The Human Resources Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE), held its latest hearing in a series on “Jobs and Opportunity” to focus on legislative options. This hearing follows House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) and Chairman Smith’s release of a discussion draft to reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the nation’s cash welfare and services program for low-income families that requires Congressional action by September of this year.
Chairman Smith said at the start of the hearing:
“When you take a good look at the TANF program now, there is a disconnect between the purpose on paper and reality on the ground. States are spending a combined $30 billion a year through TANF and less than half those dollars are being spent on core work activities and supportive services which could be going to bridge the jobs gap and help American families move forward.
“We have an opportunity to revitalize and retrofit the TANF program to today’s economy and the needs of Americans on the sidelines. …this Committee must not stand down from its responsibility to reauthorize this program and help more Americans get back into the workforce.”
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers had the chance to engage with workforce professionals and poverty-policy experts on how TANF reauthorization should be used as a building block to help close the jobs gap – the difference between employers’ increasing demand for workers in a strong economy and the relatively low percent of working-age individuals in the workforce.
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) asked Jennifer Meek Eells, Executive Director of Stark Tuscarawas Workforce Development Board in Ohio, how their group is engaging people in the TANF program to help get them back into the workforce:
“Can you talk more about case management strategies that you think are most effective? … We are going to have to reengage people. These are not just numbers, they’re not just folks being added into a database. These are real people who need real help from real humans.”
Ms. Meek Eells agreed that engagement is key to helping people not only find jobs but also retain them, noting that it’s important to consider all aspects of a person’s life as we help them reenter the workforce:
“When we’re looking at barrier removal, we need to drill down to see: is there a family issue, is the individual having issues with mental health or drug addiction, alcohol addiction, so we can provide services and connect that individual with services that will help them. But the main piece about case management is that we’re not just handing off, we’re not just making a referral to an agency – that case manager is tied to that individual and they’re working with them for that progress. Because let’s face it: it’s a scary thing to admit that you need counseling or that you have an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Ms. Meek Eells stressed:
“Our employers are hungry for people and we have people who want to work. But they can’t work if they’re experiencing all this trauma, and they’re never getting over that.”
Rep. Mike Bishop (R-MI) asked Ms. Meek Eells about the need to address child care in TANF reauthorization:
“Have you found that child care is something individuals in your program need help with?”
Ms. Meek Eells said that not only is child care needed, but equally as urgent is the need for child care providers. She talked about her group’s work to engage TANF recipients to become qualified child care providers, which in return addresses both these crucial needs:
“One of the things that we’re doing with a contracted provider called the ‘Early Childhood Resource Center’ is we are working with them to refer TANF work-eligible individuals that are interested into getting early care and education. … It’s not about having somebody just gain some skills at a worksite for 20 or 30 hours a week. It’s about incorporating training with that work experience so that they have an opportunity to have a job at the end of this.
“We’re killing two birds with one stone. We are providing an opportunity for people to work, but we’re also filling the need for our child care centers and some of our in-home providers to have qualified and talented child care workers. … Child care is critical.”
Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) asked Robert Doar, Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, how dollars are being used to help those in TANF move through the program and into the workforce. Mr. Doar said:
“It’s not about insufficient amounts of effort with regards to dollars…it’s about insufficient attention to a particular group we are not engaging successfully enough.”
“My view is that when a TANF program is forced to engage people, and guardrails are put up in regards to the spending, they’re going to…get back to the core objective—which is to help people get into work.”
Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL) asked Mr. Doar if states are using TANF funds efficiently right now:
“Our investment in TANF is obviously meant to support work. I want to make sure that TANF dollars are being used for their intended purposes – and I think that’s part of what this Committee is looking at – and that states aren’t taking advantage by diverting funds to fill state budget holes or other purposes. … What is your sense on how states are using those dollars now?”
Mr. Doar said for states that currently use funds effectively, it’s important to allow them to use any additional funds on the people who need it most; he also added that the Committee’s proposal to limit TANF funds to families who truly need the help the most is a good thing:
“I like the idea that states can have some flexibility with dollars they save by helping people move to work. It looks though now as if that has gone a little too far, and there is not enough dollars being redirected or focused on the remaining caseload—which may have more difficult or significant issues than the caseload that existed in 1995 and needs a little additional effort. My sense is that it would be a good thing if Congress could impose greater restrictions on the use of dollars, the limitations of it to families with under 200 percent of poverty is a good idea.”
Ms. Meek Eells added:
“We’re spending dollars but we want those dollars to be spent wisely. To help somebody transition, we want to be working with those that are the most barriered and helping those individuals overcome what it is that’s keeping them from employment. … We do need to have some state requirements – that is focusing on those that are most in need.”
The Committee looks forward to using all the insight and feedback that was shared throughout this series on “Jobs and Opportunity” so reauthorization of TANF can help close the jobs gap. As Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) said:
“The number of unemployment claims are at 50 year lows…[and] we’ve got employers screaming for employees.”
CLICK HERE to learn more about our Committee’s work to close the jobs gap.