Spotlight Exclusives

Exclusive commentary: current and former elected officials discuss TANF

Posted on

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.

Over the next three weeks, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, and former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum answer one question each week about TANF in the 21st century (update–their answers to the second and third questions have been posted. For the second set of answers, posted February 10, 2010, please click here. For the third set of answers, posted February 17, 2010, please click here). Another group of elected officials will contribute during the following weeks.

On the one hand, many consider that TANF has been a major success. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of people receiving assistance from TANF and its predecessor was reduced from 13.7 million to 3.8 million and many former recipients have gone to or returned to work. On the other hand, we haven۪t seen a decrease in the overall poverty rate and the share of poor single mothers who are neither working nor receiving cash assistance has increased. How successful do you think TANF has been and in what way? 

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland

I am a strong supporter of this important program because it is helping the neediest Ohioans find and keep jobs in the midst of this global economic downturn. TANF has certainly been successful in supporting and stabilizing most families and caregivers so they can care for children in their own homes. By providing work supports and social services, TANF has helped thousands of Ohioans become and remain employed.

It is hard to say if temporary assistance would have made a difference for those without a job who did not apply or left the rolls because the hassle of TANF was not worth the effort. Clearly TANF has been unsuccessful for those who remain on the rolls until they hit their time limit and remain unemployed and unemployable.

Reducing the poverty rate was not a purpose of TANF, and so should not be a measure of the program۪s success. But by stabilizing families during times of temporary distress, it is an anti-poverty tool. The focus for reauthorization must be to better define how to address the needs of the various populations who depend on TANF; give states the flexibility to meet those needs; and develop realistic measures of state performance.

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith

Many agree that the declines in those receiving assistance were due to multiple factors, including an improved economy, a “Work First” approach that redirected the most employable TANF adults to low-wage jobs, and other policy changes that made it harder to enter and remain on TANF.

Although the earnings of single poor mothers have increased, research on people moving off of TANF funding shows that those who find jobs still do not earn enough to make ends meet. This suggests that, while the program helps people get to work, it doesn۪t necessarily move them to self-sufficiency. As a result, some former TANF recipients reenter the program after previously transitioning to paid work.

It has also become evident that an increasing number of families are being sanctioned off of the program for failure to comply with TANF rules. Research among these families has consistently shown that parents face multiple employment barriers and significant hardships after they lose cash assistance. Dismissing these families from TANF undercuts the goal of moving people into employment, because they are more likely to remain jobless.

These are significant dilemmas. TANF has the right goal of moving families off of assistance into good jobs. Right now, we۪ve had some success, but we۪ve also seen how low earnings and no contingency plan for those forced to leave the program has limited its ability to achieve this goal.

But it۪s important to remember that TANF funds are allocated by states, so we should be cautious about generalizing a national success or lack of success. The success of the program varies from state to state, and even within individual states.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith

Congress must reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or “TANF” program by

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson

 September 30th, 2010. Most of Georgia۪s poorest families are headed by single women, and TANF is an important program for the poor. However, there is time now to reshape the program to make it more responsive for

low-income working families.

Reduce access barriers:

The published information says people have left TANF because work requirements were not met due to:

a. Mental and physical impairments

b. Substance abuse

c. Domestic violence

d. Low literacy

e. Learning disabilities

f. Housing

g. Child care

h. Transportation

There should continue to be a maximum time limit that a person can receive cash assistance. However, efforts to eliminate the barriers above must be better funded as part of TANF to better support families so that they can build assets and become self-sufficient. Case workers must better coordinate with providers in the community to support families while holding them more accountable for taking positive steps, e.g., GED classes, financial education classes, parenting classes, etc.

TANF functions best as a safety net to assist those who have fallen into the margins and can benefit from temporary assistance; asking it to address circumstances of single mothers is too much. The reasons that the number of poor single mothers who are neither working nor receiving cash assistance have increased go far beyond TANF and to the heart of a fundamentally shifting U.S. economy.

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum

When a program such as TANF sees families receiving benefits drop by 70 percent, it can be deemed a success. Clearly, with such a vast amount of the former recipients returning to work, the program seems to have made a dramatic and positive impact on their lives and the lives of their families. If you judge the TANF program just by its participants, the program has been a success. 

The fact that there hasn۪t been a decrease in the overall poverty rate is not an immediate indication or a factor that should ­­­­­­determine the success or failure of the TANF program, as prosperity can be generational in nature.

Additionally, the fact that current employment rates of those who have left the program are substantially higher than those who left the program prior to reform indicates a move in the right direction.

Moving ahead, TANF should continue a proactive effort to support recipients۪ efforts to get off assistance by providing educational opportunities, tools and resources that enable a recipient to become self-sufficient. At that same time, we should look at creative ways that reduce the tax burden on those who have already left the program and are working hard to support their families and make a better life for themselves.

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum

Ted Strickland is Governor of Ohio. He was elected in 2006.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of Government Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. From 1992 to 2000, he was the 46th Mayor of Indianapolis.

Otis Johnson is Mayor of Savannah, Georgia. He was elected in 2003.

Scott McCallum serves as President and CEO of The Aidmatrix Foundation, a leading global nonprofit that uses information technology to create efficiencies between donors and those in need. From 2001-2003, he was the 43rd Governor of Wisconsin.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives