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Quality Work and Direct Financial Assistance, Not Work Requirements, Stabilize Families

As Labor Day approaches, now’s a good time to remember that most recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are workers who turn to TANF when the low-wage labor market fails them: they don’t get enough hours, they face harassment or discrimination, they don’t get time off to care for family health needs, or their child care or transportation arrangements fall apart.

TANF provides direct financial assistance and can help them get the education, skills, and supports to find and maintain better jobs. But to do so, TANF work programs should focus on helping parents set and achieve employment goals that are meaningful and within reach — not on tracking their hours of work activities (mainly job search) to comply with work requirements, as most states do now.

In creating quality work opportunities for TANF recipients, we should start by dispelling the myth that they will work only if they face the threat of losing benefits. The vast majority of TANF parents already work, usually in physically demanding jobs that offer limited hours with unpredictable schedules, low pay, and few benefits, data show. For example, 84 percent of parents leaving TANF in Kansas worked at some point in the year before or the year after leaving, our analysis found. But work was unsteady: only 55 percent of parents leaving TANF worked in any given quarter of the year after leaving.

Parents need education, training, and work experience that will prepare them for jobs with higher pay, better working conditions, more stable hours, and benefits and supports that help them balance their work and parenting responsibilities.

Policymakers can help by enacting the Pathways to Health Careers Act. It would expand the Health Profession Opportunity Grant (HPOG) program, which the Affordable Care Act created to provide TANF recipients and other low-income individuals with education and training for well-paying health care jobs. The bill would require all new HPOG grantees to incorporate the elements that have proven most important in creating high-quality work opportunities:

  • Focusing on career pathways that enable parents to climb a career ladder and education and training programs that help them prepare for in-demand health care jobs;
  • Targeting programs to individuals with more barriers to work;
  • Providing case management and career coaching throughout individuals’ participation in the program;
  • Guaranteeing work supports such as child care, transportation, and work supplies; and
  • Building partnerships with employers, colleges, apprenticeship programs, and social service providers.

With these elements in place, participants can realize significant earnings gains that enable them to create a more solid foundation for their children. Project QUEST, a skills training program in San Antonio, shows what’s possible. In their sixth year after joining the program, Project QUEST participants earned $5,080 more than otherwise-similar non-participants. Organizations in several other communities have successfully replicated Project QUEST, and HPOG could support more such programs with continued and expanded funding.