TANF at 20: The 1996 "Welfare Reform" and its Impact, Part 3
Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights. We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996. The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse. Twenty plus years later, New York families are still living in poverty. We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.
Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group, continues his thoughts in his third installment.
WHAT CAN NEW YORK STATE DO?
In my previous articles, I examined the 1996 welfare reforms and assessed where things stand today, nationally and in New York State. I intended, in this third and final installment of TANF at 20, to take a forward looking view: In what ways might Congress and the Federal government improve the welfare system to make it a more humane and effective in fighting poverty? A TANF reauthorization bill introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators, despite its flaws, gave hope that some less punitive, more productive legislation might be achievable.  Then came the November elections, and I felt compelled to rethink what I could discuss that might be possible, of interest and of value. The new game plan: I’ll review what we might anticipate in the way of federal TANF legislation in the coming year(s), acknowledge that we will probably not be able to turn to the Federal government for constructive change, and then focus on what New York State can do to help fill the void.
What Action Is the Federal Government Likely to Take on TANF?
In June, 2016, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and perhaps the most powerful voice in Congress, released a report entitled “A Better Way: Our Vision for A Confident America” (interesting choice of adjectives).  It was written by the House-created Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility. Though lacking in legislative detail, it offers a peek into the likely changes the Republican-controlled Congress would expect to make in the TANF program. Most of the news is bleak, though there are a few positive concepts and some of the rhetoric might align well with progressive perspectives.  But these hopeful signs tend to be overwhelmed by more harmful provisions, and of course, even the best of ideas are inconsequential if tax cuts and budget cuts prevent meaningful implementation. Shortly before this article was completed, the Trump administration proposed the outlines of a federal budget that would cut tax revenues and increase defense spending by $54 billion. Discretionary programs such as TANF would be the inevitable targets of the resulting spending cuts. Here are some “high”lights of the Ryan plan:
Work (Part 1)
Some pretty good rhetoric
The TANF portion of the “Better Way” report is primarily focused on work. It begins with some promising rhetoric. It quotes a state welfare official who complained that the TANF law emphasizes technical programmatic requirements rather than real individual progress. This is likely a reference to TANF participation rates, which measure whether enough recipients are “engaged” in mandated activities, without regard for whether favorable outcomes are being achieved. For years, progressives have urged Congress to replace participation rules with more meaningful measures, like poverty reduction and long-term placement in decent-paying jobs.
The TANF section also suggests that states should be accountable for helping recipients improve their employability and secure decent jobs, and observes that child care, transportation, stable housing, adequate food and consistent work schedules are important to successful employment. This could be the introduction to a progressive overhaul of the welfare system!
The actual recommendations?
The Task Force does not formulate detailed proposals, but things go downhill as the paper proceeds. Most strikingly, it repeats, in so many words, the “Work First” mantra of the 1996 reforms: a job, any job, is more effective than, for example, education-focused activities. If that was ever true, it is most certainly not true at a time where decent paying jobs increasingly require higher education and/or specialized training. The report repeatedly insists that adults on TANF who can work must work, as if that were not already the law of the land. It complains that the states are not engaging enough of the TANF recipients in work activities.
What we might expect
I would be surprised if TANF reauthorization did not include some mix of higher participation rates and the elimination of the means by which states can reduce their required level of work participation.  The conservatives will also have to resolve the tension between two competing principles. First is the impulse to be much more restrictive about the activities that can count as work participation. Second is the bias in favor of greater local discretion. A number of states, red and blue, have called for broader authority to define countable work activities. We’ll see how it plays out…
Work (Part 2)
Not strictly TANF
The preeminence of work in the “Better Way” report shows up in its discussion of some non-TANF programs. But because of the repeated reference to the TANF work rules, and the likely impact on the people we serve, they bear mentioning here.
SNAP – The report recommends that the law “insist on work for work-capable adults” receiving SNAP benefits. The discussion seems to simply restate the SNAP rule for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependent Children  – ABAWDs – but may foreshadow even more rigorous, punitive and broadly applied work mandates.
Housing assistance – The Task Force expresses concern about the length of time that people remain in subsidized housing, and cites data to the effect that many employable residents are not working. Not surprisingly, the proposed solution: impose TANF-like work requirements, which are always accompanied by severe punishments for alleged noncompliance. Admittedly, the proposal would include help with child care, transportation and other work supports.
The Ryan Task Force speaks out on anti-poverty programs in general
I’d like to touch briefly on a number of observations and recommendations in the report that address the anti-poverty, non-profit and social services world in general, governmental and otherwise.
Incentives/“cliffs” – The paper addresses inappropriate incentives at some length. We all might agree that public benefit “cliffs,” where a small increase in earnings might result in the loss of eligibility for some critical benefit, create an incentive not to increase earnings. A robust remedy would be welcome. But the paper is also concerned about the law’s insufficient marriage incentives. The TANF law already promotes marriage and two-parent families, but one could imagine alarming new possibilities.
Non-profits – The report complains that non-profits are often rewarded for helping more clients to receive benefits, without also giving the agencies an incentive to move people off of benefits. There is no specific proposal, but there’s glaring potential for mischief here!
Effectiveness – Under the folksy title, “Pay More for the Good Stuff, Less for Everything Else,” the report bemoans the fact that federal funding too often fails to distinguish between effective and ineffective approaches. But how will “effective” be defined? The Task Force seems to suggest, for example, that extended time receiving benefits is a sign of ineffectiveness. So the federal match rate should be reduced over time to ensure that the state is invested in moving people off of benefits. This would be deeply troubling…
Program evaluation – The Task Force argues that most federal programs are not evaluated, and when they are, many are found ineffective. Certainly, a strong case can be made for evidence-based policy making. The danger is that effectiveness will be defined by policy makers who are overtly hostile to the programs they are assessing.
Waste, Fraud, Abuse – It seems reasonable that the feds should “focus support on the people who need it most,” doesn’t it? But unfortunately, this is the Task Force’s way of saying that too many recipients are wrongly paid due to fraud, waste and abuse. TANF is actually not singled out, but the report lists the major offenders, such as the EITC, which in 2015 allegedly had an improper payment rate of over 27%, or $17.7 billion.
Local control: the New York impact - The report supports more local control and flexibility in TANF program choices. That principle is too often honored in the breach. But ironically, we in New York State might distinctly benefit – or at least be somewhat less vulnerable – if Congress and the new administration delegate more authority to the states. It’s a very different story in many other states.
What can New York State do?
A disclaimer - I’ll share my thoughts here on changes in the welfare system that New York State should consider. We of course cannot be certain when or how the federal government will modify TANF laws or what the final federal budget will look like. But sadly, it is probably safe to say that constructive, beneficial change to the welfare system in the coming years is much more likely to originate at the state or local levels of government. We would, therefore, do well to consider what might be done in the Empire State. 
An informational aside - Family Assistance (FA) is New York State’s TANF program, whereas Safety Net Assistance, our other public assistance program, is purely a State creation. While federal law is controlling for TANF/FA, it has no jurisdiction over SNA. In New York, comparable policies have generally been adopted for both programs, though with some notable exceptions. In any event, this section looks at state options for change in the TANF/FA program under current federal law constraints.
And a prelude - The list that follows is by no means exhaustive. Hopefully it provides a useful sample of actions that New York State can undertake to enhance our welfare program while comporting with federal law.
The Welfare Work Rules
- Sanctions: The New York State legislature recently passed a fine law addressing sanctions for alleged work rules violations. It requires that the social services district investigate to determine the reasons for non-compliance before the sanction process is triggered, and it provides that a person can have a sanction lifted upon a showing of willingness to come into compliance. But the law only applies to New York City. Federal law mandates sanctions for non-compliance, but nothing more specific than that.  The sanction law can and should be expanded statewide.
- Two-generation programs: I am increasingly persuaded that programs that address the needs of low income parents and their children represent one optimal means of serving both generations. Programs might have to be structured in such a way that the activities in which the parents engage might be countable as work, but the endeavor is well worth the effort. 
- Career Pathways: I generally favor more forceful leadership from Albany on welfare policy. I also recognize the value of the districts – intimately familiar with the population they serve – having some latitude with regard to the work activities they assign. But it is not unreasonable for OTDA to provide guidance and ground rules regarding the activity assignments. There should be programs that take local labor market conditions into account and that adhere to best practices in the field. One example of a model that has a track record for effectiveness is the Career Pathways concept. In brief, Career Pathways programs offer a ladder of instruction and training, with multiple entry and departure points, each level offering skills training that can result in the granting of recognized credentials; many of the most effective programs include “soft” skills development. This may include training in the realm of executive function, skills that focus on flexibility, “working memory” and what is sometimes called self-regulation. 
- Households with children under 1 year: This is fully permissible under current TANF law. In New York, advocates tried for years to secure a work activities exemption for PA recipients with children under the age of one year. Initially the primary motivation was to free up child care funds for already-employed parents. But a terrific additional gain might be that the exemption would enable parents to spend more time with their infant children, and districts might offer services and programs to assist young parents.
- Access to education: Because the federal government has asserted itself aggressively in the realm of countable work activities, access to education may depend more on what happens next in Washington D.C. than some of the other recommendations made here. But there is at least the possibility that more discretion will be given to states regarding assignable activities. In any event, New York should act decisively to make all levels of education and skills development more integral components of PA work assignments. The research about the benefits, in terms of employment, retention and compensation, of every increment of quality education and training is overwhelming. For starters, making college education one of the activity options and making homework a countable activity should no longer be left to local discretion.
