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Santorum’s Right: Better Access to Education Is a Key Part of Welfare Reform

Former Senator Rick Santorum argues in today’s Wall Street Journal that gaining work skills through better access to education and skills training should be an essential part of welfare reform.

We agree — but these are exactly the kind of improvements that the Obama Administration’s recent announcement about waivers for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which Mr. Santorum harshly criticizes, is designed to promote.

Current TANF rules discourage states from encouraging recipients to pursue skills training or education that will help them qualify for better jobs.  States face a financial penalty if they do not have a specified percentage of their TANF caseload in work activities, and there are narrow limits on when participation in education or training can count toward that federal target.

For example, states can count vocational education toward their federal work requirement only for 12 months in a recipient’s lifetime, even though many industry-focused training and community college programs last from 18 months to two years.  Similarly, completing high school or a GED as a full-time activity counts toward the federal work requirement only for people under age 20, even though it’s very hard for anyone without these credentials to find a job these days.

Some states allow TANF recipients to participate in certain education activities even if they don’t count toward the state’s federal work requirement.  For example, Nebraska passed a law this year to allow completion of high school or a GED as a full-time work activity for TANF parents up to age 24.  But the new law also states that the option will be suspended if Nebraska risks not meeting its federal work requirement.

Fixing rules that discourage states from helping TANF families get education and skills training should be a top priority for Congress when it renews the welfare law.  In the meantime, the Administration has said it will consider granting waivers from certain provisions of the law for states that want to test whether there are more effective ways to meet TANF’s work goals — such as by allowing a longer period of vocational education in order to improve employment outcomes.  A state like Nebraska could seek a waiver so it could continue its approach of allowing recipients to complete high school or get a GED as a stand-alone work activity without risking fiscal penalty.

“We need to help clear a path for poor and low-income Americans to achieve their dreams,” Mr. Santorum writes.  That’s exactly right, and by allowing states to look for better ways to connect families to employment, the Administration has taken a step in the right direction.