Revealing the Real TANF

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: The American people have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program created in 1996. Both parties tout it as a “success,” but if you look at the numbers — and at the real lives of people who turn to the program for assistance when they are out of work — the picture is bleak, to say the least.

This March, TANF is set to expire and will need to be renewed. It will mark yet another opportunity to have an honest, fact-based discussion about the program. So it was good to see a top-notch panel of experts at the Center for American Progress (CAP) yesterday talking about TANF — “Learning from the Past, Planning for the Future.”

The speakers included Witnesses to Hunger member Shearine Mcghee, a former participant in the successful TANF subsidized jobs program that was created through the Recovery Act but allowed to expire in 2010. Kudos to CAP for having as one of the experts on poverty someone who has actually lived in poverty — it’s way too rare in this town, especially in Congress where public policy decisions are made without testimony from the people who are most affected.

Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), opened the discussion with an overview of how the program has performed as a safety net and in boosting employment — since the promise of TANF was that it would serve both purposes and thereby create pathways to self-sufficiency.

Her top line statistic in assessing TANF as a safety net — a statistic that I wish every member of Congress and every progressive activist had on his or her bulletin board, and that the mainstream press would deign to report every now and then — is this: Before welfare reform, for every 100 families with children in poverty in the U.S., 68 were able to access cash assistance; now that number has fallen to just 27 (and Pavetti thinks it will be even lower when the 2012 data comes in). The benefit for those lucky twenty-seven families who are able to access it is less than 30 percent of the poverty line in most states — so less than $5,400 annually for a family of three.

“TANF does provide an important safety net for unemployed or underemployed families, but it reaches very few families in need, and when it does reach families they get a very small amount of cash,” said Pavetti.

Pavetti also pointed out that in 1995 — the year before TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) — AFDC kept over 2.2 million poor children from falling into deep poverty (defined as below half the poverty line, or less than $11,500 for a family of four today). This means that AFDC successfully lifted over 62 percent of poor children out of deep poverty. But in 2005, TANF lifted just 21 percent of children who would otherwise be in deep poverty, or just 650,000 kids. TANF has directly contributed to the number of people living in deep poverty rising from 12.6 million in 2000, to 20.4 million people today. This includes over 15 million women and children (and nearly 10 percent of all children).

“So we have a lot less effect [today] on families and [are not] helping them deal with very, very deep poverty,” said Pavetti.

But it was her report on TANF as an employment program that I found most striking. She demonstrated that the (mostly) conservative claim that the TANF work requirement led to huge employment gains for single mothers is bogus. It’s true that in the late ’90s there was a significant increase in employment, but that’s largely because there was a booming economy. Those gains began to decline in 2000 and have vanished today.

“[By] 2011, we basically had lost all of what we had gained,” said Pavetti. “We’re back to where we were in 1996 — actually a little bit below it.” Indeed in 1996, 64 percent of single mothers with a high school education or less were working, and in 2011 it was 62 percent.

Pavetti said that the “more compelling story” is told by comparing the employment of single mothers with and without a high school degree, to single women with similar educational backgrounds and no children. In the early 1990s, there was a significant gap between the two groups. But since 2000, the likelihood of employment for a single mother with kids is almost exactly the same as it is for a single woman without kids. The more significant determining factor for earned income is level of education.

“This is not a story about parent responsibility,” said Pavetti.“It’s really about what are the labor market opportunities for individuals who have a high school or less than high school [education].”

Pavetti suggested that TANF needs to be reformed to allow parents more educational opportunities so that they can advance in the labor market. Currently, the federal statute is very rigid about which kinds of education and training activities can be counted towards work requirements for TANF participants. She also suggested a renewed focus on a subsidized jobs program — like the one that placed 260,000 unemployed low-income parents and young adults in jobs during the recession. The program enjoyed bipartisan support from governors before House Republicans allowed it to expire. (Many people waged a strong fight to save the program, including Pavetti, who maintained a sort of vigil through her blog, counting down the days until it was scheduled to “die.”)

