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.

Over a span of three weeks, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, and former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum are answering three questions, one each week, about TANF in the 21st century. The first and second questions were posted over the last two weeks. 

Another group of elected officials will contribute during the following weeks.

In addition to welfare reform, a number of work supports were expanded during the 1990s, including the earned income tax credit, child care subsidies, and health insurance for children in working poor families. What do you think is the most important policy change or program expansion that could help low-income working families?

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland

Among the work I am most proud of during my time in the US Congress was helping to write the legislation that created the successful Children۪s Health Insurance Program and my support for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Depending on a family۪s circumstances, any of these work supports could prove vital to stabilizing families and allowing them to take advantage of work opportunities.

As welfare reform continues to evolve, states should be given the flexibility to modify, integrate, and align programs, services, and policies to leverage resources to make life better for our families.

We are using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding for a pre-apprenticeship training program to prepare unemployed adults for construction careers in the green industry. Unfortunately, TANF work requirements are not sufficiently flexible to take advantage of these opportunities.

Through common sense business practices, we can improve subsidized employment and on-the-job training programs and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit so that they are easier for employers to use.

It is not so much a question of what is the best work support, but rather, how can we use and improve work supports so that families have the most opportunities to succeed

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith

One of the primary principles behind the Clinton-era welfare reforms that created TANF is the idea of “Work First.” Work First assumes that TANF participants can quickly find employment in the job market and thus reduce their dependence on public assistance.

At inception, TANF assumed that it would take just a little help for most TANF recipients to find and keep a job (if only a low-wage entry level job). That principle has been debatable all along, but has a very apparent disconnect right now, given our economic challenges.

Finding and keeping a job no matter what the pay is difficult for everyone, everywhere right now. In order to work at the present time, the policy needs to adapt to current job trends and offer more assistance to parents in the job-seeking phase. The recession has been dubbed a “game-changer” for TANF, and this is certainly true, but the potential is there for the program to still be helpful to those in need.

Currently, TANF-funded employment services are very basichow to dress, how to interview, how to craft a resume. True, this is enough to get people into basic labor, but it doesn’t necessarily give people the hard skills and education needed to be a valuable member of the workforce, and keep a job.

Though not present in all states, programs that focus on hard skills and giving that extra “edge” already exist within the TANF structure in the District of Columbia. TANF recipients are eligible for help with college tuition and they can also find opportunities for subsidized employment and on-the-job training. If they know who to ask, TANF recipients are usually able to get permission to go to GED classes or hard skills training.

The issue is that they have to know who to ask.

Perhaps another policy flaw lies in the visibility of the program۪s attributes: how are those in need supposed to find all that is available to them if they do not have the resourcefulness to ask the right questions and seek the potential solutions that TANF could provide for them?

Addressing these flaws is one way to expand TANF to help low-income families find work and succeedeven during these tough times.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson

Based on Savannah۪s experience in understanding
the barriers to poverty reduction, we know that all these programs are necessary: EITC, child care subsidies, children’s health insurance, and food stamps. The EITC and children’s health insurance reach a broader working audience.

The cutoff for EITC is an income of $48K and below this year, and the cutoff for SCHIP is 235% of the poverty level. This makes eligibility much more robust and makes participation possible for families with two working parents. Other social programs that augment this audience’s opportunity to become self-sustaining, like food stamps, should be reconstructed at the same income levels for eligibility. Food Stamps at 135% of the poverty level and TANF aimed at the poorest of the poor those with incomes of $10,000 or so does not encourage work. These public benefits could be offered in a more comprehensive package to reach more in the greater poverty income levels.

Invest more resources and expertise first in evaluating what۪s working and what۪s not at the national and state levels. Do not focus on outputs but on behavioral change; bring together business leaders with academics who have backgrounds in rigorous evaluation and program operations with TANF recipients. What motivates true change? What types of rewards work?

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum

It is critical that we continue to support subsidies and credits that help motivate participants to return to work. Programs of highest value are those that create incentives to become self-sufficient and reduce rewards, over time, for lack of self-initiative. It won’t help participants, the program or communities if there are disincentives to finding fulltime employment, even if they are at entry level.

We must be diligent to ensure that subsides and credits are graduated in the favor of those who want to help themselves and show real progress. In fact, I would favor additional benefits for those participants who are showing substantial growth and increased income from job performance. We need to reward innovation and hard work but keep in mind that we can’t continue to ask the public at large to subsidize participants forever.

Health insurance programs for families in need are also critical. At the end of the day, we must maintain a minimum level of assistance for children in need.

The real solution is to ensure that participants understand that it is their responsibility to improve their plight, it is their responsibility to help themselves and it is their responsibility to make a better life for themselves and their families. Only then can the poverty cycle be broken.

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.

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