Governor Doug Ducey’s proposal to extend Arizona’s 12-month limit on cash aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — which is by far the nation’s shortest — by another year for families “playing by the rules” sounds good initially, but the details suggest that it wouldn’t help those who most need it.
This extension would exclude families sanctioned for not fully complying with program rules, even temporarily, during their first 12 months. Studies show that many of those sanctioned have the greatest barriers to employment, such as mental health problems, chemical dependency, and family violence.
Moreover, as a quid pro quo for this time limit extension, a recent amendment to the TANF bill would make sanction policies much harsher for all families, including those who haven’t reached the time limit. It would cut benefits more deeply the first time a family doesn’t comply with program rules and cut off the entire family, including the children, the second time it doesn’t comply.
Stopping aid due to time limits means that a state has written off a family and stopped helping them prepare for or connect to work. Numerous studies show that families hitting time limits are far likelier than other TANF recipients to have employment barriers; they also need more time to prepare for employment. Research also shows that families losing benefits due to time limits have limited job prospects and few actually find jobs. And they often experience considerable hardship after leaving TANF.
The best way to help families get work is a compliance-oriented approach — one that assigns appropriate work-related activities given each family’s circumstances, helps families meet work requirements, and helps sanctioned families return to compliance. For Arizona, this would mean extending the 12-month time limit so long as the family isn’t in sanction status when it hits the time limit and rejecting the amendment’s punitive sanction changes, which only double down on the state’s approach of penalizing families rather than helping them.
Even with Governor Ducey’s extension proposal, Arizona’s time limit policies would still be the worst in the country.