On 20th anniversary of welfare law, it’s time to change course
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As income inequality has risen and the gains of economic growth have concentrated at the top of the income ladder, more and more families are facing financial uncertainty, flat wages, and a lack of precautionary savings that can leave them vulnerable to a downward spiral. But when many families with children hit bottom and need income assistance to get back on their feet, they’ll turn up empty.

Twenty years ago this month, our nation’s main income assistance program for struggling families with children was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, ripping a large hole in our nation’s safety net. Constructed as a flat-funded block grant to the states, the program has since lost one-third of its real value to inflation, with precious little accountability as to how dollars are spent and what outcomes are achieved. 

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While a robust economy in the late 1990s, along with expansions in tax credits for working families and childcare investments initially helped spur a dramatic reduction in poverty, once the economy slowed down, TANF’s flaws began to surface.

The program was not designed to respond to recessions. Indeed, during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many states actually cut back on assistance while unemployment and hardship were quickly rising. States began diverting TANF funds to plug budget holes, leaving just one in every four TANF dollars for income support to struggling families.

The result? Today, just one-quarter of poor families with children are helped by TANF, and assistance is so meager that in no state are benefits for a family of three enough to make rent on a two-bedroom apartment. In fact, TANF’s ineffectiveness at mitigating hardship has directly contributed to the rise in deep poverty.

In addition, a wealth of evidence now demonstrates that TANF’s work requirements—which conservatives trumpet as the hallmark success of the law—are ineffective at boosting employment. That’s not surprising, given such requirements do nothing to address the lack of good jobs or barriers to work like childcare and transportation.

Unfortunately, as TANF approaches its 20th anniversary, conservatives are not just marketing the law as a success; they are proposing to model nearly every social policy in sight after this flawed program—from healthcare to nutrition assistance to affordable housing.

Given TANF’s dismal track record, weakening other effective programs by modeling them after TANF would not only be an affront to evidence-based policymaking—it would be a recipe for dramatically exacerbating poverty and inequality in the U.S. Without vital programs such as Social Security, nutrition assistance, and tax credits for working families, our nation's poverty rate would be nearly twice as high as it is today. Moreover, these investments not only mitigate poverty today, they boost economic mobility tomorrow, improving children’s health, education, and employment outcomes in adulthood.

Ensuring an adequate safety net is something we all have a stake in. Job loss, low wages, ill health, and the birth of a child are the most common triggers of poverty spells in the U.S. More than half of Americans will experience at least a year of poverty or teetering on the economic brink during their working years, and fully 70 percent will need to turn to the safety net at some point.

We must take steps to strengthen the program so it can protect kids and families from hardship. Benefit adequacy, meaningful accountability, and reforms to support TANF recipients in obtaining the education and skills they need to get ahead are key priorities.

But we cannot stop there. To dramatically reduce poverty and expand opportunity, we must also pursue a bold agenda to build an economy that works for everyone—not just those at the top of the income ladder. This includes supporting job-creating investments in infrastructure, research, and education, and pathways to good jobs such as apprenticeships and subsidized employment. It’s long past time to raise the federal minimum wage so it ceases to be a poverty wage, and to adopt paid leave and paid sick days so working parents are not forced to choose between work and caregiving.

We should also protect and strengthen key investments in nutrition, housing, income security, and healthcare—including women’s reproductive healthcare and rights—to ensure basic living standards for all families. And we must invest in the next generation by ensuring affordable high-quality childcare, pre-K for all, and access to higher education.

Twenty years later, it’s not just time to fix TANF; it’s time to enact an agenda that will dramatically bolster family economic security once and for all.

Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP). Rebecca Vallas is the Managing Director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at CAP.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.