Tuesday, August 3, 2010

TANF in Tough Economic Times

With TANF reauthorization on the horizon, and in the midst of a recession, a number of advocacy organizations, think tanks, and educational institutions have been hard at work to address the ways that TANF has been successful at helping families living in poverty, as well as the ways in which TANF could better support these families. Tough economic times have tested TANF’s ability to serve a greater number of families in an increased amount of need.

Network, a social justice lobby, issued a report;
TANF Tested: Lives of Families in Poverty during the Recession, based on surveys conducted at 70 social service agencies in 20 states and Washington D.C. The report asserts that TANF, in several ways, has not served the families most in need even in less difficult economic times, a problem intensified by the recession. The report also provides recommendations for reauthorization, including: providing greater flexibility in TANF time-limits, a greater emphasis on lifting people out of poverty as a measurement for program success, and an increased focus on work supports for TANF recipients.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ report,
Creating a Safety Net that Works When the Economy Doesn’t: The Role of the Food Stamp and TANF Programs states that TANF, in the wake of a tough state budget climate, has responded unevenly to the fiscal crises (serving far fewer families than food stamps). While the report cites several reasons for these differences – it creates a compelling argument for why measures of caseload reduction might create incentives for serving the fewest number of families – as opposed to a performance measure that would provide incentives to states that serve their neediest families.

The Urban Institute brief,
Next Steps for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, reported on round-tables held with experts (from federal & state government, as well as research institutions and advocacy groups) regarding TANF’s role as the centerpiece of the national safety net for families with children. The report addresses the way that TANF has been tested through the recession, and offers suggestions for reauthorization. Round table participants recommended clarifying the goal of TANF, suggesting that the balance between being a work program and a program to support families that are impoverished might not be realistic given the programs resources. In addition to clarifying goals, the report addresses creating more effective measures to gauge the program's success.

While all of the reports focus on different aspects of TANF, all addressed the way that the program is measured. Measuring the process of helping families does not always suggest improved outcomes. Measuring the intended goal of the policy is a far better way to ensure that what you’re doing works.

TANF reauthorization will impact families living in poverty across the country, and is an important matter for state governments. When reauthorization does come up – it will be a great opportunity for states to help families most in need by supporting what has worked, and improving what has not.

For more of what works in
Family Economic Success policy.