August 29, 2016

TANF at 20

Last week marked a major milestone in terms of public policy in the US. August 22 was the 20th anniversary of the signing by President Clinton of the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act," generally known as welfare reform.

I remember talking about it at the time with the future Spousal Unit. While nobody could deny that the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children could use some work, we thought that the legislation passed in the wake of the 1994 Republican "revolution" was mean-spirited and would ultimately hurt children and vulnerable families.

The name of the new program said a lot: "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families." Accent on "temporary."

I had no idea at the time that I'd be spending the next few years fighting what I sometimes call the "TANF wars." This was due to the fact that the federal legislation left a lot of decision making power in the hands of states. Some of the battles involved treatment of people with disabilities and their families, access to education and training, time limits, support services, and domestic violence. 

Sometimes these were fought out in the legislature, sometimes in the courts, and sometimes in the court of  public opinion. There were some victories and some defeats at the state level--and plenty of chances to practice.

At the national level, the DC based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities looked back after all these years and here's what they found:

Over time, TANF has provided basic cash assistance to fewer and fewer needy families, even when need has increased.
During the recession and slow recovery, TANF served few families in need.

The amount of cash assistance provided to families has eroded in almost every state, leaving families without sufficient funds to meet their most basic needs.
TANF plays much less of a role in reducing poverty than AFDC did — and the provision of less cash assistance has contributed to an increase in deep or extreme poverty.
Although a key focus of welfare reform was on increasing employment among cash assistance recipients, states spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability.
Employment among single mothers increased in the 1990s, but welfare reform was only one of several contributing factors — and most of the early gains have been lost. 

That sounds about right to me. 

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