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From Welfare to Work: A Bipartisan Effort to Improve Our Social Safety Net

July 17, 2015

This week, Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R-LA) convened a hearing on welfare reform, specifically looking at the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The hearing followed the release of a discussion draft of a plan to reform and reauthorize TANF. 

TANF was created as a part of the landmark 1996 welfare reform package passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton. The goal was to help people move from welfare to work. States offer a range of benefits to low-income Americans, and, in exchange, states are expected to insist that people engage in work or related activities. It proved to be a major success, with work and earnings rising, while poverty and welfare dependence fell. In the years since, however, this core reform has been eroded as states have used loopholes and exceptions to water down the work requirements.

We know that the principle at the heart of TANF works, and that’s why Chairman Ryan and Chairman Boustany are committed to renewing it. TANF’s current authorization expires in September, and Chairman Ryan has made an ambitious and bipartisan attempt to reboot the program as a high priority. And it’s got some momentum.

As National Journal noted in a story this week, “both sides agree that the majority has actively worked to incorporate Democratic ideas into the proposal, providing real optimism that lawmakers could pass something this Congress, a decade since TANF was last reauthorized.”

And we’re talking about real reform. “If a bill resembling the current draft gets done, everybody agrees it would be the most significant makeover of TANF—created in 1996 under President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress to replace the previous welfare program—since its inception,” the story continued. “If something close to this gets enacted, this would be the biggest redesign of TANF in its history,” said one expert.

So what does it look like? Reauthorization is based on three pillars:

Revitalize the work requirement for people collecting welfare benefits. The “work requirement” meant 50 percent of adults on TANF were expected to do some activity. But with states watering that down, almost 60 percent of adults on TANF perform not even a single hour of work or activity in a typical month. The discussion draft ends the credits and loopholes, so states will have to engage at least 50 percent of adults on welfare in work and activities, as the 1996 law intended.

Provide states more options to help people prepare for work. The discussion draft gives states more options to engage welfare recipients in work, education, training, job search and other activities many need to ultimately leave welfare for work in the 21st century. Numerous experts have proposed that states must engage more people—and especially those with higher barriers to work—in a broader array of services, instead of simply paying them benefit checks as too frequently happens now.

Hold states accountable for the first time for getting people off welfare and into jobs. TANF now includes various process measures involving how many people are engaged in work and activities while on welfare. But the program has never asked whether that activity actually helps families leave welfare for jobs that allow them to move out of poverty and up the economic ladder. The discussion draft, for the first time, includes an outcome measure that will hold states accountable for the employment, retention, and advancement of former welfare recipients.

In addition, members of the Ways and Means Committee are proposing a number of reforms to strengthen the program, including ending the TANF marriage penalty, blocking an administration from allowing waivers to the work requirements, and requiring states to keep track of benefit approaches that actually get results. At the same time, the discussion draft would maintain the current level of funding. As Chairman Ryan has said many times, the goal of welfare reform is not to cut spending, but rather to make the safety net in this country work better, and ultimately help people escape poverty and move up the income ladder.