News, Policies, & Trends

Good and not Good News About Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

By | Oct 5, 2011

As I may have mentioned, the law that authorizes the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was due to expire at the end of September.

No extension would have meant no more federal funds for states’ TANF programs. Also less funding for other programs states support with their TANF grants, e.g., subsidized child care, homeless services.

Congress passed an extension about 10 days ago.

So the good news is that TANF won’t die the way the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund did. States will still get their regular block grant payments through March 2012. A brief reprieve, but a whole lot better than none.

Now the not-good news. The House majority refused to approve funding for supplemental grants that have been part of TANF since it was created. And the Senate didn’t reinstate them.

These grants have been providing extra funds to 17 states that would have been disadvantaged if their funding had been based solely on the block grant formula because they had high population growth and/or had historically spent relatively little under the welfare program TANF replaced.

When Congress extended TANF last year, it provided funds for the supplemental grants only through June 2011. It also capped them below what would have been needed to cover full funding for three-quarters of the fiscal year.

The result, as CLASP reports, is that states are getting only 66% of what they’d been getting as supplements. Now, at least for the time being, zero.

Congress shorted the supplement grants even though many of the states had unusually high child poverty rates. Quick check of the new Census figures shows that this is till true.

All but six of the affected states have child poverty rates higher than the very high 21.6% national rate. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports significant increases in poverty or deep poverty rates in 11 of them.

As CBPP notes elsewhere, some of the states have been hit disproportionately hard by the recession. A double whammy for them. Many more families poor enough to be eligible for TANF. Big budget shortfalls due to drops in tax revenues.

At least three of the 17 states have already taken the ax to their TANF programs.

New Mexico, for example, has cut benefits by 15%, leaving a family of three with just $380 per month.

Arizona has imposed a two-year time limit on benefits — even for children in families where adults don’t receive them.

Florida has cut funding for substance abuse treatment. Also imposed a drug testing requirement that denies benefits to applicants who fail. Research indicates that only a small percentage will. So do initial results. But the tests are yet another barrier to participation.

Hard to know whether the cut in supplemental grants made a critical difference. All three states have very conservative Republican governors and two of them Republican-controlled legislatures as well. So TANF would probably have been in the bull’s eye anyway.

Consider too that other states — and the District of Columbia — have also enacted benefits cuts, shorter time limits and other policies to reduce TANF spending.

Still, it seems reasonable to expect that a loss of a full year of supplemental grants will trigger more cutbacks. We’ll find out out — unless Congress decides to reverse its decision when it, once again, must extend the current TANF law or reauthorize it for the longer term.

The brevity of the extension is also not-good news because it suggests that House Republican leaders may decide to “reform” welfare reform within the next few months.

These are not folks that I’d like to see reshaping a program that’s supposed to provide a safety net for the nearly 6.7 million poor families with children and a pathway out of poverty for those who could, with the right mix of services, find living wage jobs — if only the jobs were out there.

Photo credit: Paul G