As lawmakers reconvened the second session of the 108th Congress this winter, they appeared set to bring the long process of reauthorizing this nation's welfare program--Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)--to conclusion. The politics of the now two-year reauthorization process have been strained, and the results of reauthorization will Likely end up doing little to improve the welfare system, and will very Likely harm individuals' ability to gain opportunities for the education and training they may need to find and keep family-supporting jobs.
In 1996, Congress created the TANF program, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and making sweeping changes to the nation's welfare system. The federal government placed much of the responsibility for creating revised welfare programs on the states, but also out in place significant requirements, including a five-year time limit on benefits. In terms of work, education and training, TANF: established strict work requirements (at least 30 hours per week in work activities); limited the amount of time program recipients could spend in education and training activities (no more than 12 months for vocational education); capped the amount of a state's caseload that could be engaged in education and training at 30 percent; and limited the types of education and training that could count as a work activity (postsecondary academic education is among excluded activities).
With a "work first" mandate in place, most states began diverting many TANF recipients into any available jobs, regardless of the quality of those jobs. Nor did they account for the possibility that, with education and training opportunities, recipients might land better quality jobs that could lead to self-sufficiency. This strategy led to dramatic reductions in welfare caseloads in states across the country, but not necessarily an increase in the incomes of those leaving the welfare rolls. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, median hourly wages for those leaving welfare ranged from $6.50 to $9.00 an hour, and former recipients with jobs worked an average of 33 to 39 hours per week.
Though working, given these low wages, many leaving welfare still required assistance from states in the form of work supports such as childcare and transportation. The decline in caseloads and healthy state economies of the late 1990s created a surplus of TANF dollars in many states and afforded some states the opportunities to create programs to meet some of these needs, including, in some states, additional education and training if paid for with state funds. …