The next reform to welfare reform
Editor’s note: This Letter to the Editor originally appeared in the Washington Post on August 24. Make sure to also read Debbie’s entry on TANF’s 20th anniversary posted on this blog on August 22. You can find additional resources on the impact of TANF at it’s 20th anniversary here.
The Aug. 22 editorial “Happy birthday, welfare reform” correctly noted that the 20-year-old welfare reform experiment has been a mixed bag. When it was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, many of us opposed the measure. We feared — rightly so, as it turned out — that many people would not be able to comply with the law’s many hurdles and would lose assistance without having other sources of income to live on. Today we see that funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has basically been frozen over the past two decades, at $16.5 billion a year. Once inflation is taken into account, this represents a massive cut. And we see that states have often used TANF as a slush fund, diverting funding to purposes they would otherwise have paid for themselves. That has left relatively little for cash assistance and work-training programs, which together add up to less than one-third of state spending, on average.
What now? Yes, Congress needs to reform TANF so that it helps more of the poorest families. But Congress and the next administration also should invest in subsidized jobs; raise the minimum wage; ensure an adequate safety net; adopt family-friendly work policies such as affordable child care, paid medical leave and predictable hours; and invest in human capital through a sound education system, all the way from prekindergarten through college.