CHN: President Bush Unveils TANF Reauthorization Agenda

Plan Undermines Support for Low-Income Families
On February 26, President Bush announced his proposal for the upcoming reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, the primary source of government-sponsored benefits and work support services for low-income families in this country. While the President’s plan claims to protect children and strengthen families, critics warn that many of its provisions will do just the opposite.

At the cornerstone of the President’s proposal are provisions to tighten work requirements. Currently, states face penalties if they do not ensure that 50 percent of all TANF families with an adult are engaged in work activities 30 hours per week; the Administration’s plan calls for increasing the work participation rates to 70 percent by 2007. At the same time, the President proposes to abolish the caseload reduction credit, which has greatly reduced or eliminated the work participation rates in many states.

The combination of these two measures will significantly increase the number of people required to enter the workforce – at a time when the economy is in recession and jobs are scarce – but the President’s proposal contains no additional funds to provide work supports to these individuals. High unemployment rates coupled with the fact that a substantial portion of those remaining on the welfare rolls face serious barriers to employment, such as mental illness or domestic violence, will make the work participation rates President Bush is calling for extremely difficult to implement.

The Administration also proposes increasing from 30 to 40 the number of hours per week recipients must be engaged in work-related activities. Recipients would have to engage in a narrowly defined set of work activities for at least 24 hours per week: subsidized or unsubsidized employment, on-the-job training, and community work experience programs. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, just six percent of TANF recipients currently participate in these activities each month. Job search and vocational education would no longer count toward meeting the first 24 hours of a recipient’s work requirement.

Under the proposal, substance abuse treatment, certain rehabilitative services, and work-related training could count as work for nor more than three consecutive months in any two year period. This provision falls short of what is needed to ensure that recipients with severe barriers to employment get the assistance they need to become economically self-sufficient. Effective substance abuse treatment programs, for example, tend to require 12 to 18 months of participation.

Despite claims to provide assistance to legal immigrants in need, President Bush’s proposal continues the five-year ban on welfare benefits for legal immigrants entering the country after 1996 to “safeguard against welfare dependency among non-citizens.” As previously announced, the President does call for the restoration of food stamps to legal immigrants after they have been in the country for five years.

As expected, marriage and family formation are a key component of President Bush’s welfare reauthorization plan. Under the plan, $300 million would be available to subsidize state and local programs that emphasize pre-marital education and counseling, and to fund research on and bonuses for state initiatives that promote “healthy marriages.” The President also calls for the reauthorization of abstinence education programs, and increases funding for abstinence education grants to states from $40 million in fiscal year 2002 to $73 million in fiscal year 2003.

The President’s initiative does provide financial incentives for states to pass through a larger share of child support collected directly to families. However, its claims to protect children through funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) do not appear to be supported by the details of the plan. Under the plan, spending on the CCDBG would be frozen at current levels – $4.8 billion per year. Advocates warn that level funding is not adequate to meet the growing demand for child care assistance that will accompany the Administration’s plan to push significantly increased numbers of low-income parents into work activities.

In accordance with the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2003, the newly released TANF proposal does not call for increased funding over the annual $16.5 billion awarded to the states currently. Without an inflationary adjustment, by 2007 the real value of the TANF block grant will be 22 percent lower than in 1997.

In numerous ways, President Bush’s agenda for TANF reauthorization is at odds with what the National Governors Association (NGA) is seeking. Facing budget deficits, weak economies and rising caseloads, the governors have asked Congress to increase federal spending on the block grant to keep pace with inflation. They have also said that current work requirements are unrealistic for some families and, therefore, state work participation rates should be relaxed rather than tightened, as the President has proposed. In addition, NGA’s recently approved, bipartisan welfare policy statement calls for broadening rather than limiting the types of activities that can count as work.

The nation’s governors also disagree with President Bush on providing assistance to legal immigrants. Unlike the President, NGA has called for a state option to restore welfare benefits to legal immigrants. Furthermore, governors would like greater flexibility to extend time limits for recipients under certain circumstances.

On Capitol Hill, many Republican lawmakers praised the President’s welfare reauthorization agenda. Some centrist Democrats also embraced parts of the plan. Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Tom Carper (D-DE) are expected to introduce legislation that mirrors some of the provisions contained in the Administration’s proposal. Like President Bush, Bayh and Carper would increase work participation rates to 70 percent and maintain annual TANF funding at $16.5 billion. However, the Senate legislation would boost child care funding by $1 billion and direct $300 million to reduce teen pregnancy and expand employment opportunities.

In the House, Representatives Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Patsy Mink (D-HI) have both introduced comprehensive reauthorization bills that emphasize poverty reduction, enhance education and training opportunities, boost work supports, and restore benefits to legal immigrants. Congressional action on TANF reauthorization is expected to begin in March with House and Senate hearings. Floor action is possible before Congress adjourns for its August recess.

Income Support
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families