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Home Publications Blogs CEPR Blog Temporary Assistance for Families Should Empower Working-Class Parents Not Serve as a Slush Fund for States

Temporary Assistance for Families Should Empower Working-Class Parents Not Serve as a Slush Fund for States

Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Thursday, 28 February 2013 09:55

A House subcommittee is holding a hearing today to review guidance, issued by HHS last summer, on a federal statute that allows states to test “innovative strategies … that are designed to improve employment outcomes.” The guidance made clear that under this longstanding law the federal government can approve state requests to test whether Temporary Assistance programs that use new types of outcome-based performance measures are more effective than programs that use the old-school activity-rate measures.

Why is the House holding a hearing on such a mundane matter? Apparently, many conservatives today believe that outcome-based performance measures are anti-work, while activity-rate measures are pro-work. Go figure.

The real problem with Temporary Assistance is its failure to provide millions of striving, low-income parents with the support and tools they need to provide for their families while securing a job, getting needed skills and education, and weathering setbacks.

Even conservatives sometimes acknowledge that Temporary Assistance should be helping low-income parents in this way. In fact, in the notice for the hearing, Chairman Dave Reichet (R-WA) tells us that “Americans consistently believe welfare should … empower able-bodied [low-income parents] with the tools to secure a job, lift oneself out of poverty, and provide for one’s family.”

What conservatives seem unable to acknowledge (and this goes for plenty of Clinton-style moderates also), is that Temporary Assistance isn’t actually doing what the public thinks it should be doing.

If Congress decided to care about whether Temporary Assistance is “… empowering low-income parents with the tools to secure a job, lift oneself out of poverty, and provide for one’s family,” they could start by taking a close look at how Texas has used the nearly $700 million a year it says it spends under the Temporary Assistance program (most of which, $468 million, is provided by the federal government).

More than one out of every four children in Texas lives below the poverty line, and the state’s already high child poverty rate grew steadily over the last decade—going from 22 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2011. That $700 million could go a long way toward, again as Rep. Reichet’s would put it: “empowering the parents of these children with the tools to secure a job, lift oneself out of poverty, and provide for one’s family.” Unfortunately, the vast majority of Temporary Assistance funds spent by Texas don’t go to these things.

This is documented in a recent Urban Institute study finding that Texas spends only about 23 percent of Temporary Assistance funds on work activities, child care, and basic assistance (income supplements to parents looking for work, in low-wage jobs, or unable to work for health or other reasons) combined. Texas’ failure to meet the Temporary Assistance goal of providing basic assistance to children is particularly striking. In 2011, some 1.56 million children in Texas lived in poverty, but only about 95,000 of them—fewer than 6 percent—received basic assistance under the Temporary Assistance program.

So, how is Texas using the other 77 percent of its funds, some $540 million dollars? Texas says that most of it is going to foster care and child protection services. This makes one wonder whether Texas would be able to spend less on child protection workers and foster parents if they spent more on helping working-class parents make ends meet and move ahead. Perhaps Chairman Reichet could investigate this.

As the Texas TANF slush fund example shows, Temporary Assistance is failing. Instead of going to 50 state slush funds, the federal government should use the federal funds in the program to create a coherent, effective, and fair program of job search and unemployment assistance for low-income parents.

Tags: inequality | poverty | Temporary Assistance

Comments (3)Add Comment
Are there any rules
written by Jennifer, February 28, 2013 5:08
There was an article a few months back, cannot remember the source, that described how a southern state, I think Alabama kept its TANF money. Basically the people running the program made the application process so onerous that after an attempt or two people applying would give up. It sounded absolutely inhumane, and I believe any money the state did not give to people it could keep and use however it chose. I am not familiar with the actual language of TANF, are there any rules? Could any enterprising lawyers sue a state over improper use?
written by watermelonpunch, March 01, 2013 12:17
@ Jennifer: I think the flaw comes in somehow with the "block grant" aspect of the issue.

"How States Have Spent Federal and State Funds Under the TANF Block Grant"

While states vary significantly in how they have used their TANF and MOE funds, several overall patterns have emerged. Beginning in TANF’s early years, shrinking cash assistance caseloads freed up federal and state funds that had previously gone to poor families in the form of benefits. States used the flexibility that the block grant gave them to redirect those funds. Some of the freed-up funds were channeled to child care and welfare-to-work programs to further welfare reform efforts, particularly in TANF’s early years. But over time, states redirected a substantial portion of their TANF and MOE finds to other purposes, with some funds being used to substitute for (or “supplant”) existing state spending and thereby help plug holes in state budgets or free up funds for purposes unrelated to low-income families or children.

Not directly related to states making the process difficult so that less people apply & receive the assistance, but certainly shows a distinct baked-in situation of temptation presented to motivate some to do so, by people in certain positions... looking to spend that money where they'd like to see it go.
written by Jennifer, March 01, 2013 6:14
If anybody in power actually cared about poverty, this would be a big issue. This needs to be brought up every time Republican governors ask for block grants for health care for "flexibility" which obviously means use it for something else.

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