General Welfare Policies
- Benefit levels: A shameless plug! Federal law says nothing about TANF benefit levels in the states. A singular achievement in New York would be the enactment of the Home Stability Support program, which would vastly enhance the capacity of PA recipients to pay rent and heating bills. Please visit http://www.homestabilitysupport.com/supporters-1/, or drop me a line to join our list-serv.
- Screening for disability: Over the years, I have informally surveyed advocates around the state regarding the local districts’ treatment of people with disabilities. I have consistently been told about systemic problems in this area. Disabilities are too often not identified, and of course if the disability is not identified, then individuals are unlikely to receive the accommodations that are needed to secure benefits and that are mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Federal TANF policy requires upfront disability screening, though there has been little in the way of enforcement and that is unlikely to change under the next administration.
New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), which oversees the state’s welfare programs, has been incredibly frustrating in its unwillingness to set forth explicit directions for the districts with regard to identifying disabilities. Under the ADA, screening must be voluntary, and there are issues that need to be worked out so that the process is not seen as coercive, but the state can certainly do a much better job in ensuring that disabilities are identified and, where appropriate, that needed accommodations are offered.
The culture of welfare administration
In the first two installments of this blog, I have decried the culture of welfare administration. In too many, but not all, districts this often create barriers that prevent people from receiving urgently needed assistance. The effect of these obstacles is to discourage, intimidate and confuse people seeking benefits. The remedies are many; they might include:
- Demystifying the application process by making sure that the rules and process are clearly and understandably communicated to clients. The duty to assist clients having difficulties documenting their PA eligibility is often honored in the breach. Workers should be trained and reminded of this critical responsibility.
- Making sure that time limits for action on applications are observed.
- Providing full access in terms of interpretation and translation services for people with limited English proficiency.
- Improving staff training, including training in the recognition of possible mental health issues.
- Zero tolerance for explicit or subtle intimidation based on disability, immigration status, or alleged fraud.
- Ensuring full access in terms of hours of service, taking into account, among other factors, clients’ possible employment or PA work assignments and other sometimes conflicting requirements.
- Significant enhancements in the ability of PA clients to conduct their interactions with the system by phone or computer. The SNAP and Medicaid programs, perhaps because they are less stigmatized than public assistance, are far ahead of PA in this arena.
Welfare law has stringent rules about resources and eligibility. But possession of some level of resources is often critical to the ability to leave welfare, and may offer a cushion against the unpredictable nature of employment. It is reasonable that people with substantial wealth should not be eligible for PA, but households with modest resources should not have to exhaust them before receiving aid. For example:
- All households should be able to possess a car, without affecting eligibility.
- The resource limits should be eliminated or substantially increased.
- Districts should not be permitted to take liens on houses for those infrequent cases in which a person in need of public assistance owns his or her home. This is one resource of value that might provide some long term protection for a family.
A brief step beyond the realm of public assistance. Child care is guaranteed by law for PA recipients who are given work assignments. But the shortage of funding for child care for working parents who are not eligible for welfare has reached crisis proportions. Thus, if a welfare recipient does exactly what the system demands of them, that they secure employment and leave the welfare rolls, they will, sooner or later, face a crisis if they are unable to secure a child care subsidy. The situation became ever more desperate when Congress wisely enacted rules to improve child care health, safety and quality, but absurdly failed to provide funding to enable the states to comply. Certainly, the provision of adequate child care funding for both the PA and the non-PA populations must be among the highest of priorities.
Coming to the conclusion of this “TANF at 20” posting, I return to the beginning, the adoption of “welfare reform.” From the start, many advocates felt that the TANF program, and the larger PRWORA legislation under which it was created, were ill-conceived, and grounded in biases about public assistance and the people who need it. And nothing about the 20 years since 1996 has changed our views. Take a look at a remarkable series of articles by Peter Germanis, who dubs himself Peter the Citizen, an “ardent conservative deeply concerned about truth in policy making and policy assessment.” I am sure we would disagree about many details, but in his article, “Making “Welfare Reform” Great Again: Five Recommendations for President-Elect Donald J. Trump,”  Germanis notes that he played a role in writing the 1996 welfare reform law, and now regretfully calls it a massive failure. He recommends that the new president not rely on sweeping anti-poverty reform packages, but rather that he encourage state flexibility but with accountability, reject block grants, emphasize work, but focus on what is realistic, reasonable and effective, and recognize that welfare dependency should be reduced, not by cutting the caseloads, but by reducing poverty. Germanis strongly believes that the 1996 reforms failed in virtually all respects. I might tinker a bit with his themes for the new administration, but considering the source, his ideas might carry considerably more weight. We can hope.
