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TANF at 20: The 1996 "Welfare Reform" and its Impact, Part 3

Issue Area: Public Benefits

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. [1]  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). [2]  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. [3]  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. [4]  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 [5] – 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. [6]

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

  1. 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. [7]  The sanction law can and should be expanded statewide.
  2. 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. [8]      
  3. 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. [9]
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  
Resources
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.


Child care
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.

Conclusion

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,” [10] 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. 


End Notes
 [1] See The Empower Act of 2016, http://www.king.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/EMPOWER%20Section-by-Section.pdf.
 [2] 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.
 [3] 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.
 [4] 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.
 [5] 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.
 [6] 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.
 [7] 45 CFR §216.14
 [8] 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.
 [9] 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.
 [10] Peter Germanis, November 2016.  This and many other “Peter the Citizen” articles can be found at http://mlwiseman.com/?portfolio=peter-the-citizen.









TANF at 20: The 1996 “Welfare Reform” and its Impact, Part 2

Issue Area: Public Benefits

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.


Three Observations


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), [1] 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. [2]  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. [3]


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%. [4]  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; [5] 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

  1. 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
  2. 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.” [6]


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. [7]  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, [8] 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.




End Notes:
 [1] In 2015, the FPL for a family of three was $19,790.
 [2] In 2016, the FPL for a family of three is $20,090.
 [3] New York State is the 3rd most expensive state to live in out of the 48 contiguous states.
 [4] 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.
 [5] A family is considered to be living in deep poverty when household income is half of the federal poverty level or less.
 [6] 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.
 [7] Center for Poverty Research, University of California, Davis, http://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/what-deep-poverty
 [8] Certain work assignments can be made even during the application process.






Tags: TANF | welfare | welfare reform | prwora | snap | food stamps | work first | work rules | poverty | #TANFat20





TANF at 20: The 1996 “Welfare Reform” and its Impact, Part 1

Issue Area: Public Benefits

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.

First up, Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group… 


The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA), commonly known as “welfare reform,” reaches 20 years of age this year.  I was somewhat taken aback to realize that my experience with public assistance advocacy began 20 years before this welfare reform, and has now extended for 20 years since!  But my assessment of PRWORA has not changed: I believe that this law not only introduced an array of harmful policy changes, but also – building on changes wrought during the Reagan administration – served to intensify public hostility towards public assistance programs and to ensure that benefits for those in need would be increasingly difficult to access and ever more punitive in their administration. 

Here I’ll describe key primary provisions of the 1996 welfare reform and discuss some of the consequences, intended or otherwise.  In light of the wealth of research on PRWORA, I also provide citations to a sampling of available resources. 


The Culture of Welfare Administration


I’ve chosen to begin this discussion not with the statutory changes instituted by welfare reform, but with the cultural changes in welfare administration that accompanied or were exacerbated in the course of welfare reform.  These weren’t necessarily federal mandates, but rather changes that were made more feasible due to the spirit as well as the specifics of the new law.  State and local welfare agencies around the country actively discouraged pursuit of TANF benefits and erected ever higher procedural barriers, making it increasingly difficult to pursue and retain needed benefits.

A case in point:  Jason Turner became nationally famous for dramatically reducing the number of welfare recipients in Wisconsin.  Much of what he did anticipated the federal reforms.  Mayor Giuliani brought him to New York City to work his magic.  A key element of Turner’s approach was called diversion, using a variety of tactics – many subsequently ruled illegal by a federal judge – to discourage people from applying for benefits.  It was the culture encouraged by the welfare reform law and the national debate that surrounded it. [1]


Block Grants, Benefit Levels


The 1996 welfare reforms, as with prior welfare law, left it to the states to determine benefit levels (in contrast with many other benefit programs).  But PRWORA converted TANF (what had been AFDC) [2] from a matching grant program to a block grant program.  This meant that instead of states getting a federal contribution to meet half of their welfare costs – the prior 50% matching grant – each state would receive a fixed amount based on a formula – a block grant – and they would receive that amount and no more, regardless of how many people might need assistance. [3]  In addition, the law provided that the block grant could be used for a range of different purposes, not just cash assistance.  Multiple consequences flowed from these changes:

The block grant and use of TANF funds:  In the early years after PRWORA became law, the nation was experiencing an economic boom, and fewer people needed TANF.  But the block grant remained the same, so states actually often had a TANF surplus.  This masked the problem of a fixed block grant.  Now, 20 years later, the amount of the block grant has not changed – in real dollars, it has lost about 30% of its value – even as the cost of living, particularly with the gradual recovery from the recession, has steadily risen.  In addition, in most states, cash assistance now comprises a significantly reduced percentage – about one-third – of the block grant.  The other purposes for which it is allocated are generally worthy, but too often they don’t reach the poorest Americans. [4] 

Stagnant benefit levels:  As a result of the intense stigma associated with welfare, the diversion of the TANF block grant for other purposes, and the fact that the block grant has remained flat, family benefit levels have stagnated throughout the nation.   A critical result is that, whereas in the mid-1970s a welfare grant plus food stamps would typically bring a family to the poverty line or even above it, the grant plus SNAP now is more likely to leave a family well below the poverty line. [5]  And by itself, the average monthly TANF benefit provides roughly one-third of the poverty threshold for a family of two. [6]

TANF’s counter-cyclical effect:  Before PRWORA in 1996, and particularly since the 1970s, welfare had played an important counter-cyclical role in the American economy.  That is, when the economy was doing poorly, more families would become eligible for and receive benefits to help them weather hard times.  Because of the stagnation of benefits and the diversionary and punitive tactics of the welfare culture, TANF, to a large extent, no longer plays this critical role of cushioning families against economic downturns.  In recent years, including during the great recession from which we are only gradually emerging, only about one-quarter of families with income below the poverty threshold have received TANF cash assistance in a typical month. [7]

Time Limits

Perhaps the most historically dramatic change in the 1996 welfare reform package was the imposition of time limits on the receipt of TANF benefits.  With limited exceptions, families could only receive TANF for a lifetime maximum of five years.  Until the adoption of this rule, welfare law required that each state establish welfare eligibility standards, and then provide benefits to any family that applied and met these criteria.  Many of us saw this as the essential definition of an “entitlement.”  With the adoption of time limits, however, a family could continue to meet the eligibility criteria, comply with all requirements, and still be in need, but nevertheless be denied benefits because they had reached the five year limit.  Furthermore, the five years was a maximum; states were free to set a shorter maximum period, and many have done so.

The TANF time limit, perhaps the most onerous provision in a law packed with restrictions, sanctions and burdensome mandates, has not had the impact in New York that it has had in most other states.  This is owing to either the wisdom and humanity of our lawmakers, or to a unique feature of our state constitution, or some of both.

New York’s Constitution and TANF time limits:  Article 17 of the New York State Constitution provides that the state must provide for the “aid, care and support of the needy…. in such manner… as the legislature may from time to time determine.”  This article has never guaranteed that the public assistance grant would be adequate to meet the basic needs of poor New Yorkers.  But it has meant that the state can’t refuse all assistance to a household that has established its need.  And so, when time limits were placed on TANF benefits, New York created Safety Net Assistance (SNA) to provide aid to families that had reached the TANF time limits.  As with all welfare benefits in New York, SNA grants are inadequate to meet even the most rudimentary needs of poor families, but they do provide some protection, in contrast with states that terminate all assistance when the time limits are reached.

Work Rules

Welfare programs have always imposed work requirements on adult recipients.  But before PRWORA, states had a good deal more latitude in determining who would be required to participate in work activities, and the range of activities that might be assigned.  With PRWORA, states were mandated to increase the number of people participating in work, increase the hours they would be required to work, and sharply limit the activities that would count as work.

“Work First”:  Perhaps most significantly, the new law embraced the “work first” philosophy, in which the rules were heavily skewed in favor of participation in activities that most resembled a “regular” job. [8]  This might sound reasonable, except that many welfare recipients, in order to improve their job prospects, need training, education and assistance with soft skills.  They also might need drug treatment, appropriate accommodations for disabilities, psychological counseling and support in domestic violence situations. 

