Twenty-two years ago this week, on August 22, 1996, President Clinton signed a law creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant and radically restructuring cash assistance for families with children living in poverty. Our week-long blog series examines TANF’s role — and its performance — in helping parents work and in providing modest but crucial anti-poverty support. Today’s post shows that TANF’s work programs have had little success in helping parents lift themselves out of poverty through work.
Some policymakers have pointed to TANF’s performance as a work program as a reason to extend TANF-like work requirements to other programs, but the facts suggest otherwise. TANF has never lived up to its promise of moving families out of poverty through work.
States serve few poor parents in TANF work programs and invest little to help poor parents prepare for and find work. When families stop receiving TANF it’s not often because they’ve found a job and no longer need assistance. And while neither the federal government nor most states even track employment and earnings outcomes or how well state TANF programs perform, the data we have show little success in helping families escape poverty through earnings.
Here are five key reasons why TANF has not demonstrated success as a work program:
TANF has failed many needy families — particularly those who may have the greatest need of help connecting to work but instead have become disconnected from both work and welfare — by providing them with neither a reliable income support to meet basic needs nor employment assistance that adequately addresses their employment barriers. A key step to improving TANF’s performance as a work program would be to eliminate the work participation rate — a deeply flawed work performance measure. Instead, states should be measured on serving more families in poverty, particularly those with significant barriers to work, and on the employment and earning outcomes for families that leave the program.
Tomorrow’s post in this series will discuss how states have failed to spend the bulk of their TANF funds on the core welfare reform areas of cash assistance and work-related activities and supports.