Friday, July 19, 2013

How TANF programs support family economic success

This week the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing entitled What Really Works: Evaluating Current Efforts to Help Families Support their Children and Escape Poverty. The hearing is the second in a series of three on ways to reform the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program (commonly referred to as welfare). Although the federally-funded TANF block grant represents a small fraction of total social spending, it helps over a million low-income families make ends meet.  
One key aspect of state TANF programs is their role in helping parents find jobs by connecting them to job training resources and assisting with their job search so that they can find employment that pays a family-sustaining wage. However, approaches to supporting family economic stability vary widely from state to state. According to a report released earlier this year by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the current ‘workforce participation’ rules often make it difficult for states to help families lift themselves out of poverty. For instance, current work rules severely limit the amount of time that parents receiving TANF benefits can spend on educational activities such as getting their GED or completing a job training program.

 According to the witness testimony of Kristen Cox, the Executive Director of Utah’s Office of Management and Budget at this week’s hearing, current requirements mean caseworkers spend about 70% of their time proving clients are in compliance with rules and regulations. Ms. Cox explained in her testimony that caseworkers spend the majority of their time doing paperwork such as keeping track of how many hours each individual client has spent on work-related activities, which of the 12 categories of work each of those hours falls into and whether those hours are below the maximum number of hours allowed per week for that category of work activity. Ms. Cox suggested that additional flexibility in the rules related to job training and workforce participation is needed to allow states to innovate and help clients more effectively. She stated that rather than‘one size fits all’ solutions for assisting clients in their job search, states need room to implement new strategies and focus on what works to help families lift themselves out of poverty.  
Another witness, Tara Smith of the University of Texas at Austin’s Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources   testified that ‘work first’ policies are often very ineffective because they don’t take into account the obstacles that many families face in achieving economic stability or the local circumstances such as the unemployment rate or local growth industries. Smith stated that for many families, a two-generation focus that connects the education and employment sectors has been used successfully to help participants establish family-sustaining careers and begin building a better future for their children.

Some states are already rethinking how they use TANF funding to achieve better outcomes for children and families. States such as Maryland, Minnesota, Utah and Wisconsin have been refocusing the way they measure success to put more emphasis on helping families build a foundation for future economic stability by finding permanent jobs with higher pay. For instance, Maryland tracks the rate of paid work placement, the job retention rate and participants’ gain in earnings. Minnesota measures program success by looking at the rate at which participants leave the program for employment, their earnings at the time of placement and the ‘Self Support Index’, or number of participants who are able to partially or wholly support their families through employment after three years.
South Carolina’s TANF-funded Family Independence program more than doubled the number of families that successfully found employment by setting goals based on ‘positive closures’ (the number of TANF benefits cases closed because families’ earnings increased until they surpassed the eligibility threshold) rather than compliance with federal workforce participation activities. South Carolina’s organizational change efforts include utilizing data in decision-making to identify strategies that work as well as streamlining program implementation to let caseworkers focus more on helping clients and less on paperwork.  

State policymakers can re-evaluate the role of the workforce participation rate requirements in how success is defined and measured in their state’s TANF-funded programs and work toward a more effective framework for efforts to support family economic stability and reduce poverty. They may also wish to consider ways that data could be more effectively utilized to identify successful strategies and streamline implementation to focus more resources on what works.
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