In this third installment, I discuss the prospects for the TANF program in Washington – ranging from uncertain to bleak. I then proposed a sampling of steps that New York State can undertake without conflicting with Federal law. I conclude with the hope that this not be simply an informational exercise, but that we continue to share thoughts and ideas about addressing the urgent needs of low income New Yorkers and work together to enable some of these and your ideas to become reality.
 See The Empower Act of 2016, http://www.king.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/EMPOWER%20Section-by-Section.pdf.
 The section on poverty can be found here, http://abetterway.speaker.gov/?page=poverty, with links to various formats, snapshot, fact sheet, entire document, etc.
 During the course of 2016 there was at least one potentially promising, bipartisan legislative proposal, but my fear is that such moderate initiatives will face steep resistance in Congress and the White House. See, http://www.nationalskillscoalition.org/news/blog/senators-introduce-bipartisan-tanf-reauthorization-bill-would-expand-access-to-education-and-training.
 States can currently reduce their mandated work participation rate by reducing their caseload, and also by increasing their “maintenance of effort” expenditures. For a fine brief explaining the participation rates, see Elizabeth Lower-Basch, “Work Participation Rate - TANF,” Center for Law and Social Policy, updated July 2016, http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/publication-1/TANF-101-Work-Participation-Rate.pdf.
 This rule provides that ABAWDs are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period unless they are meeting prescribed work requirements. Issues such as adequacy of notice, availability of work options, and the accuracy of “able-bodied” determinations, makes this rule particularly problematic.
 Most of the proposals here are based on my experience and research into welfare issues. But this discussion is also specifically informed by two publications, Elizabeth Lower Basch and Stephanie Schmit, TANF & The First Year of Life – Making a Difference at a Critical Moment, Center on Law and Social Policy, October 2015; and Donna Pavetti and Liz Schott, TANF at 20: Time to Create a Program, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, August 2016.
 45 CFR §216.14
 For more information about the two-generation approach to building family economic security, see, for example, Report by the Executive Director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, “A Two-Generational Approach: Helping Parents Work and Children Thrive,” https://www.cga.ct.gov/coc/PDFs/two-gen/2015-02-03_report_FINAL.pdf. See also a wealth of materials from Ascend - Aspen Institute, http://ascend.aspeninstitute.org/pages/the-two-generation-approach; and the Center for Law & Social Policy, http://fcd-us.org/resources/thriving-children-successful-parents-two-generation-approach-policy.
 An excellent overview of executive function can be found at the website of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/. While this site focuses on early childhood development, the need to address executive function deficits in adults is challenging but crucial.
 Peter Germanis, November 2016. This and many other “Peter the Citizen” articles can be found at http://mlwiseman.com/?portfolio=peter-the-citizen.
Empire Justice emergency response
Over the last several days, attorneys on our Immigration team were first responders to refugees, asylum seekers, and green card holders, including those that were detained at JFK International Airport after President Trump's Executive Order suspended the resettlement program for 120 days, and banned refugees from select countries.
Our Immigrant Justice Fellow Nabila Taj (pictured below) and staff attorney Amanda Bransford rushed to JFK International Airport to support those who were detained. They worked with other volunteer attorneys to draft attorney affirmations and told Customs and Border Protection: Stick to questions about immigration status, not religious beliefs.
Over the weekend, staff attorney Prathiba Desai spoke with mothers who are being held in a Texas detention center, and helped them prepare for their asylum interviews.
And stationed back at the office, several Empire Justice Immigration advocates diligently researched how the new order would impact our clients and community. They fielded calls from worried clients who are trying to finalize their legal status or seek asylum, keeping them informed and updated on their rights and how new policies could impact their daily life.
As a civil legal aid provider, it’s our duty to defend the legal rights of any person that has a low income or is facing hardship. The ability to do so is a core component of our democracy.
Day in and day out, our advocates quickly and dynamically react to changes in policies and practices, and we defend the rights of those who are at risk. But we can’t do it alone. We need the independent support of our friends that allows our advocates to quickly respond to emerging and immediate needs--whether it be in the immigration context, or in health, education, LGBT rights, public benefits, workers' rights, and the list goes on.
In order for social change to happen, we need donors to join in and support democratic principles, values, and action.
Donate to the Immigrant Fund, or where the need is greatest.
Giving Tuesday is November 29!
Looking for ways to take ACTION?
On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, come together with other people, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world for one common purpose: to support organizations that DO GOOD.
The day has many names—internationally known as #GivingTuesday, we also have the stateside 'New York Gives' , and #ROCtheDay in Rochester.
Often lumped together with Black Friday during the holiday season, #GivingTuesday encourages people to invest in their community by donating to organizations that defend the values that they believe in. There's no rules for participation, just go to the website for the nonprofit(s) that you'd like to support and make a donation.
