“Unwaivering” on Work: A Step Toward Improving TANF’s Employment Outcomes

As the result of a recent Information Memorandum from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there’s been a lot of buzz about potential changes to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.  Some of this talk, unfortunately, has dragged pervasive fears about public safety-net programs creating a “culture of dependency” back into the limelight.  You know what I’m talking about—the belief that providing low-income families with public assistance will create a group of chronically unemployed citizens who suck up and spend tax-payer dollars.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the powerful rhetoric around fostering welfare dependency—it’s a simple, straightforward, and alarmist narrative aimed straight at our cultural reverence for work.  But in this case, it’s also just not true.  The TANF program has always been about work; in fact, one of TANF’s primary goals is to reduce needy parents’ dependency by promoting job preparation and work.  Any changes to state TANF work outcomes attributable to the HHS memorandum would be the result of state proposals to improve employment programs.  To see how this works, let’s put the federal TANF program into context.

In 1996, TANF replaced welfare “as we knew it” by mandating that welfare recipients work in order to receive TANF benefits, including cash assistance.  Though intended to get TANF recipients working, it’s easy to see that for folks with serious barriers to employment—such as low literacy levels or disabilities— jumping straight into the labor market was a tough task.  Under the original TANF law, however, states could often meet their work participation requirements while still placing their most vulnerable welfare recipients into barrier-removal activities to improve their future employment prospects.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) shook things up, increasing TANF’s mandated work participation rates while narrowly defining TANF work activities.  Not surprisingly, this impacted TANF recipients with significant barriers to employment.  Imagine an individual whose barriers to employment include a substance abuse disorder.  Under the DRA rules, this person’s treatment—essential to obtaining and maintaining living-wage employment—counts as a TANF work activity…but only for six weeks.  Given that substance abuse disorders can be a life-long struggle, allowing for a month-and-a-half of treatment simply doesn’t make sense if the goal is to promote long-term “self-sufficiency.”

This wonky policy background contextualizes HHS’ July 12th memorandum—the memorandum that’s sparked a resurgent discussion around the role of work in American civic life and the stigma of dependency.  But this memorandum isn’t about dismantling TANF work requirements; instead, HHS’ memorandum provides states with an opportunity to propose, and rigorously evaluate, innovative ways to help individuals find and maintain employment.  The memorandum is pretty straightforward about its purpose:

HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to…more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs…that will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits.

This memorandum, then, is a call for state governments to better serve this country’s most vulnerable populations and move more Americans toward economic self-efficacy.  Last time I checked, that’s a good thing.

So, where do we go from here?  HHS provides some ideas states can consider when planning how to help people prepare for sustainable employment, including projects that serve individuals with disabilities or that allow TANF recipients to pursue wage-boosting credentials. Over here at the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN), one idea sticks out to us in particular—projects that involve evaluating the effectiveness of a subsidized jobs strategy.  We’ve recommended that states consider expanding subsidized employment and Transitional Jobs programs to improve employment outcomes for folks with multiple barriers to employment.  Transitional Jobs programs have been shown to reduce recidivism, decrease dependence on public benefits, and generate positive economic ripple effects in communities.  Like the HHS waivers themselves, Transitional Jobs are a win-win for anyone who’s concerned about reducing poverty and encouraging families’ financial autonomy.

As citizens, we certainly have mutual obligations to each other—TANF obligates its recipients to work and, in turn, TANF policymakers should be obligated to create practical and effective employment programs that best serve this country’s most vulnerable families.  By allowing states to do just that, these HHS waivers are not a backsliding misstep but rather a step in the right direction.

By Caitlin C. Schnur, Policy Intern, National Transitional Jobs Network

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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