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Pavetti on Major New TANF Proposal


Testifying at a House subcommittee hearing today, CBPP Vice President for Family Income Support Policy LaDonna Pavetti explained that draft legislation to renew Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) makes important improvements to TANF work rules but doesn’t go far enough.  (Click here for CBPP’s summary of the proposal.) 

Most significantly, the proposal doesn’t require states to spend a specified share of TANF funds on TANF’s core purposes (providing basic assistance, promoting job preparation, and providing work supports such as child care and transportation) or hold states accountable for serving families in need.  Below are some excerpts from her testimony:

States have long identified the complexity and rigidity of TANF’s [rules on meeting federal work participation rate targets] as hindering their ability to operate an effective work program.  The draft bill makes many improvements that address those issues, though we have some additional suggestions. 

First, the bill includes changes in what counts toward the work rate that will expand recipients’ access to basic education, skills training, and vocational education, while updating TANF work preparation requirements to better match employers’ needs. . . . 

Second, the bill includes changes to better serve families with the greatest barriers to employment.  Allowing participation in job readiness activities to count toward the work rate may encourage states to place recipients in activities that will address personal and family challenges that hinder their ability to find jobs and retain work over the long term. . . .

The draft bill notes that agreement was not reached on whether to require states to spend a specific share of their TANF resources on core purposes.  Such a requirement, we believe, is essential for improving TANF work programs and participants’ employment outcomes; it also provides an opportunity to reclaim some of the TANF funds that have been diverted to other purposes. . . .

As my previous testimony explained, TANF serves only 26 families for every 100 families in poverty; in a growing number of states, it serves fewer than 10 families for every 100 families in poverty.  The draft bill includes a few provisions that will lessen the incentive for states to avoid serving families in need or those with the greatest barriers. . . .  But these do not go far enough. 

The problem is that TANF lacks a meaningful accountability measure on how effectively a state’s TANF program provides a safety net for very poor families, and the draft bill does not include one.  We suggest holding states accountable for adequate access to TANF benefits on a par with the two other performance measures (the work participation rate and the new outcomes measure). 

The best way to achieve this would be to add a third accountability measure that specifically measures access to TANF and to attach similar consequences to state failures.  The TANF-to-poverty ratio that we use is one option, but others could be considered.... 

TANF reform is long overdue.  Though the draft bill doesn’t go far enough, it provides a strong starting point for bringing about meaningful change in a program that currently reaches few poor families and does very little to help them move out of poverty.  A whole generation of children has grown up under the current TANF structure — we should move forward expeditiously to ensure that the next generation has access to a more robust TANF program that both reaches more families in need and provides more meaningful education, training, and work opportunities that give families a reasonable chance of moving out of poverty. 

Click here for the full testimony.