The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is one of the nation’s most important poverty reduction programs, but twenty years after its original passage it is clear that the law needs to be strengthened to align with the demands of the 21st century economy. With Congress potentially considering a major reauthorization in the coming year, National Skills Coalition has worked with our state and local partners to develop updated recommendations for how TANF can be redesigned to ensure recipients can access the skills and credentials they need to get and keep family-supporting jobs.
Specifically, National Skills Coalition recommends:
- Providing states with the flexibility to measure outcomes rather than processes. Under current law, states are responsible for ensuring that a certain percentage of TANF recipients are engaged in work activities, but have limited incentives to make sure that those work activities lead to sustainable career pathways. States should be permitted to transition away from the administrative burdens of tracking work participation and instead be allowed to focus on designing strategies that support better employment and earnings outcomes.
- Lifting restrictions on education and training. Current law places significant barriers on participation in education and training activities that can help TANF recipients get connected to better-paying jobs. Congress should lift these restrictions, and make it easier for state and local TANF programs to engage TANF recipients in high-quality training while investing in post-employment services to sustain work transitions.
- Invest in proven workforce strategies. Sector partnerships and career pathway strategies are recognized best practices for improving employment and earnings outcomes for low-skilled workers, but TANF provides limited support for investments in innovative workforce models. Congress should provide dedicated funding for states and local programs to support the development of these strategies, while encouraging greater collaboration across workforce and education programs to ensure that TANF recipients are able to access the fullest possible range of services.
- Increase funding for the TANF block grant. Congress has not increased funding levels for the basic state block grant since the law was originally passed in 1996. Adjusted for inflation, this amounts to an effective cut of more than 30 percent over the last twenty years. Congress should bring funding in line with historic levels to ensure that TANF continues to provide meaningful support for low-income individuals.
- Ensure TANF funds are directed to TANF recipients. States have broad flexibility to use TANF dollars for various activities, and over time this has resulted in fewer services for TANF recipients; in Fiscal Year 2014, eight states spent less than a quarter of their combined TANF funds on core services like direct cash assistance or work activities. Congress should establish minimum expenditure requirements to ensure that states are actually investing in the success of TANF recipients.
While a long-term reauthorization of TANF is unlikely in 2016, the House Ways and Means Committee has been looking at updates to the law, releasing a discussion draft last summer and approving several smaller bills in May of this year. House Speaker Paul Ryan has signaled that welfare reform will be part of the House Republican policy agenda in 2017.
On the Senate side, Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced bipartisan legislation in June, the “Enhancing and Modernizing Pathways to Opportunity, Work, Education, and Responsibility (EMPOWER) Act of 2016,” which reflects a number of NSC’s key recommendations to expand access to education and training for TANF recipients. The bill has not been considered by the Senate Finance Committee, but could serve as an important framework for reauthorization discussions as we head into next year.