Skip to Main Content
Printer Friendly


Empire Justice Center Testimony on the Role of Education and Training in the TANF Program

US House of Representatives Committee on Ways & Means- Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, Chairman Jim McDermott

April 22, 2010


Prepared by:


Thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement.  My name is Don Friedman and I am the managing attorney of the Long Island office of the Empire Justice Center in New York. We are a statewide legal services organization with offices in Albany, Rochester, White Plains and Central Islip (Long Island).  Empire Justice provides support and training to legal services and other community-based organizations, undertakes policy research and analysis, and engages in legislative and administrative advocacy.  We also represent low-income individuals, as well as classes of New Yorkers, in a wide range of poverty law areas including public assistance. 

I have been doing legal and policy advocacy in New York for 35 years, specializing in public benefits, and with a particular focus on the welfare work requirements.  In 1998, I published “An Advocate’s Guide to the Welfare Work Rules,” which I revised and reissued in 2008.  A central component of my work has been advocacy in support of enhanced recipient access to education and training.  I therefore greatly appreciate Chairman McDermott’s decision to hold this hearing.

Part 1:  The Importance of Education and Training

The Background statement provided in the announcement of this hearing makes clear that Congressman McDermott and the members of this subcommittee are deeply aware of how critical education and training are for TANF recipients, particularly in terms of their ability to secure employment that pays decently, that is relatively stable, and that affords opportunities for advancement.  I will therefore only briefly address some of the research supporting that proposition.

The post-welfare reform period demonstrated that moving people off of welfare was  relatively easy, the product of an extended economic boom combined with the imposition of ever stricter rules of program administration.  But helping recipients and former recipients to secure to escape poverty with decent jobs and livable incomes has proven to be a much more daunting challenge.  Many of these former recipients have struggled to make ends meet, many have remained very poor.  [1]

Deficits in skills and education are clearly among the critical factors confronting former recipients as they struggle to move out of poverty.  Educational attainment correlates closely and consistently with eventual earnings and job retention.  As noted in a recent Urban Institute report:

…Perhaps most striking are the differences in educational attainment of parents at different income levels. Not surprisingly, those in poor or low-income families are much more likely to have dropped out of high school and much less likely to hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree… [2]

This gap in living standards between those with and without higher levels of educational attainment will only intensify over time.  A recent essay discussing the value of the community college system was aptly titled “ Help Wanted: Postsecondary - Education and Training Required.”  The article noted that there has been a vast increase since the 1970s in jobs requiring post-secondary education, and a corresponding increase in the wage differential between those with and without post-secondary education.  While the authors focused upon financial strains among institutions of higher education, their conclusion applies as well to the ability of TANF recipients to access basic and higher education:

…In an economy where good jobs require postsecondary education and training, the growing economic divide between those with and those without postsecondary education and training will continue to widen, fostering intergenerational reproduction of economic and cultural elites inimical to our democratic ethos and our worthiness for leadership in the global contest of cultures. [3]

The importance of education is graphically demonstrable in the discussion of postsecondary schooling, but is also crucial – and perhaps even more relevant to much of the adult TANF population – with regard to more basic education.  A report published by the Community Service Society in New York City finds that attainment of a GED (General Educational Development) degree “is a key resource for low-skilled New Yorkers looking to improve their employment prospects and earning power.”  The report observes that:

…individuals without a high school degree or equivalent are far less likely than their better-educated counterparts to find work—and when they do, they typically work fewer hours for lower pay. Individuals with at least a high school diploma earn more, work more, and are less vulnerable to layoffs. In fact, during the current recession, those with less than high school educations lost jobs at nearly twice the rate of high school graduates and more than ten times the rate of college graduates. [4]

In New York, there has been some incremental progress in increasing participation in appropriate educational activities, though this has been substantially constrained by Federal law and regulations.  For advocates of greater access to education and training, there have been frustrations, but there has, at least,  been some acknowledgment that these activities play a vital role in securing positive outcomes for New Yorkers leaving the welfare system.  In a hearing in 2008, David Hansell, then the Commissioner of the New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, and now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Administration for Children and Families, declared, in testimony before the State legislature, that:

Only one-third of adults receiving public assistance have a high school diploma. For those who do not, we must provide them another chance to obtain the basic skills they need to survive in today’s economy, and without which they are more likely to remain unemployed, or to remain in low-wage jobs with little opportunity for advancement…

Although the Commissioner focused upon basic education, his comments are applicable to virtually every level of education and skills development.  Indeed, the Commissioner added, “…welfare to work programs that have succeeded in helping participants find higher paying jobs typically have made substantial use of education and training, including access to postsecondary programs.” [5]

Unfortunately, welfare systems in New York and across the nation not only have not encouraged or fostered wider participation in education and skills attainment by TANF recipients, but have in significant ways impeded that participation.  Recent research indicates that there is “robust and convincing evidence that welfare reform has significantly decreased the probability of college enrollment among adult women,” by at least 20%, and has had a comparable detrimental impact on participation in high school completion programs. [6]   My own experience, in representing  individual clients, as an adviser to other advocates, and as a policy advocate clearly support the findings of the research.  Since implementation of welfare in the 1990s, education is only begrudgingly approved as a TANF recipient’s work activity, and little or no accommodation is provided to facilitate participation in education as a significant component of a recipient’s work assignment.  The “work first” philosophy embodied in much of the welfare policy-making of the past 20 years has resulted in a dramatically diminished role for education at a time when the labor market and the rigors of everyday life increasingly demand basic education, followed by secondary education and beyond.

With a world that demands ever higher levels of education and skills and Federal TANF policy that, in significant ways, frustrates and discourages educational participation, the challenge before Congress is to craft modifications of the current law that will instead encourage and support these activities.

Part 2:  Recommendations

Various elements of the TANF law and regulations either explicitly prevent states from broadening access to education, or less directly exert pressure against the adoption of such measures.  I would like to suggest a number of current laws or regulations that bias the system against offering wider educational options, and will briefly suggest alternative provisions. [7]   I must observe that I feel a dramatic restructuring of the Federal public assistance program would better serve our nation’s poorest people and the country’s best interests in general.  But this testimony will focus on more modest but worthy modifications of existing law.

1. Activity definitions:  The DRA directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide more clearly delineated definitions of the countable work activities.  In a move that dramatically diminished state flexibility, HHS generally established strict, narrowly drawn definitions.  For example, community service had been employed by the states to cover a multitude of activities, recognizing that a broad range of undertakings – from traditional volunteer work to rehabilitation to basic education to college – might serve a community well.  HHS imposed a narrow definition that precludes many of these valuable activities. 

The earlier discretion left to the states in defining these terms should be restored.

2. Core and non-core hours:  The distinction between core and non-core activities that welfare reform brought to the public assistance work rules starkly reflects the work first approach that has pushed recipients into low-wage, low-skill jobs with little potential for advancement.  Vocational educational training – which  the current law limits both in time and in number of participants – and on-the-job training are the only core activities that in any way relate to educational advancement.  All other educational activities are expressly lower priority, to be authorized only when sufficient hours of work have been assigned.

Vocational educational training should not be limited to 12 months, and there should be no arbitrary cap placed on the percentage of TANF recipients permitted to engage in this activity. 
If an assessment indicates that educational pursuits are appropriate for a recipient, then they should be authorized and countable for the requisite number of hours, free of the core/non-core distinction, and including time needed for preparation and homework.  Indeed, the statutory bias should be reversed:  States should have to justify the failure to make education a central component of the activities of any recipient with education and skills deficits.

3. Calculating the participation rate:  The caseload reduction credit, while reducing states’ actual participation requirements and thereby making them more achievable, also brought perverse incentives to the TANF program.  States were rewarded for moving people off of the TANF rolls, regardless of the reason or the impact on the families affected.  This provision in the TANF law helped shape a culture that has come to be characterized by punitive program administration and multiple barriers to access.