It's a chance for everyone to take part in supporting the values and ideals that you care about most. For us here at Empire Justice, it's laws and policies that make sense, community empowerment, and fairness for all in the justice system.
And that's what you get when you invest in Empire Justice - together with your help, we make the law work for all New Yorkers on a systemic level through policy advocacy, class actions, on-the-ground advocacy for individuals, and capacity building through training and support to other organizations around New York State.
So whatever way you choose to participate, #GivingTuesday, #ROCtheDay, or through New York Gives, choose fairness for all and help us make the law work for all New Yorkers.
Tags: civil rights | Giving Tuesday | Rochester | Albany | social justice | legal services | legal aid
TANF at 20: A Look Back at the Impact on Immigrants
Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights. We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996. The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse. Twenty years later, New York families are still living in poverty. We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.
Barbara Weiner, Attorney Emeritus and Celebration of Leadership Honoree, talks about the impact of TANF on immigrants.
In the summer of 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), the law that would “change welfare as we know it.” “Personal responsibility” was the catch word of the day, coming before “work opportunity” even in the title, suggesting that accepting the first would inevitably lead to the second. History since then has not borne that out. When the economy falters, regardless of their desire to work, low income people are the first to feel the sting.
At the time PRWORA passed, I was an attorney working with the Greater Upstate Law Project (GULP), predecessor of Empire Justice Center, focusing primarily on housing issues. PRWORA changed all that. I turned back to an earlier area of my practice, public benefits law, but this time with a focus on how PRWORA impacted immigrants in particular.
Elderly and disabled immigrants were hit hardest by PRWORA. With the exception of refugees and other humanitarian based immigrants, the door to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the federal program providing income assistance to low income elderly and disabled people, was slammed shut to immigrants unless and until they became US citizens. Even elderly and disabled refugees were only eligible to receive SSI for a limited time frame. Access to the other federally funded program, food stamps, was also severely restricted. TANF and Medicaid, two programs that both the state and federal government contribute to, barred most immigrants from receiving benefits for the first five years after achieving a qualifying immigration status. After the five year bar expires, states are free to allow qualified immigrants access to one or both programs or to continue the bar.
The benefits eligibility structure enacted through PRWORA was extremely complex, requiring at least a rudimentary understanding of immigration law and an understanding of the meaning of an infinite variety of immigration documents. This was expertise the state benefits agencies charged with administering the federal and state welfare programs were ill equipped to provide. Thus the first impact of the new law was that agency workers often simply turned away immigrants with documents the workers didn’t understand, simply because they weren’t “US citizens” or didn’t have a Social Security card.
Legal services programs, long barred from representing immigrants in immigration matters, but responsible for representing low income clients in their struggle to obtain the benefits that they were entitled to, were also not equipped at first to deal with the complications of immigrant access to benefits resulting from PRWORA’s provisions. As a statewide back-up center, GULP entered into the breach and we began the long road of familiarizing ourselves with the various circumstances immigrants found themselves in, and how they connected to the complicated immigrant eligibility rules of federal and state benefits programs.
I was particularly drawn to this new area, perhaps because I had myself come to the US as an immigrant long ago, and so wanted to dive in. I was given complete freedom by my office to go off in this direction, something rarely encountered these days. Other legal services programs doing public benefits work, particularly in New York City where immigrants comprise a huge portion of the population, began a similar journey.
Thus began our first task… to gain a familiarity with immigration law sufficient to make sense of the immigrant eligibility rules established in PRWORA, and then bring an understanding of those rules to others in our legal service community. I did at least some of my learning by doing – taking on immigration cases, particularly the cases of victims of domestic violence who, if married to an abusive US citizen or lawful permanent resident, had a special path to permanent residence which they could pursue on their own, without the cooperation of their abusive spouse. Once on the way to applying for status on their own, they had access to at least some state public benefits programs.
In the years since PRWORA, we in the legal services community have litigated and advocated with the New York State agencies responsible for administering public benefits programs, all with a view to ensuring the correct application of immigrant eligibility rules and to be as expansive in their application as the law permits. No doubt our greatest victory was with Aliessa v. Novello, the 2001 Court of Appeals decision that made it forever clear that New York State, unlike the federal government, is not free to discriminate among and between lawful immigrants in providing access to state funded public benefits. That principle was recently applied to immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) by the Supreme Court of Erie County in a case called Karamalla v. Devine. People with TPS had long been excluded from access to federal benefits, but we argued in Karamalla that the Court of Appeals had made it very clear that New York State did not have similar authority to exclude them from access to the state’s Safety Net program. The Court emphatically agreed. Although initially OTDA filed an appeal of the Court’s decision, which would have stayed its implementation, we have now received notice that OTDA has withdrawn their appeal. From here on in, needy individuals with TPS are eligible for state funded welfare benefits.
