Spotlight Exclusives

Exclusive commentary: current and former elected officials discuss TANF

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Because the nation۪s welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), is due to expire by October 2010, SPOTLIGHT has asked Governors, Mayors, and state legislators for their insights about the program۪s strengths and weaknesses in reducing poverty and improving opportunity in America. This is the final entry in the series.

Over the last three weeks, United States Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), Delaware Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn (D), and Delaware State Senator Liane Sorenson (R-6) have answered three questions, one each week, about TANF in the 21st century. This is their last set of answers. The first and second can also be read on SPOTLIGHT.

Previously, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D), former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith (R), Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson (D), and former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum (R) answered their own set of questions. Their first, second, and third sets of answers can be read on SPOTLIGHT.

Jobs that require a high school diploma or less often pay low wages and offer unstable employment. The Council of Economic Advisors released a report in July that found that “occupations that employ large shares of workers with post-secondary education and training are growing faster than others.” How will this affect opportunities for TANF recipients to find quality jobs and how should it impact the program۪s design?

Representative Jim McDermott

Every President for the last 50 years has opined about the importance of education to America۪s future. But that message was somehow not seen as applicable to poor mothers on welfare when TANF was created. An estimated 40 percent of adults on TANF lack even a high school diploma and yet very few of them are enrolled in education or training programs. We need a greater emphasis on helping families escape poverty and this won۪t happen unless they have the skills needed to get a decent job.

Representative Jim McDermott

Delaware Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn

Delaware supports education as a means to achieving long term self- sufficiency, although the primary focus continues to be employmentmostly as a result of the time limit and the federal rules that limit what education can count as part of the federally mandated participation rate calculation. Delaware passed legislation in 1999 that allows full time participation in high school, GED, and post secondary education up to a bachelor۪s degree to meet the TANF participation requirement. Reauthorization should examine the time and age restrictions that the current law places on secondary and post secondary education counting toward federal participation requirements. Some states with laws similar to Delaware۪s, such as Kentucky, are actually subject to fiscal sanctions as a result of the 20 percent caseload limitation for vocational education participation.

Delaware Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn

Delaware State Senator Liane Sorenson

If occupations that require post-secondary education continue to grow at a faster rate than other occupations, opportunities for TANF recipients, who are usually unskilled workers, will be negatively affected. Quality jobs will be harder to come by, especially if there is more competition among unskilled workers chasing fewer available jobs. While TANF may not be realistically able to provide the extent of the education required for these jobs, it can alter its program to give the recipients the best chance at finding a quality job. Emphasizing job preparation in industries that are projected to grow into the future rather than those that are stagnant or contracting may allow gains in skill by participants to be in demand for an extended period of time. This will allow for greater job security and as a result will lead to greater stability in the home.

Delaware State Senator Liane Sorenson

Jim McDermott represents Washington State۪s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected in 1988.

Matt Denn is the 25th Lieutenant Governor of Delaware. He was elected in 2008.

Liane Sorenson is the State Senator for Delaware۪s 6th District. She was elected in 1995.

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