. Under current law, states have considerable flexibility in designing their sanction policies. While 36 states have adopted full-family sanctions, a substantial number of states have chosen not to terminate all benefits to children when an adult fails to meet program requirements. Moreover, 13 states that impose full-family sanctions under some circumstances impose a lesser penalty first and only terminate assistance to families after noncompliance has lasted for an extended period of time or has occurred several times.
Mandating increased use of full-family sanctions is troubling. Such a policy ignores the substantial research showing that such sanctions disproportionately fall on families with serious "barriers to employment" that impede a parent's ability to comply with requirements. Such recipients often are willing to comply with program requirements but have not been given the help to do so. In addition, a growing body of cautionary research suggests that sanctions may increase children's risk for food insecurity a commonly used measure of hunger risk and involvement in the child welfare system.
- Significant TANF resources would be devoted to narrow marriage-promotion activities. The bill earmarks up to $1 billion in federal funds over five years for competitive grants to states for a narrow set of marriage-promotion and education activities. These resources could not be used for broader programs to strengthen families such as teen pregnancy prevention efforts or programs to help noncustodial parents meet their parenting and financial obligations, despite interest among policy experts and states in testing new initiatives in these areas. An additional $500 million in federal funds over five years is provided to the Secretary of Health and Human Services for research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance; these funds must be used primarily for marriage promotion activities. The total amount of funding the House bill earmarks for marriage promotion is excessive given how little is known about the potential effectiveness of marriage promotion programs. Furthermore, a substantial share of the funding for these marriage-promotion projects comes from redirecting TANF funds that states can currently use for a wide range of proven programs, including child care and welfare-to-work programs.
- The bill would make modest, though important, improvements in the child support enforcement system. These improvements would help states defray the cost of ensuring that more of the child support paid by noncustodial parents is received by their children, rather than being retained by the federal and state governments to offset welfare costs. Although helpful, these improvements are far more modest than a child support bill sponsored by Representatives Nancy Johnson (R-CT) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) that passed the House of Representatives at the end of 2000 with overwhelming bipartisan support. (The bill received more than 400 votes.)
- The bill does not grant states the flexibility to provide TANF-funded services or benefits to many legal immigrants. The bill would continue the current-law ban on providing such benefits to legal immigrants who entered the country within the last five years. Even if states want to use federal TANF funds to help such immigrants find jobs or learn English, they are barred from doing so. An Associated Press story on May 3rd suggested that the Administration may support or at least not oppose allowing states the option of providing TANF-funded benefits and services to legal immigrants now barred from TANF-funded programs. Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, was quoted as saying, "If states want to do it, they should have the opportunity....We're not pushing it, but if it passes, it's going to be included."
- The bill also includes a troubling "super-waiver" provision that would give the Executive Branch broad authority to waive federal laws and rules. Executive Branch officials could waive federal law and rules that apply to several low-income programs, including: the Food Stamp Program, public housing and homeless assistance programs, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the Social Services Block Grant, most workforce investment and job training programs funded under the Workforce Investment Act, the Employment Service, adult education programs, and TANF. Executive Branch officials would have virtually unfettered authority to approve waivers that effectively rewrite federal laws and alter the fundamental nature of affected programs. The Executive Branch could approve waivers that allow states to use federal funds in ways not authorized by Congress and negate provisions of federal law that target program funds to particular needy populations.
The effect of language that was added shortly before final House passage of the bill to address concerns raised about the superwaiver by members of the House Appropriations Committee is much more limited than some Members of Congress and journalists appear to have thought. This language which would prohibit waivers of "funding restrictions" would do little to limit the extent to which the authorization statutes governing low-income programs could be overridden. Furthermore, new restrictions on shifting funds from one federal budget account to another would not prohibit Executive Branch officials from granting state requests to shift federal funds to other uses; superwaivers could be used to accomplish such shifts since the Executive Branch could allow funds in a given program to be used in ways not authorized under federal law, without formally transferring the funds to a different budget account.
- Five states would be allowed to block grant the food stamp program with virtually no limits on how states could structure the program under the block grant. Five states could elect to receive a block grant. The block grant funding level would remain fixed for five years, during which time it would decline in value as a result of inflation. As a result, the program would lose its ability to expand (or contract) in response to recession or changes in need. Fixed funding would make it harder for states to increase participation among the working poor and implement provisions recently enacted in the Farm Bill that would allow states to restore food stamp benefits to certain legal immigrants. In addition, without any requirement that the program be evaluated or the impact on beneficiaries be measured, states would be able to shift funds away from food assistance to other activities and reduce or eliminate benefits to any group.
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1. The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) provided valuable assistance with this analysis. CLASP and the Center have prepared a set of side-by-side analyses of TANF reauthorization legislation, which can be found at http://www.cbpp.org/archiveSite/tanfseries.htm#Side or on the CLASP web site at www.clasp.org.