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 the next three weeks, United States Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), Delaware Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn (D), and Delaware State Senator Liane Sorenson (R-6) are answering three questions, one each week, about TANF in the 21st century.

Over the previous three weeks, 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.

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?

Representative Jim McDermott

TANF needs to focus on both providing assistance to needy families and on helping parents secure employment. By any definition, the program has failed to achieve the first goal and has had, at best, mixed results on the second. Only 22 percent of poor children now receive cash assistance from the TANF program, down from over 60 percent a dozen years ago. This isn۪t “temporary assistance for needy families” as the title of the program impliesfor the vast majority of poor kids, it۪s actually no assistance at all. And while some will point to an improvement in the number of employed poor mothers, that increase took place ten years ago during a much stronger economy.

Representative Jim McDermott

Delaware Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn

There are four goals for TANF: to provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their home or the home of a relative; to end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; to prevent and reduce the incidence of out of wedlock pregnancies; to encourage the formation and maintenance of two parent families.

The TANF program created a focus on supporting work and self-sufficiency that did not exist prior to welfare reform. In keeping with that focus, states, including Delaware, have focused on supporting families in obtaining and maintaining employment. The expectation was that if people exchanged welfare for work, Unemployment Compensation, which certainly pays more than welfare, would be the new safety net for this group as well as those in the “mainstream.” The intent of the law was most definitely to limit dependence on cash assistance. Since it is the only program that is time limited, there has been a silent expectation that other benefits such as Medicaid, CHIP, Food Stamps and child care would continue to support low-wage workers. In Delaware, we make a special effort to assure that those who leave welfare and continue to be eligible for other benefits, receive them. We actually received an award for our performance related to benefit continuity back when there were rewards for TANF performance.

Based on the TANF goals expressed in Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, (PRWORA), the program has been largely successful. More people are working and able-bodied applicants/recipients have to work or be in training in order to receive benefits. The current system, as designed, punishes those people for being unwilling to work by applying sanctions and making them ineligible for benefits.

The national poverty level, as a measure, is very much out of favor because it does not take into account the amount of income families require to provide for all of their basic needs.

Is a program with a maximum benefit of $338 (in Delaware) for a family of three, or $407 for a family of four, the right vehicle to reduce poverty when poverty is very much related to the kind of jobs available and the hourly rate those jobs pay? Jobs don۪t pay wages based on family size, although we assess poverty based on income and family size. Fewer jobs now than at the beginning of welfare reform offer benefits. Many jobs keep employees at less than 30 hours a week. Neither welfare benefits themselves, entry level wages nor wages in conjunction with other public benefits, can push a family to the income level it takes to escape real poverty. A cash benefit program geared to families with children cannot be the solution for gaps in our safety net driven by economic factors and lack of opportunity.

Delaware Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn

Delaware State Senator Liane Sorenson

The TANF program۪s success is difficult to measure because of the broadness of its goals, the number of factors that determine outcomes for needy families, and the varying criteria as to what constitutes success. The average number of monthly TANF recipients has trended downward since the program۪s inception in 1996, but this decrease of caseloads can be attributed to qualified families who do not receive assistance. Additionally, the poverty rate has not changed significantly during the same time period. While TANF has sometimes succeeded in providing assistance to needy families, it has failed to end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits. TANF has had mixed success, positively improving the quality of life for some, but not close to all of the families it helps serve.

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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