Education and training:  PRWORA imposed drastic limitations on the discretion of states to count such crucial activities as education, vocational training and various supportive services as work participation.  For example, for some welfare recipients, being permitted to complete an associate’s degree or obtain a four-year degree would virtually assure their ability to leave and remain off of welfare.  But four-year college was completely off limits until regulatory changes were adopted about 12 years after welfare reform was passed.  In New York City, the number of welfare recipients attending college at the time of PRWORA was about 28,000.  Within a few years that number was closer to 5,000. [9]

The impact of participation rates:  PRWORA instituted “participation rates” under which states had to have a certain percentage of adult recipients engaged in countable work activities.  Certain technicalities in the law made this less onerous than it might have been, but states nevertheless tended to shape their work programs to avoid penalties for non-compliance with the participation rates.  Since these rates are based on the total number of families that include an adult, states have had a strong incentive to reduce the number of recipient families, especially families in which the adult is not able to engage in work activities because of, for example, a disability.  Thus the changing culture of welfare administration described above, resulting in daunting barriers to obtaining public assistance, paid off by helping states meet their participation rates. 
     
In this article, I’ve described, in broad terms, some of the key provisions of the 1996 welfare reform.  In the years after its adoption, the number of families receiving TANF benefits fell by more than half nationwide, and by significantly more in some states.  As a result, PRWORA was the hailed as a great success – the rolls fell dramatically, and the disaster predicted by many progressive advocates did not occur.  I have not discussed the major changes made to immigrant eligibility for federal benefits.  This will be the subject of a separate post by Attorney Emeritus Barbara Weiner…

In the next installment, I will take a closer look at the aftermath of PRWORA in an effort to better assess its impact.

End Notes:
 [1] See, Reynolds v. Giuliani, 35 F.Supp.2d 331, 347-48 (Southern District, N.Y.1999).
 [2] PRWORA – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, a/k/a welfare reform; TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal cash assistance program for families with children; AFDC – Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the predecessor to TANF.
 [3] An excellent overview of the TANF program, including the block grant, can be found in “Policy Basics:  An Introduction to TANF,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 15, 2015, http://www.cbpp.org/research/policy-basics-an-introduction-to-tanf.
 [4] See, for example, TANF Block Grant, Center on Law and Social Policy, August 2015, http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/publication-1/TANF-101-Block-Grant.pdf.
 [5] It should be noted that the Federal poverty level is, especially in more expensive parts of the country, unrealistically low.  For example, to suggest that a family of 3 in San Francisco or Boston or New York City is not poor if they an income of $20,160, does not accord with reality. 
 [6] “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Spending and Policy Options.” Congressional Budget Office, January 2015, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/49887.
 [7] See “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Spending and Policy Options,” above.
 [8] A good overview of the TANF work requirements, as modified in 2005, can be found in H. Hahn, D. Kassabian, and S. Zedlewski, “TANF Work Requirements and State Strategies to Fulfill Them,” Urban Institute, March 2012, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/work_requirements_0.pdf.  For a brief description of “work first,” see Work First:  A Guide for Implementing Employment Programs for Welfare Clients, Department of Health & Human Services, May 2009; https://aspe.hhs.gov/legacy-page/work-first-guide-implementing-employment-programs-welfare-clients.  A work first program emphasizes the mandatory nature of the program, with penalties non-compliance; universal participation with limited exemptions; and a primary focus on rapid employment, as opposed to participation in education, training or job preparation.
 [9] Some of this decline is attributable to the overall drop in the number of welfare recipients, but the impact of PRWORA was clearly a major factor as well.  During this period, the welfare rolls declined by over 50%, but college participation declined by closer more than 80%.







Tags: TANF | welfare | welfare reform | prwora | snap | food stamps | work first | work rules | poverty | #TANFat20





Welfare, Work Rules and Education: The 2014 Changes

Issue Area: Public Benefits

With the 2013-2014 state legislative session over, we are excited to share news of expanded access to education and training for welfare recipients, a long-time priority for Empire Justice and for me personally.  As is often the case for me, this was the work of a coalition, the Education Task Force, with crucial leadership and energy provided by the Welfare Rights Initiative.

For the first time, participation in a four year college program can now count towards a welfare recipient’s work requirement.  Placing four year college on the list of “countable activities” is a crucial step in enabling individuals to receive public assistance and pursue a four year degree. 

The details are somewhat complicated.  Basically, for 12 months, college and related activities can comprise the bulk of a person’s work obligation.  After 12 months, college must be combined with at least 20 hours of participation in, for example, paid employment, work experience or on-the-job-training.