If participation rates must remain in place, they should be set at reasonably attainable levels, and opportunities to reduce the rates should be based upon favorable outcomes, which including positive outcomes in which a family’s benefits were not necessarily terminated.

4. Application of the participation rates to MOE programs:  To comply with the maintenance of effort (MOE) rules, many states created innovative “separate state programs.”  These programs often served needy families that could not be similarly served under the regular TANF program.  But when the DRA mandated that TANF participation rates and the rules for counting hours of participation would apply to separate state programs, even though no TANF funds were involved, much of that opportunity for state innovation with separate MOE programs evaporated.  Some of the most effective and creative programs involved enhanced access to education and training.

To the extent the MOE rules are retained, separate state programs should not be subject to the TANF participation rates.

5. Individuals with disabilities:  This hearing focuses upon access to education and training, but no meaningful discussion of TANF policy is complete without acknowledgment that people with disabilities comprise a  significant segment of the TANF population.  The objective in examining TANF education and training policy is ultimately to improve opportunities, both in employment and in terms of the more broadly defined opportunity to thrive in our society.  For people with disabilities, the objective should be the same.  Unfortunately, welfare programs – I can say this with particular confidence about New York – are simply not adequately equipped to identify individuals with disabilities and determine what accommodations might be needed, much less make available an appropriate array of programs that will enable them to enjoy these same opportunities.  The disproportionate rate at which sanctions for alleged non-compliance are imposed upon individuals with disabilities is all too revealing about the depth of this problem  

Nothwithstanding HHS’s recognition of its ADA responsibilities, the inclusion of virtually all TANF households in the participation rate calculation, the failure to allow credit for partial work participation, and the absurdly brief time during which various rehabilitative and treatment activities can be counted as work are among the serious shortcomings of current TANF policy that we would urge Congress to revisit.

In closing, I once again thank Chairman McDermott and the subcommittee for holding this hearing.  This hearing demonstrates your awareness of how critical education and training are if there is to be significant progress in helping poor Americans move out of poverty.  Modifying the rules governing access to education by itself is not sufficient; poor families need a benefit level that will enable them survive, rules of program administration must not be so onerous as to discourage pursuit of urgently needed assistance, recognition and accommodation of disabilities must be vastly improved.  But permitting, even encouraging, family members to engage in education and training would represent a major step forward.

Thank you for your consideration.  I look forward to working with you to achieve these goals.

End Notes:
[1] See, for example, Sharon Parrott et al, “Implementing the TANF Changes in the Deficit Reduction Act:  ‘Win-Win’ Solutions for Families and States,” Second Edition, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Center on Law and Social Policy, February 2007.
[2] Harry Holzer, Karin Martinons, “Helping Poor Working Parents Get Ahead:  Federal Funds for New State Strategies and Systems,” Urban Institute, July 16, 2008.
[3] Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, Nicole Smith, “Help Wanted: Postsecondary Education and Training Required,” in New Directions for Community Colleges, no. 146, Summer 2009, pp. 21-31.
[4] Lazar Treschan and David Jason Fischer, “From Basic Skills to Better Futures:  Generating Economic Dividends
for New York City,” Community Service Society, September 2009.
[5] Testimony of OTDA Commissioner David Hansell at a hearing before the Joint Fiscal Committee of the New York State Legislature on the SFY 2008-09 Executive Budget, February 5, 2008.
[6] “Effects of Welfare Reform on Educational Acquisition of Young Adult Women,” Dhaval M. Dave, Nancy E. Reichman, Hope Corman, Working Paper No. 14466, National Bureau of Economic Research, November 2008.
[7] We recognize that regulations can be modified without Congressional action, but we believe that a broad examination of the entire array of federal law provisions bearing on this issue are appropriately within the purview of this committee.