For me personally, these twenty years have brought many challenges, have been sometimes frustrating, but have always been rewarding. Still, more remains to be done to mitigate the damages to needy immigrants brought about by PRWORA.
Tags: TANF | #TANFat20 | immigration | welfare | afdc | prwora
TANF at 20: The 1996 “Welfare Reform” and its Impact, Part 2
Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights. We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996. The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse. Twenty years later, New York families are still living in poverty. We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.
Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group, continues his thoughts in this second installment.
My previous article in this series on TANF at 20 offered an overview of the main components of – and problems created by – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA), or what most of us call “welfare reform.” I had intended to follow up with an assessment of the impact of welfare reform in the U.S., and in New York State, but it occurred to me that over these 20 years the law itself has been changed, significant new regulations have been adopted, there have been two presidencies, an increasingly deadlocked Congress, some important demographic trends, and a major recession. In short, 20 years’ worth of change. So instead, I offer something of a snapshot of the current state of affairs for the poorest Americans and poorest New Yorkers particularly in relation to welfare policy, from an advocate’s point of view. In my third and final installment, we’ll explore how things might be improved by changing federal policy, and what New York State can do in the all-too-likely absence of federal change.
First, the more I researched welfare policies and benefits in the U.S. and in New York State, the more evident it became that New Yorkers in need of public assistance struggle with programs and practices that are flawed, punitive and inadequate, but welfare policies in most other states leave low income individuals and families in substantially worse shape. On the other hand, we must remember that the exorbitantly high cost of living in many parts of the Empire State diminishes the value of New York State’s generosity relative to other states.
Second, we must acknowledge, in the context of our observance of TANF at 20, that New York is one of very few states that have a secondary, state-funded public assistance program that mitigates some of the harshest consequences of PRWORA: Safety Net Assistance. Not only does SNA provide benefits to residents who are not eligible for TANF due to time limits or their immigration status, but also to needy single adults. As with TANF, the program falls far short of meeting even the most basic of needs, but nevertheless provides some support for New Yorkers that is available in few other states. We in New York should appreciate our standing relative to other states, but our advocacy for a true safety net that provides a decent, if modest, standard of living for those in need and a path out of poverty cannot be paused in the least.
Third, I will discuss further in my final installment the fact that a new administration in New York City has resulted in dramatic changes in welfare policy there, unlike anywhere else in the state.
TANF’s Role in Addressing Poverty
The block grant. As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the most significant changes that PRWORA brought was the change from a matching grant to a block grant, so that the TANF block grant isn’t able to respond to increases in need, no longer serving as a buffer against economic fluctuations. The block grant was a total of $16.57 billion in 1996. It’s the same today, meaning that its real value has diminished by 33%. 71% of the TANF budget was used for basic monthly cash assistance in 1997; it was 27% in Fiscal Year 2014. This is primarily attributable to a decline in caseloads during that period, the result of a booming economy, welfare reform and other factors.
Benefit levels. In 2014, there was no state whose TANF benefits reached even 50% of the federal poverty level (FPL),  and in 34 states, they didn’t reach 30% of the FPL. The most recent data suggests that New York State has the second highest TANF benefit level for a family of three in the country, but in 2014, this benefit brought the typical family to only 47% of the federal poverty level (FPL) - that’s just over $9,300. Even with SNAP benefits added in, a family today would still not reach 70% of the FPL, or $14,063.  And even these numbers are somewhat misleading because the cost of living in New York State, especially for housing, is among the highest in the nation. 
Nationwide, the value of cash assistance has decreased significantly since welfare reform. In most states, the value of benefits since 1996 has decreased, in real terms, by 20 to more than 30%.  It’s also worth noting, with TANF being a program that purportedly encourages employment, that in 43 states a family will typically lose all TANF eligibility when someone in the household has earnings equivalent to 75% of the FPL. New York is one of the seven states that allows for higher earnings, but only up to the federal poverty level.
Response in times of economic distress. Since the 1996 reforms, TANF has essentially abandoned its critical role as a cushion against complete destitution, a role it’s played since the Great Depression. The TANF caseload has declined by 60% since its inception in 1996. This includes a 30% decrease since 2000, a period during which the percentage of Americans living in poverty has increased by nearly a third.
In 2010, with the country still deep in recession, TANF lifted 600,000 children from deep poverty;  in contrast, the SNAP program brought 2.7 million children out of deep poverty. SNAP, by definition a benefit designed to supplement other income for food purchases, is not intended or equipped to serve as a primary income source.
Similarly, in New York, from 2006 to 2014 unemployment increased by 37%. During that same period, the number of SNAP recipients increased by 78%, but receipt of TANF actually decreased by 4%. No plausible claim could be made that the level of need had diminished during that period.