Another significant revision relates to work preferences.  A rule stating that client activity preferences must, when feasible, be honored has long been the law for households with children.  This rule now applies to all households.  If the preferred activity is not assigned, the reasons must be set forth in writing. 

Some comments about these amendments:

  1. These changes can significantly improve access to education and training for welfare recipients, perhaps the wisest investment that can be made with public assistance dollars.
  2. There is still considerable local discretion about assigning a person to college.  However, we would argue that where college is an appropriate activity, it cannot be arbitrarily denied. 
  3. Homework:  We were unable to secure a mandate that districts count homework hours as work.  But districts have discretion to allow homework hours to count, and some already do.


As I have often observed, the people we seek to serve may be unaware of rights such as these, and may struggle to advocate in support of their rights if confronted by an overworked, not very supportive agency staffer.  I fear that these laws barely exist unless advocates educate their clients and local agencies, and demand that they be fully and fairly implemented.

Click here for a more detailed analysis.



Tags: welfare | public assistance | work rules | education | college





Welfare Program Controversy is All Politics – Not Substance

Issue Area: Public Benefits

On July 12, the Federal Department of Health and Human Services presented states with an exciting opportunity by offering to waive some of the most restrictive federal welfare rules for states that propose programs that would more effectively accomplish the goals of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) law that enacted Welfare Reform.

 

Without venturing  into the endless debate about whether the 1996 welfare reform was a success (I think accounts of its spectacular success are, at best, seriously overblown), the fact is that many states, red and blue, have told HHS that they could develop more effective programs if they had greater operational flexibility than current law permits.  For example, TANF law requires states to have specified percentages of TANF adults participating in a very short list of work-related activities, the activities are very narrowly defined, and there is little leeway to serve clients with disabilities.  In short, the law emphasizes compliance with a multitude of rules that have little to do with helping recipients move from welfare to decent-paying employment.

 

The HHS announcement (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/policy/im-ofa/2012/im201203/im201203.html) demonstrated that they were in no way deviating from the mandates of the TANF law.  States seeking waivers must propose a pilot project that will be rigorously and regularly evaluated, and that will help parents “…successfully prepare for, find and retain employment…” States that fail to show adequate progress in achieving that goal will face termination of the waiver.

 

HHS offered some helpful examples of the kinds of programs they envision.  These might include state initiatives that would:

 

  • Measure success not by client participation in activities of often limited value, but rather by actual employment outcomes.  Remarkably, the current system pays scant attention to how and what recipients are doing after leaving the welfare system. 
  • Involve collaboration between state workforce or post-secondary education systems that would enable clients to “…combine learning and work…”  The rigid work-first philosophy behind the 1996 welfare reforms has meant that in an era where ever higher levels of education are required for most employment, the welfare system often makes it nearly impossible for recipients to pursue educational goals.
  • Explore more effective strategies for serving people with disabilities, including more appropriate ways to measure participation and outcomes.

 

Despite the careful crafting of this announcement, it nevertheless provoked an outraged response from some quarters.  Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation attacked the Obama administration for the “gutting” of welfare reform, and within days, Orrin Hatch in the Senate and Dave Camp in the House introduced legislation barring such waivers.  The issue quickly became a presidential campaign issue as the Romney team (erroneously) derided the administration for eliminating the welfare work rules.

 

The great irony is that the HHS action promotes two objectives that seem custom-tailored to conservative values:  (1) moving TANF recipients from welfare to work and (2) affording states greater flexibility in operating their welfare programs.  Instead, this has been characterized as an insidious undermining of welfare reform and its emphasis on work.

 

What comes next is not entirely certain.  I would hope that many states  (including New York), recognizing the potential for bold innovation, will come up with creative, robust proposals that will quiet the opposition and, more significantly, will enhance the lives of some of the poorest Americans.

 

More reading:  

 

A good summary of the arguments in favor, but also with food for thought about how states might craft their proposals, from LaDonna Pavetti at CBPP.   (link to) http://www.offthechartsblog.org/5-ways-waivers-will-strengthen-welfare-reform/

 

Washington Post “WonkBlog” discussing Secy. Sebelius’s response to Orrin Hatch (Senate Finance) and Dave Camp (House Ways & Means), who had written angry letters to HHS about the waiver program, (link to) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/07/19/the-obama-administration-fires-back-on-welfare/.

 



Tags: Public Benefits | TANF