Mcghee talked about the powerful role that the subsidized jobs program played in her life. She said she was “thankful” for a medical assistance/medical billing work-training program that she enrolled in through TANF.  But when she graduated, prospective employers wanted her to have at least one year of experience in her field. So she found herself instead applying for fast food and other low-wage jobs for which she was then overqualified — what witnesses call “graduation to the same poor wages.”

The federally subsidized Way to Work program allowed her to work for the Coalition Against Hunger doing SNAP outreach and educating other mothers and families about nutrition. With that work experience, Mcghee was able to obtain a job as a nutrition assistant for the Philadelphia WIC program, where she has been employed for two years.

“The Way to Work program gave us the job readiness that we needed to further our employment,” she said.

Witnesses to Hunger founder Dr. Mariana Chilton — an associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch — talked about the tension between education and work for mothers in poverty.

“It’s a real struggle,” she said. “It’s what the women in Witnesses to Hunger call ‘the monster under the bed.’  Because they know they need to improve their education in order to make a better wage. But as [one] Witness said, ‘What am I supposed to do? Tell my kids I can’t feed you for two years — just wait while I go to school and then I’ll feed you?’ So there’s a real Catch-22 between advancing education to get the better job, or going into work and getting stuck in this dead-end job. We need to find some better ways to work with this system.”

Dr. Kristin Seefeldt, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan and author of Working After Welfare, has been interviewing women in poverty and deep poverty for decades. She also talked about the difficulties women participating in TANF encounter as they try to further their education. In the late 1990s, she said these women were able to find stable jobs with decent wages — enough to get by — and could plan on waiting until their children were a little older before they returned to school.

“Now it’s different,” said Seefeldt. “That sort of choice is no longer there — the jobs aren’t giving that many hours, the wages aren’t enough to support [a family]. So either women get trapped [in low-wage work].”

Because they can’t obtain the education they need through TANF, many end up taking on huge debt while working multiple jobs. Seefeldt described a woman determined to get her Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) degree who now works two jobs — because the hours of her “main job” were cut back.

“So she sits beside rehab patients in the middle of the night and tries to do her homework then, and she has another job during the day,” said Seefeldt. “And her kids are either in the car with her — driving from one place to the next — or they’re at a relative’s house. All of them are almost never home. That’s going to go on for another couple years, and I don’t think that’s a situation anyone wants to be in.”

Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman — director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy — moderated the discussion and noted that some of the program’s resistance to education is found in TANF’s original underpinnings.

“At the very beginning, the philosophy of TANF was work first,” he said. “The premise was that job training doesn’t work, and that letting somebody get educated first before they go to work is wrong — they should get experience and that’s the path to later success. That’s an over-simplification, but there are many states out there that still buy into that attitude.”

Deborah Schlick, project manager of Transitions to Economic Stability at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said that the “assumption that we need to push people into work” is unfounded. She reported that 80 percent of the parents in Minnesota who turn to TANF for assistance have been in the state’s labor market, and 50 percent are “coming straight out of a job.” She also noted that only 40 percent of the state’s workers are able to collect unemployment insurance, so very low-wage workers with children are forced to turn to TANF. Schlick suggested that to improve TANF she would “start with an assumption that poverty is a measure of circumstances, it’s not a measure of the person. I think misunderstanding that has gotten us in a lot of trouble.”

You go to a discussion like this and you get a sense of just how deep the knowledge is — sixteen years after TANF was created — about why the program doesn’t work and how it could easily be improved. And yet, Republicans and some Democrats continue to get away with pushing the notion that it is a success.

I’m not sure what it will take to reveal the truth to Americans about how this program is failing low-wage working families and families that are unable to work. But I sure hope I won’t be writing another version of this article six months from now. Instead, I’d like to write about a creative, coordinated campaign by advocates and families across the country that is focused on revealing the real TANF, and that refuses to be distracted by the same old lies told by the same old people.

Greg Kaufmann is a Nation contributor covering poverty in America. He has been a guest on NPR, including Here & Now, Your Call, Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and various local radio programs including the Matthew Filipowicz Show. His work has also appeared on Common Dreams, Alternet,,, and He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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