Since welfare “reform” in 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has presented a variety of challenges to economically marginalized communities, including communities of color and single mother-led households. Rather than serve as a safety net to help catch those who are in danger of falling into poverty, TANF’s harsh work requirements, increasingly strict time limits, and punitive treatment of childbearing have contributed to pushing people in marginalized communities over the edge. Many of the program’s shortcomings were apparent from the outset, but the economic downturn has caused federal and state budgets to contract and demand for safety net programs to rise—combined with shrinking political will, the economic situation over past few years has created a perfect storm for showcasing TANF’s structural problems. And while TANF reform—not just reauthorization or extension—is pretty much off-the-table for 2011, it is on our wish list for 2012.
As it currently stands, TANF has not been reauthorized since the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which was signed in February 2006 and funded the TANF block grant through September 2010. The program was extended through September 2011 without the TANF Emergency Fund; then it was extended through the end of 2011, this time without funding for the program’s supplemental grants. The loss of the supplemental grants has been devastating for many Latinas. TANF is funded through a block grant, which means that states receive a fixed sum of money for the program, rather than an amount of money that changes based on demand. The supplemental grants provided additional funding to states with quick population growth and historically low welfare payments. Texas, for instance, has had the highest population growth of any state over the past decade, and Latinos account for about two-thirds of this growth and now make up almost 40% of the state’s population. Meanwhile, the state’s TANF benefits for a single-parent family of three while the supplemental grants still existed were only sufficient to bring the family to between 10 and 20% of the federal poverty level (FPL); TANF and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called food stamps) together brought the same family to just over 50% of FPL. With the loss of the supplemental assistance grant, Texas stands to lose approximately $50 million per year, reducing its ability to provide benefits to needy Texans, at a time when need is high and assistance levels are already inadequate.
The continued reduction of TANF funding just adds to problems that have long been apparent. Almost half of states have in place policies that restrict the assistance that a beneficiary can receive if she gives birth to a child while enrolled in TANF. These policies, known as “family caps,” coerce women and families into choosing between exercising the right to have children or receiving much-needed support from safety net programs. The TANF “work first” mentality creates a similar conundrum: it pits individuals’ desire to obtain an education to create a better future against their need to survive today—again, with the assistance of programs like TANF. Because TANF requires recipients to work—and restricts alternative constructive pursuits such as postsecondary education, language and vocational training, and substance abuse counseling—it enshrines a short-sighted and misguided vision of poverty alleviation. And finally, many states have tried to balance the budget on the backs of TANF recipients, reducing benefit amounts—particularly those paid out in cash—and placing strict time limits on how long an individual can receive TANF. Arizona, for instance, had a 60-month lifetime limit on TANF receipt which it lowered to 36 months in 2010, then to 24 months in 2011.
It is clear that TANF is riddled with flaws: it restricts individuals’ freedom to create families; forces them to forego education (thus, trapping them in low-income employment and, often the poverty TANF is supposed to address); and is a band-aid on the open—and growing—wound of poverty and inequality in this country. At the same time, it is also clear that TANF reauthorization will not happen in 2011, much less reform. Our wish list—with TANF reform on it—must have gotten lost in the mail this year, so we’ll re-send it in 2012 with hope for change.