One more crucial statistic highlights the extent to which TANF increasingly fails to protect low income families with a modicum of financial support. In 1995, 68% of those in poverty received AFDC, TANF’s predecessor. By 2013, TANF served only 23% of those in need. Once again, New York State is better than most, though still not good enough: The percentage of New Yorkers in poverty who received AFDC/TANF in 1995 was 79%; by 2013 it was 40%.
Not everyone whose income is less than the FPL is necessarily eligible for welfare. It’s therefore perhaps more telling and, frankly, sadder to note that across the nation in 1992, roughly 86% of those likely eligible for TANF received it, and by 2012, 32% of eligible Americans received TANF benefits.
TANF and Work
The framers of welfare reform in 1996 were determined that TANF policy must adhere to a “work first” philosophy. Two key features of the work rules were
- that the mandate to engage in work was strongly biased in favor of job-like activities and against participation in education, training or services, without regard to the individual’s needs, and
- that any failure to comply with the rules would result in onerous sanctions involving a reduction or termination of benefits for a designated period.
Work activities. It has often been observed that the TANF work rules are much more about process than about outcomes. The driving force behind the work rules isn’t a mission to enhance recipients’ employability or to ensure that they can secure decent-paying employment. Rather, states are motivated by an obligation – on pain of substantial financial penalties – to have the required number of recipients engaged in a limited number of countable activities for at least the minimum number of hours. Indeed, a study in one state revealed that state workers spend 53% of their “TANF time” on documenting, verifying, collecting and reporting data to demonstrate that the state is meeting its participation rate obligations. Furthermore, there can be little doubt that workers have felt subtle if not explicit pressure to move recipients – particularly those with barriers to employment – off of the welfare rolls and out of the participation rate calculation.
Many of those who were able to obtain even the lowest paying employment left welfare in the years immediately after welfare reform. One result is that the remaining TANF population includes disproportionate numbers of people facing serious obstacles in their path to employment, including mental and physical disabilities, domestic violence, limited skills and job experience, and significant education deficits. It’s this population that must comply with welfare rules skewed heavily against training, skills enhancement, education and services.
In 2012, nationwide, less than 7% of individuals who were part of the participation rate count were engaged in education and training activities. In New York, in June 2016, 134,025 public assistance recipients were subject to the work requirements; 3,249, or 2.4%, participated in some form of education or training. This despite the fact that research consistently demonstrates that virtually every increment of additional education improves employability, job retention and compensation.
College: There are many public assistance recipients who may not be ready for college, or don’t want to pursue higher education. But, like the rest of America, many do dream of attending a two- or four-year college and would benefit immensely from the experience and the degree. As is too often the case, research findings on a subject appear to have a limited impact on policy. It has been persuasively found that “…a postsecondary education, particularly a degree or industry-recognized credential related to jobs in demand, is the most important determinant of differences in workers’ lifetime earnings and incomes.” 
Notwithstanding that research, securing a “college option” for TANF participants has been a long and torturous slog. In the waning days of the Bush II administration, surprisingly enough, the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations that would make college attendance feasible, at state discretion. It took New York State on the order of ten years to adopt that rule, and when the state did act, it passed the discretion to the county level; it’s not clear how many counties are approving college participation.
TANF, employment and income. In the early years after welfare reform, there were significant increases in employment by current and former TANF recipients, particularly single mothers. This was hailed as one of the chief successes of the new welfare regime. It is true that between 1993 and 2000 – beginning well before PRWORA was enacted – the national employment rate for single mothers increased from 57.3% to 72.8%. But the fact is that this occurred during one of the most robust and sustained periods of economic growth in recent American history, a period which also saw expanded work supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care subsidies. How much of the change was attributable to welfare reform is very difficult to determine, but was clearly limited.
The trend in employment for single moms stalled after 2000, falling to 67.5% in 2014. Furthermore, many of the single parents who took jobs after welfare reform tended to have limited skills and education, and often took jobs with low pay, no benefits and little job security. In many cases, they were employed, but still living in poverty. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office has estimated that 83% of the TANF caseload decline from 1995 to 2005 was due to non-participation by families who were still eligible for benefits, not families whose earnings had made them ineligible. Some might see this as a positive development, people choosing not to resort to a program so stigmatized and reviled. But many of those in this category have disabilities that make employment difficult and put the daunting process of applying for public assistance out of reach.
Deep poverty. One critical piece of information, sometimes overlooked, is the increasing number of Americans living in “deep poverty,” defined as having an income below one half of the federal poverty level. In 2014, nearly 21 million people, or 6% of the population, were living in deep poverty, including more than 9% of children in this country. Even more disturbing is a study that used the World Bank’s dramatically lower definition of deep poverty, families living on $2 a day per person or less. Without necessarily suggesting that PRWORA was the sole cause, the study found, using the $2 a day standard, that deep poverty more than doubled to 1.46 million people in the years from 1996 to 2011.  This data does not often make its way into the glowing reports of welfare reform’s success.
