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Rigid “Universal Engagement” TANF Bills Would Hurt Vulnerable Families

Companion bills from House and Senate Republicans to reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, which is set to expire June 30, would make it harder for states to tailor appropriate plans to meet the needs of the most vulnerable families and make it likelier that these families will be left even further behind — with neither cash assistance nor help to prepare for, and connect to, work.

The bills adopt a “universal engagement” approach, purportedly to broaden the number of people served by TANF employment programs and services to include all “work-eligible individuals.” While House Republicans claim that “case management services will be used to provide a tailored plan to guide each family on their path to entering and remaining in the workforce,” and “no family will be left behind,” these bills wouldn’t do that.

As we’ve noted, a central feature of universal engagement should be that TANF agencies identify participants’ strengths and needs and develop individualized plans, taking into account their unique circumstances to help them move toward employment or other goals necessary for their children’s well-being. But these bills wouldn’t let states do that. Instead, they would impose a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach under which all work-eligible parents must meet substantial hourly work requirements each week (30 hours, or 20 for a single parent of a child under age 6). And they impose severe sanctions on the families of those who can’t do so.

The bills would also impose fiscal penalties on states that fail to ensure that all work-eligible parents meet the hourly work requirements each week, with only a few very narrow exclusions. The bills thus would interfere with states’ ability to serve families in which the parent can’t participate in the required activities for enough hours due to disability; medical, mental health, or substance use issues; domestic violence; or other reasons. Currently, states can exempt parents they deem unable to meet the work requirements, and many do so because states are required to meet a 50, not a 100 percent, work rate for TANF recipients.

A significant share of TANF adults have work-related limitations;. over a quarter have mental or physical issues that prevent them from working or limit the kind of work they can do. Under bills that include universal engagement and fiscal penalties, as these do, states likely would seek to avoid those penalties by providing less help to the families with the greatest barriers to work — either by quickly cutting off existing benefits to those that can’t meet the requirements or denying them access to TANF cash assistance and accompanying work-related services in the first place. Contrary to the Republican sponsors’ claims, these changes would keep parents — and their families — on the sidelines by failing to address their limitations and effectively excluding them from receiving the assistance they need to participate in the workforce.