Dec. 12, 2005 – Congress is once again working to alter how the government helps the poor, intensifying a welfare overhaul underway since the 1990s. The targets, once again, are single-parent families at the margins of the economy.
The House of Representatives budget reconciliation bill, passed last month, would reauthorize the 1996 welfare-reform law by toughening Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the countryâ€™s primary public assistance program. The bill would simultaneously force parents to spend more time working and tighten access to subsidized child care and other resources.
In its summary of the bill, the House Education and Workforce Committee commented that the goal of the heavier work requirements is "achieving independence through work." Disappointed with the current work-program participation rate of roughly 40 percent, the Committee called for "a policy of universal engagement."
But critics of welfare reform say the bill deepens the unmet needs of struggling families. Joan Entmacher, with the policy group National Womenâ€™s Law Center, called the legislation "the ugliest set of recommendations inflicted on low-income women and their families thatâ€¦ we have seen."
The House proposal would require TANF recipients to engage in "work or other activities leading to self-sufficiency" for 40 hours per week, up from the 30-35 hours currently required. The legislation drops a provision under current law that enables single parents with children under six years old to qualify for reduced work hours.
The legislation also gives state governments less flexibility to determine how work hours are spent, requiring 24 hours each week of government-designated job activities, which might include private-sector employment or subsidized low-skill labor.
To accommodate participantsâ€™ educational plans, various state plans now allow TANF recipients to credit vocational training and schooling toward work requirements for up to a year. But under the House plan, such activities could not exceed three or four months within a two-year period. A similar limit would apply to rehabilitative services that states offer to address personal barriers to employment, such as substance abuse treatment.
The legislation drops a provision under current law that enables single parents with children under six years old to qualify for reduced work hours.
States would have to place 70 percent of TANF households into the new work system by 2010 â€“ a sharp increase from the current mandatory participation rate of 50 percent. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementing these requirements would cost states $8.3 billion over five years.
Mark Greenberg, director of policy with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said the bill would encourage states to establish large "workfare" programs, which basically involve "simply requiring families to participate in unskilled or minimally skilled jobs for some number of hours a week, as a condition of receiving their welfare check."
The proposed legislation mandates that if a recipient does not fulfill the work requirements for two months, the entire household, including the children, loses cash benefits.
But in Greenbergâ€™s view, if the goal is long-term self-sufficiency, "access to education can be critically important in helping families get jobs that pay enough, so that they no longer need welfare."
As part of a multi-year interview project conducted by the social service association Alliance for Children and Families, one young Texas mother and TANF recipient described the hard choices she faced on her career path. She had enrolled in a training program to become a licensed counselor, she explained, because "it was better for my kids ifâ€¦ I just stopped everything and went to school instead of going to work every day."
But even living in a rent-free transitional housing project, the womanâ€™s monthly welfare payments left a wide gap between her goals and reality. "You have $180," she said, "and you need it to buy Pampers and wipes and, you know, when you get down to it, you really have no money left for yourself."
"The financial end of itâ€¦ itâ€™s really worse than what it was before I got here," she reflected.
By potentially carving time out of educational investment, stricter work requirements could further push parents to put aside the future just to survive day-to-day.
The proposed legislation mandates that if a recipient does not fulfill the work requirements for two months, the entire household, including the children, loses cash benefits. Under this rule, which would trump less harsh state penalties for noncompliance, a family could lose all assistance if a personal hardship forces a single mother to miss work.
"That is, pure and simple, an attack on children," said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the anti-poverty group Coalition on Human Needs. Approximately 4 million children received TANF benefits in 2003 â€“ nearly one in three children in families living below the federal poverty level.
Critics say the work requirements would penalize people for economic circumstances beyond their control, such as sluggish local job markets. "For many states," said Entmacher, "it will probably be easier to insist that the parentâ€¦ find a job that is simply unavailable and then blame her for failing to do it and cut her off."
The bill would compound the burden of the work requirements by scaling back public resources for parents.
One provision would reduce funds for government enforcement of the child-support programs, which force "non-custodial" parents to help pay the costs of raising their children. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this move would deprive households of an estimated $24 billion owed by estranged parents.
For low-income working families, the bill would fund childcare programs at a rate that lags behind inflation, resulting in an estimated 330,000 fewer children in poor households receiving subsidized care in 2010, compared to 2004.
Sharon Parrott, an analyst with the liberal think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that "this estimate may well understate the loss of child care assistance," because states must also cope with the cost of new work requirements, along with the erosion of overall TANF funding due to inflation. Frozen at about $17 billion per year, the TANF block grant has lost nearly one-fifth of its original value in real terms.
The Center warned that cash-strapped states might resort to further reducing funds for child care in order to shore up other related programs. In 2004, thirty states cut total childcare spending, up from 19 in 2003, and some have altered eligibility thresholds or capped enrollment in order to shrink their client pools.
States could also respond to the fiscal squeeze by trimming the number of people receiving benefits â€“ and be rewarded by Washington for doing so. The proposed legislation would revamp a "credit" system established under welfare reform, which relieves states of some workforce-participation obligations as long as they keep reducing welfare rolls, which have already tumbled by about fifty percent since 1996.
Weinstein called the credit system "a very dangerous incentive" for the government to find ways to push people out of the system. Her group would like to see people leave welfare as well, she added, "but only ifâ€¦ people get the preparation they need to work and raise their children out of poverty."
The prospects for TANF reauthorization this year are unclear. Previous House reauthorization bills, modeled after White House proposals, never garnered the full support of Congress. The Senate has proposed parallel legislation with fewer spending cuts.
Referring to tax legislation that Congress is also considering, Entmacher blasted legislators for pushing welfare rollbacks "so they can pass more tax cuts for millionaires. The contrast is so starkâ€¦ itâ€™s shameful."
The reauthorization debate has reinvigorated questions about whether reform has helped or hurt low-income people. While fewer people are accessing benefits today, joblessness and poverty rates among single mothers have grown since 2000, suggesting that many families are leaving welfare the way they came: still poor.
Entmacher predicted the House legislation would aggravate the effect of pending cuts to other low-income programs like Medicaid and food stamps. As federal funds dry up, she said, "the pressure is on the states and even more on local governmentsâ€¦ to deal with a lot of hungry, sick and desperate people."