The 1996 welfare law transformed the nation’s social policy, changing several welfare-related programs and replacing the entitlement to cash assistance with a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program, which made benefits contingent on work. While these laws have helped low-income families move from welfare to work, millions have not received the assistance needed to escape poverty. Nationally, one out of six children still lives in poverty and research shows an increase in deep poverty (the number of families below half the poverty level). In addition, many former TANF recipients have been forced into homelessness. Now, as our nation faces the task of reauthorizing many provisions of the 1996 law, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) urges Congress and the Administration to use this opportunity to address the unfinished business of welfare reform, to meet the challenge of serving those with significant barriers to employment, to address conditions preventing even those who have left welfare from escaping poverty, to shift the focus of welfare reform from caseload reduction to poverty reduction, and thereby to significantly advance the nation’s ability to promote financial security and end poverty.
Many of those leaving welfare, lacking education and marketable skills, have joined and expanded the ranks of the working poor. Trapped in low-wage jobs with no advancement and few benefits, they are not earning enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Many do not have health insurance, childcare, transportation or other benefits needed to achieve economic security. Many who remain on the welfare rolls are considered “hard to place” and face multiple barriers to employment and self-sufficiency, including illiteracy, mental illness, substance abuse, learning disabilities, and domestic violence. Meanwhile, the denial of benefits to thousands of legal immigrants has increased the level of poverty within that community. Finally, as the country contends with an economic recession, former welfare recipients who entered the low-wage labor market may now lose their jobs, while those still on the rolls will have trouble finding work in a weak economy. In light of these conditions, the JCPA urges the following changes during welfare reauthorization:
- Make poverty reduction, not just caseload reduction, a primary goal of welfare reform, with incentives to states to implement policies that reduce child and adult poverty rates.
- Provide funding adequate to meet the challenges of an economic downturn and to secure added services for those with barriers to employment, including requiring states to provide work assistance and case management services to former TANF recipients for a period of five years after leaving TANF.
- Restore benefits to qualified legal immigrants
- Strengthen and enhance access to services that address barriers to employment such as domestic violence, homelessness, physical disability, mental illness, and substance abuse, to include renewing and improving the Family Violence Option as a provision of TANF.
- Remove from TANF ‘charitable choice’ provisions that omit meaningful and effective First Amendment safeguards. TANF must include protections which clearly state that no funds may be used to proselytize, coerce or indoctrinate; that no institution receiving funding may require worship as a condition for receiving TANF related benefits, and that no institution receiving TANF block grant funding may engage in employment practices in a manner inconsistent with governing civil rights laws.
- Modify time limit requirements, in light of current economic conditions and the number of those remaining on welfare who face significant barriers to employment.
- Modify current restrictions on education and training to increase support for skill development, thereby enhancing chances of securing employment with opportunity for advancement, adequate benefits, and wages sufficient to support a family.
- Improve access and funding for key federal non-TANF programs serving low-income families. These include the Food Stamp Program, childcare subsidies through the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) to move toward serving all eligible children, as well as such programs as Head Start, WIC, and the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG).