Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work Advocacy in the Post-TANF Environment: Lessons from Early TANF Research Studies

Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work Advocacy in the Post-TANF Environment: Lessons from Early TANF Research Studies

Article excerpt

Social work is distinguished by its history of services provision and advocacy on behalf of people who are poor. The NASW Code of Ethics asserts that the profession's "social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, [and] discrimination" (p. 5), and calls on social workers to "advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs" (NASW, 2000, p. 27). However, the profession also has been criticized for deviating from this historical mission (Specht & Courtney, 1994), and it has been argued that this drift has contributed to waning support for public assistance programs (Stoesz, 1999).

The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA; P.L. 104-193) and subsequent implementation of state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs present new challenges for social workers advocating on behalf of low-income people. PRWORA eliminated poor families' federal entitlement to public assistance and imposed strict employment and training requirements. When coupled with the devolution of public welfare decision making to the states, a need arose for advocacy coalitions at the state level (Schneider & Netting, 1999).

Because these welfare policy changes received considerable bipartisan support, strong political incentives exist to label TANF programs as successful. Thus, the approximately 50 percent declines in welfare caseloads since TANF passage have fueled speculation that welfare reform is working well (Loprest, 1999). Yet, caseload reductions do not necessarily imply program success, and a focus on such declines may divert attention from the well-being of people leaving welfare.

We assume that social workers should play a major role in monitoring TANF programs, conducting TANF research, and using knowledge gained from program assessments to advocate for low-income people. Schneider and Netting (1999) have delineated changes in advocacy processes needed to enhance social workers' effectiveness in decentralized social services environments such as TANF. However, the profession has not adequately articulated the substantive TANF-related policies on which social work advocates should target their efforts, and TANF research findings generally have not informed advocacy discussions.

This article synthesizes early research findings on selected outcomes for people leaving TANF and uses these findings to develop related advocacy strategies. We review initial TANF research findings on employment and wage experiences, the stability of TANF exits and related recidivism rates, and the use of support services by those who leave. We recommend social work advocacy strategies related to these issues at the policy, administrative, and direct practice levels. We also discuss areas in which further research would foster better understanding of TANF program results and advocacy needs.

Developing substantive TANF advocacy strategies is particularly timely, because of political circumstances and increasing knowledge emerging about TANF program results. TANF research findings from many state studies are now available, which allow for initial interpretations of TANF program experiences. Simultaneously, the accumulation of unspent TANF funds in most states, and TANF reauthorization discussions create realistic windows of opportunity for advocates.

Program Review Approach

One of the greatest difficulties in examining TANF program effects is that the devolution of program responsibility has resulted in a plethora of programs with different services and rules. This program diversity extends beyond the state level, because many states allow program variations at the local level. Although many states and localities have released reports on TANF program experiences, national and cross-state findings are limited. …

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