Academic journal article Social Work

Difficulties after Leaving TANF: Inner-City Women Talk about Reasons for Returning to Welfare

Academic journal article Social Work

Difficulties after Leaving TANF: Inner-City Women Talk about Reasons for Returning to Welfare

Article excerpt

As state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs have implemented five-year time limits and other restrictions on welfare use, the importance of fostering sustainable welfare exits has grown. This task is most daunting in large inner cities, in which the debilitating effects of concentrated poverty often militate against economic mobility (Jargowsky, 1997; Wilson, 1996). Although most states have initiated program evaluations to ascertain basic outcomes for people who leave TANF, less is known about the experiences of inner-city leavers in post-TANF welfare environments. Also, research has not focused on the reasons why one-fifth to one-third of TANF leavers return to welfare within one year (Acs & Loprest, 2001; Loprest, 1999).

Based on focus groups conducted in five high-poverty neighborhoods in Chicago, this article explores the problems faced and strengths used by women who are poor as they attempted to achieve self-sufficiency after leaving TANF. Because our sample included primarily women who left but then returned to TANF, study findings provide unique perspectives on why TANF exits often fail in poor inner-city areas. Such unsuccessful results often have been overlooked, because early studies have focused on average outcomes (Moffitt & Roff, 2000). Study participants' observations about their experiences with public bureaucracies also provide valuable information about how program implementation issues can powerfully affect success after leaving TANF.

Early TANF Results, Welfare Exits, and Inner-City Poverty

Welfare caseloads have declined dramatically since the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) (P.L. 104-193) established TANF programs. Early state studies have found that about 50 percent to 70 percent of TANF leavers are employed immediately after exiting (Acs & Loprest, 2001; Tweedie, Reichert, & O'Connor, 2000). However, average earnings are usually below the poverty level (Acs & Loprest; Parrot, 1998). Furthermore, job instability is common, because leavers typically are employed in temporary or low-skilled jobs (Anderson, Halter, Julnes, & Schuldt, 2000). Studies also have shown that public supports like the earned income tax credit (EITC), transitional Medicaid, and child care are underused (Anderson, Halter, & Schuldt, 2001).

There is little information available concerning the principal reasons that those who leave TANF often return. However, pre-TANF studies found that welfare returns resulted largely from structural employment problems (Harris, 1996; Pavetti, 1993). Edin and Lein (1997) reported that those who left welfare often concluded they were worse off after leaving, because of both work disincentives and the tenuous employment available to poor women with limited education.

The problems faced by those who leave TANF may be especially difficult in large cities, because of the high concentrations of recipients, limited job opportunities, and city fiscal constraints (Kahn & Kamerman, 1998; Quint et al., 1999). Wilson (1996) argued that the decline of manufacturing jobs in large cities, when coupled with the "out migration" of middle-class members of ethnic minority groups and the related disintegration of community institutions, has resulted in dense poverty areas characterized by lack of businesses, few successful role models, and limited job networks. Therefore, Wilson contended that welfare reform must combine education and training, income support, and job creation strategies if it is to improve the well-being of the inner-city poor population.

Others researchers have suggested that long-term poverty results primarily from the dysfunctional behaviors of people who are poor. Welfare recipients are seen as being mired in a "culture of poverty," reinforced by welfare policies that make not working relatively attractive (Mead, 1992). This perspective is reflected in TANF policies such as time limits and forced work searches, which assume people will choose welfare over work unless precluded from doing so. …

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