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.

This is the second question–for the first, which was posted last week, please click here.

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

TANFimposes strict work participation requirements on adults receiving assistance.Due to the recession, many states are experiencing extremely high unemployment.What can we do to help ensure participants are working, even during periods ofhigh unemployment? Do we need to modify the program or are there other options?

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland

Like nearly every state in the nation, Ohio has been hit hard by the global recession. Our challenge is to rebuild our economy from the ground up by getting everyday Ohioans back to work in good, lasting jobs.

But not everyone receiving cash assistance can work. Therefore, the work participation rate is an imperfect performance measure because it does not assess our ability to help families with kinship situations, or those with multiple significant barriers to employment. Only in limited circumstances do barrier assessment and removal activities count as work participation rate activities.

Obtaining education and skills is a proven strategy for weathering an economic downturn, and TANF should count more educational opportunities as work activities. In Ohio, people are supported, not penalized, for going to school for a college degree. Ohioans can continue to receive unemployment benefits if they are going to college.

In addition to allowing more flexibility in defining countable work activities, TANF should be modified to lower state maintenance-of-effort (MOE) requirements and/or increase federal funding when caseloads and/or unemployment rates increase beyond a certain threshold. The additional funding would be used to pay for higher caseloads, and to expand education, training, and community service opportunities. 

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith

Many families leaving TANF do not successfully make the transition from welfare to work. In Texas, for example, the majority of the significant decline in caseloads that has recently occurred is not merely the result of recipients finding employment.

It is caused at least in part by strict compliance rules that force families out of the program. For example, Texas children are sanctioned out of the program when their parents break a rule.

The goal of helping families move from assistance to work is a good one, but we have to make sure that compliance rules actually encourage that objective, rather than measuring success merely by caseloads served.

For this reason, the program probably does need some modificationbut on a state by state basis.

For instance, Pennsylvania۪s program is very paperwork intensive, and recipients of funding are often asked to make multiple visits during normal business hours to verify their work arrangements. How is this helping them keep a job if they are constantly being asked to leave their work arrangement to process paperwork, not to mention responsibilities to their children, illness, and other potential life events?

One approach to improving TANF so that it works even during a recession would be to focus on local and state level changes that match the realities of how people live and work. Some basic changes to how states like Pennsylvania administer TANF would probably have a big impact on how successfully recipients could find and sustain work in a way that accords with program rules.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith  

TANF aims to reach the poorest of the poor, those living at 50% of the poverty level and those who are working and have children.

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson

The problem is that once a person begins working, they typically make more earnings that then conflict with the income eligibility criteria. A transition period should be created to allow people to become stable in employment or build skills so they can continue the cash assistance for a period of time while they begin employment.

Job opportunities and training should be linked in this current timeframe of unemployment to stimulus monies and job creation. The program really needs to focus on training for GEDs, for those who come into the system without high school diplomas, as well as training for higher-wage jobs where there is real growth potential (based on local and regional analysis of industry data). Again, to ensure participants can attend training or get to jobs we must be willing to fund creative transportation options and accessible child and other types of dependent care.

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum

One of the great benefits of the TANF program is that it holds its participants accountable. Personal responsibility leads to greater prosperity, innovation and growth. Programs such as Welfare are short term and in many cases dependency enabling, but TANF makes sure that its participants are entering the working world, so eventually they can be self-sufficient.

With the recent economic recession, TANF may have to make a few adjustments to the requirements. One adjustment might be to lengthen the period that a participant receives benefits out of work, as long as they are actively searching for jobs in accordance with any guidelines. I truly believe that all Americans share in the ideal of the “American Dream.” Participants are no different and want nothing more than an opportunity to improve themselves and provide opportunities for their children. Recipients aren’t looking for a handout and should not be offered one, but rather a helping hand to assist them while they are trying to get on their feet.

TANF should also look to develop relationships with companies that could offer at least part-time employment to participants while they are searching for more permanent, full-time jobs. This would provide the participants with recent relevant work experience, which could be the difference in finding a full-time job. If jobs like this are not available, then any relevant job training courses would be beneficial. And it must be mentioned that while unemployment is high and expected to remain so for several years, not all sectors have been hit proportionately. Entry-level jobs are still vacant in a number of areas.

Lastly, I think TANF should look at volunteer opportunities for participants to take advantage of. In many cases, volunteering can lead to permanent employment and valuable job training and experience. There are literally thousands of government and private sector opportunities that could partner with TANF to help create yet another avenue for training, education and networking.

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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