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Program Administrators Across the Political Spectrum Find TANF Work Requirements Incompatible With Recipients’ Needs

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provisions in House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s debt-ceiling-and-cuts bill double down on TANF’s already expansive, rigid, and ineffective work requirements. As we explain in our new paper, the bill would so severely limit states’ flexibility in how they provide assistance and employment services to families with children that some states could decide to stop providing cash aid to large numbers of families, with devastating results.

These changes are being proposed even though program administrators across the political spectrum agree that TANF’s work requirements fail to address the needs of families who turn to TANF for support.

The American Public Human Services Association, working with TANF administrators and human services leaders across the country — and from states with both Republican and Democratic governors — called for policymakers to reimagine how TANF could better support the families it serves. They laid out the following recommendation on TANF work requirements in their legislative framework for TANF reform:

Replace arbitrary and convoluted Work Participation Rate (WPR) requirements and associated restrictions on countable hours and activities with economic mobility and child and family wellbeing components jointly identified with participants through their individualized Career and Family Success Plans.

Witnesses invited by Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee at a hearing on TANF on March 29, 2023, gave examples of how the rigid TANF work requirements impede, rather than support, their efforts to help families move out of poverty.

Shakirah Francis, an employment services social worker supervisor for the Mecklenburg County (North Carolina) Department of Social Services, told the committee:

The current participation rate does not measure comprehensive family success. It also does not measure a customer successfully, successfully completing substance abuse treatment and family reunification, nor does the participation rate measure a family securing housing, to stabilize their family to be able to work.

When Utah Rep. Blake D. Moore asked her if the federal government is doing anything that hinders her ability to meet individuals where they are and whether there was something the government should be moving away from, she responded:

The rate… because it does not measure — I mean, you can job search for 86 hours for a month, but it does not measure what the customer is actually achieving. It’s just a number…

Focusing on the rate as the only means of measurement for success within the workforce program removes the human aspect of the program. Participants in the program are often overcoming immense obstacles, such as trauma, homelessness, mental and physical health concerns, [and] substance use issues, and yet are required to fully participate in the program.

When Washington State Rep. Adrian Smith asked Mr. Maas, chief executive officer at West Michigan Works, for a specific example of the problems with the work participation rate, he provided this example:

…we had an individual that lacked a high school diploma or GED, she lacked transportation and some of the basic services that we can provide, and we were able to enroll her into GED, and we did it fulltime. So she met her requirements as to what we were asking her for, but technically we failed performance for that individual. And we not only failed it for her, but we failed it for her husband, because she came to us as a two-parent family. So he also was enrolled in GED, but we know that, with these supports and by doing something that felt ethically right, even though we were failing some of the local performance, we were able to get her, her GED. We were able to get her a certified nursing assistant, and we were able to get her a job which is probably most important, right? And so with that, she’s now working fulltime and the employers filled a much needed position as certified nursing assistant, which a lot of our employers are struggling with today. So that’s just one example. There are other examples around job search in the fifth week not counting towards participation.

Instead of doubling down on a failed strategy, Speaker McCarthy should heed the advice of program administrators who are working to improve the lives of families who turn to TANF for support and make it easier, not harder, for them to do what they know is right for families.

In the words of another witness at the hearing, Heather Reynolds, managing director at the Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame: “What I would love to see… is families’ dignity restored because they’re living a life outside of poverty. It’s living-wage income, where they have no harmful debt, and they have appropriate savings, and then ultimately are off of government assistance as well.”