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

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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