Covering the 1996 Reform Law-Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)-And Its Objectives

Article excerpt

The welfare system in the United States-and the challenges of reporting on it-have changed dramatically in the second half of the 1990s. In the first installment of a special NewsBackgrounder, two of the country's most prominent poverty economists examine the changes and their effects. In the September issue of Quill, they will suggest questions for journalists covering this dramatic economic and social story. Robert Haveman and Barbara Wolfe have taught at FACS conferences.

August 1996 is a watershed date for U.S. social and economic policy. It is when Congress passed into law a farreaching new welfare reform-the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is job-focused welfare policy writ large, reflecting the nation's acceptance of the view that poor people need to be selfreliant, and that public help to these citizens should be minimized. The major provisions of TANF include:

eliminating the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program (which everybody loved to hate), thereby eliminating the right to public financial support when destitute

reassigning fiscal and regulatory responsibilities for assisting the nation's poor families fom the federal government to state and local governments

providing a "block grant" to each state, paid for by money saved by eliminating AFDC, and giving states wide discretion in the use of these funds

imposing responsibilities on states for enforcing work-often full-time, yearround work-by poor, often single parent families

creating a new and less supportive environment in which poor families have to cope

Passing the Torch: From Federal to State Responsibility

TANF assigned the main responsibility for the nation's poor to states, and gave them both wide latitude in designing programs and funds to implement the change. However, the real bite of the 1996 reform comes in the requirements that the federal government imposed on states. To avoid TANF penalties:

States must meet stiff goals in terms of the proportion of assisted families that have full-time workers; for example, by 2002, 50 percent of all one-parent families must have a worker employed at least 30 hours per week

States are required to collect child support payments from noncustodial parents

States must impose rules that eliminate the provision of income support to any family after it has received a total of five years of help

States must require that unmarried teen parents who receive help attend school and live with parents (or other adult supervisors)

States must deny income support to anyone convicted of a drug-related crime, to mothers who won't identify the fathers of their children, and to legal immigrants admitted to the country after August, 1996

What did TANF Replace?

It is not possible to comprehend the new world created by TANF without some understanding of the system of social assistance prior to TANK The core of pre-TANF assistance policy consisted of four, awkwardly integrated programs targeted at poor working-age families with children.

The central leg of the stool was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, providing cash assistance to poor families with children headed by a single parent or guardian. About 55 percent of the cost of AFDC was financed by the national government, which also imposed regulations on states regarding who was eligible to be supported, and the rates at which benefits would fall as earned income rose. States were left to administer the program and to set benefit levels; they shared the cost of their programs according to a matching formula.

To obtain AFDC support, needy families had to apply in person to a local office run on behalf of the state, provide a wealth of detailed information on family arrangements and available resources, and document that no second adult capable of providing cash support and legally responsible for the children resided in the family. …