CHN: House Draft Bill Offers Potential Improvements to TANF

A discussion draft bill released by the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources contains a number of substantive reforms aimed at helping the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program better facilitate employment and reduce poverty. On July 15, the Human Resources Subcommittee held a hearing to solicit feedback about the proposals, which could be included in legislation to reauthorize TANF. While the legislation is based on bills introduced by committee Republicans, it has received bipartisan support. Reauthorizing legislation needs to be enacted by September 30, although it may be temporarily extended if Congress is not ready at that time.
A major focus of the legislation is on holding states accountable for outcomes instead of procedures. To accomplish this, the draft bill adds an accountability measure requiring states to reach established targets in employment rates and earnings gains for those leaving TANF in order to receive full federal funding. Currently, states are only held accountable for the number of hours TANF participants log in work-related activities, but not for their actual employment outcomes, giving states little incentive to address the unique barriers to employment that many recipients face. Another big change is an expansion in the activities that can count toward the work participation requirement; the bill allows satisfactory school attendance and vocational training to count toward the requirement at a wider range of ages and for a longer amount of time, and eliminates the distinction that currently limits the percentage of an individual’s work requirement that can be met with certain educational activities. Among other reforms, the bill also adds poverty reduction as a goal of TANF, eliminates higher work hours for married couples, and replaces the TANF Contingency Fund with a number of grants to states, with the majority for case management, but also modestly funding subsidized jobs. The proposal would also eliminate the caseload reduction credit that currently serves as an incentive for states to cut off benefits without actually helping people find work.

Human needs advocates have long pushed for many of these same changes, arguing that the requirements currently in place can prevent states from doing what will actually best promote employment, and can allow states to spend very little on the core goals of the TANF program as well as serve very few people. However, some have argued that the proposed bill does not go far enough. At the hearing, Representative Joseph Crowley (D-NY) said he was glad the draft bill contained improvements he has supported for years, although he was disappointed that the bill did not contain any new funding for child care support. In her testimony, LaDonna Pavetti, Vice President for Family Income Support at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said she supported most of the proposed changes, but argued that the bill needs to go further by fixing some of the difficult reporting requirements and providing incentives for states to serve a greater number of people in need. She also cautioned that the method currently outlined in the draft bill for measuring employment outcomes could be problematic. Further, Dr. Pavetti pressed Congress to support some changes currently marked as “open issues” in the draft bill, such as the elimination of the cap on the percentage of the work requirement that can be satisfied with vocational education.  The draft does increase the time allowed for vocational education from one to two years.

The TANF block grant has not been fully reauthorized in recent years, but has instead been temporarily extended a number of times since it was last due for reauthorization in 2010. It is unclear how quickly the draft reauthorization will move forward (if at all). While the bill appears to have support in the House, there has been no action as of yet on the Senate side. For more information, see the May 19 Human Needs Report.

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