CHN: TANF Bill Moves….Slowly

Senate Finance Committee Bill Language Available; Current Law Extended 6 Months
Congress enacted a six-month extension of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) just before the September 30 expiration of the program. Continuing TANF through the end of March signals the willingness of both the House and Senate to put off full reauthorization of TANF until the new year. Senate leadership sources have suggested that TANF may come up on the Senate floor in February.

A TANF reauthorization bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on October 3. On that day, as is customary, Senators were working with a summary of provisions.

As in the House bill (HR 4), the Senate Finance Committee largely focuses on the nuts and bolts of work participation rates and hours, and not on expanding successful strategies to support families’ efforts to get and keep jobs. The Senate Finance Committee bill gradually increases the proportion of parents/caregivers who must participate in work activities, to 70 percent in FY 2008. In general, states get full credit for parents who participate in allowed activities for at least 34 hours per week (up from 30 under current law). Partial credit is given when parents work at least 20 hours a week; states get a small amount of extra credit if parents work 35 or more hours. Single parents with children younger than six are counted as meeting the work requirement with at least 24 hours per week, with states given extra credit if they work more than 35 hours. Because current law allows single parents with such young children to satisfy the work requirement with 20 hours per week, a floor amendment may be sought to maintain the current provision. Two-parent families must work longer hours. Within the new requirements, parents must engage in “direct” or more narrowly defined work for at least 24 hours per week.

Barriers to Employment
The Senate Finance Committee bill recognizes that families struggling to overcome barriers to employment such as mental or physical disabilities, substance abuse, or low skills need help addressing these problems. But their approach is only slightly less restrictive than the House bill. The state is required to provide screening and assessments to determine the family’s needs, and to create a Self-Sufficiency Plan. If there are barriers, parents may participate in certain programs that would address them for three months out of 24 months of assistance. Because many rehabilitative or treatment programs take up fewer hours per week than the bill’s direct work requirements (24 hours per week), the bill allows fewer hours, but only if it can be demonstrated “conclusively” that such a program would be superior to other approaches. Such a restrictive standard may be hard to meet, and may deter states from offering the most appropriate services. The bill also allows an additional three months out of 24 that can include services that address barriers, but this period is far more restrictive – fewer activities are allowed, and the total hours must add up to 24 per week. Bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Jeffords (I-VT) and Smith (R-OR) would provide states far more flexibility to determine the most appropriate services to meet their families’ needs. It is likely that an amendment similar to their approach would be offered when the bill reaches the floor.

The basic TANF block grant remains at the same level through FY 2008 ($16.57 billion annually, the same as has been allocated since TANF was first enacted in FY 1996). In fact, because bonus funding that rewards states for progress in employment, wages, and retention is cut by $100 million a year in order to fund marriage promotion activities, the funding to support welfare to work activities is slightly smaller. Child care funding is increased by only $200 million a year for five years, as in the House legislation. Senators Snowe (R-ME) and Dodd (D-CT) are working on an amendment to raise child care funding by $5 – $6 billion over five years beyond the Committee’s $1 billion five-year increase.

The Senate Finance Committee legislation does not include funding for links to businesses to provide employment or for transitional jobs. It includes a $40 million a year grant fund for the capitalization of work-related services that can become self-sustaining (such as supported work programs). There is also a $25 million a year fund for states that wish to assist families with car ownership.

The bill allows up to 10 states to waive some provisions in TANF, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and the Social Services Block Grant. This “superwaiver” authority is intended to improve coordination among programs; advocates are concerned that it may lead to reduced eligibility and protections, and that when the bill reaches the floor or is negotiated in conference with the House, more programs will be added. Amendments to strip the bill of this section as well as to add programs to it are likely.

The bill lacks restoration of health benefits for legal immigrant children and pregnant women; such a provision has been included in the Senate version of the Medicare prescription drug bill. Should it not survive the conference committee, it would be a likely TANF floor amendment.

With some months before TANF is taken up in the full Senate, advocates can use the time to make the case for improvements that protect families and give them the tools they need to work. Other possible amendments include restoring TANF as well as health benefits to legal immigrants, increasing access to vocational education, increasing due process protections, and allowing states to continue programs allowed under existing waivers.

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