TANF and the Culture of the Welfare Bureaucracy
I’ll close this second article where I began the first, with the belief that an essential component of post-welfare reform can be characterized by the administration of welfare programs at the front lines. That is, we know that PRWORA imposed mandatory time limits, more rigid funding, more restrictive and punitive work programs, and more. But it also ushered in an era in which TANF program administration tended to divert and often intimidate applicants and to overwhelm them with inflexible bureaucratic demands.
Single mothers and TANF. This administrative tendency is revealed by the fact that there’s been a significant increase, to an estimated 20%, of single mothers who aren’t employed and aren’t receiving TANF or disability benefits. There’s been a fair amount of research on why there are so many families in this situation, described strikingly in the recent book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin. Principle among the reasons they found for non-receipt of welfare by needy moms were a lack of information or false information, difficulties in accessing or maintaining benefits, long wait times, multiple visits, lots of paperwork and intrusive questions. Others reached the time limits, and simply couldn’t find work.
This administrative nightmare is also described in my first article, in the discussion of practices by the Human Resources Administration in New York City during the reign of Mayor Giuliani and HRA Commissioner Turner. Until ordered to cease by a federal judge, they employed a tactic they called “diversion,” making it virtually impossible to receive benefits without repeated visits to the welfare center and multiple layers of documentation and verification.
Finally I close with some data from New York State that amply supports the notion that bureaucratic entanglements and processes result in barriers to benefits to many needy and eligible individuals and families. During the period July 2014 through June 2015, there were 573,775 public assistance recipients (TANF and Safety Net). During that same period, 31,298 cases were closed for alleged noncompliance with work requirements and 134,747 cases were closed for “other” compliance-related reasons. This somewhat oversimplifies things, but it suggests that there was nearly one closing for every three cases. Assuming many cases were eventually reopened because the households were still in need and eligible, this is a classic case of what we call “churning.”
Similarly, during that time frame, there were 633,237 applications for public assistance, 64,160 denials for failure to comply with employment rules,  and 132,370 denials for “other” compliance issues. That means 44.6% of all applications were denied, with more than two-thirds of them because applicants failed to comply with one of the myriad rigid prerequisites of the application process, not because they weren't eligible.
This is an inordinate number of case closings and application denials, and is the result of a mix of factors: the fact that many of those in need are people with mental and/or physical disabilities, victims of domestic violence, people with substance abuse issues, and people living under the tremendously debilitating effects of dire poverty, all navigating a system shaped by welfare policy in general, welfare law as modified by welfare reform, and the accompanying culture of obstructive welfare administration.
What to do? I’ll share some thoughts in the final installment.
Sources: I relied upon the following sources for most of the statistical data provided. Feel free to contact me for additional information about sources.
- Elizabeth Lower-Basch, “TANF 101: Policy Briefs on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,” Center for Law and Social Policy, 2015, http://www.clasp.org/issues/temporary-assistance.
- Pamela Loprest, “Welfare & Poverty in America,” Testimony before Senate Finance Comm., Urban Institute, 10/29/15, http://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/29OCT2015Loprest.pdf.
- 2015 Statistical Report on the Operations of New York State Public Assistance Programs (OTDA), http://otda.ny.gov/resources/legislative-report/2015-Legislative-Report.pdf.
- Temporary and Disability Assistance Statistics, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, primarily the June 2016 edition, http://otda.ny.gov/resources/caseload/2016/2016-06-stats.pdf.
- Urban Institute’s Welfare Rules Database, http://wrd.urban.org/wrd/Query/query.cfm.
- U.S. Census Bureau, various, including, “Quick Facts – New York,” http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/36,00.
- NYS Data: New York State Poverty Report 2016, New York State Community Action Association, http://nyscommunityaction.org/PovReport/2015/FINAL%202016%20Poverty%20Report.pdf
 In 2015, the FPL for a family of three was $19,790.
 In 2016, the FPL for a family of three is $20,090.
 New York State is the 3rd most expensive state to live in out of the 48 contiguous states.
 In New York State, the value of the grant has decreased by 13% since 1997. That’s shameful, but nationally only two states have experienced a smaller decrease. It’s another case in which New York is simultaneously one of the better performing states and also seriously inadequate.
 A family is considered to be living in deep poverty when household income is half of the federal poverty level or less.
 What Works in Job Training: A Synthesis of the Evidence, U.S. Departments of Labor, Commerce, Education and HHS, 2014, http://www.dol.gov/asp/evaluation/jdt/jdt.pdf.
 Center for Poverty Research, University of California, Davis, http://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/what-deep-poverty
 Certain work assignments can be made even during the application process.
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