Strict New TANF Rules Challenge States

 
Stateline.org highlights significant state policy developments and trends each year in its State of the States report, available in early January. In the _____ of a series of excerpts, we look at state welfare policy.
Single mom Nichole Henderson of Harrisburg, Pa., hopes to complete her community college degree in social services and land a full-time job within a year. Meanwhile, she relies on welfare checks and subsidized child care to help raise her 7-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son who has serious emotional disabilities.

Henderson is in a small category of college-going welfare recipients who studies have shown are most likely to be boosted out of poverty permanently. But new federal welfare rules that took effect in October scale back support states can offer poor parents like Henderson.

Now, the 24-year-old must work at least 20 hours a week in addition to attending classes and must do her homework on campus under the watchful of eye of a state supervisor to stay eligible for federal welfare dollars.

The new limits on students are part of stricter new rules called for by Congress last year to nudge even more welfare recipients into jobs and off the public dime.

A decade after then-President Bill Clinton and newly empowered congressional Republicans made good on promises "to end welfare as we know it," the nation's bedrock support program for the needy is being retooled. The new changes to welfare - while not as radical as the 1996 reforms- will require most states to revamp their welfare policies or sacrifice federal dollars, starting in 2011.

The welfare-to-work reform of 1996 still is hailed as a shining success story. The number of families on welfare dropped from 4.41 million in 1996 to 1.89 million last year, the lowest since 1969.

But in reauthorizing the program for another 10 years, Congress directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to tighten the reins, in part because of concerns that states had become lax in administering the welfare block grants known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

A federal watchdog report found some states counted bed rest, smoking-cessation classes and even massages as ways to fulfill the law's requirement that at least half of all parents on welfare work or attend job preparation programs.

The goal of welfare reform was to wean poor families from dependence by putting a five-year time limit on cash assistance. States were charged with helping parents, often single mothers, pull their lives together and start making ends meet on their own.

To ensure states did enough to help welfare recipients find jobs, the federal government imposed a rule that at least 50 percent of single parents and 90 percent of married parents be in jobs or work preparation programs.

With the aid of a strong economy, states quickly changed the profile of welfare in America.

"In many ways, TANF is a victim of its own success," said HHS Assistant Secretary Wade Horn, who oversees the program. Within the first two years, states helped so many people find jobs, the rolls plummeted and the pressure to meet work participation rates eased. As a result, some states became "overly generous" in their work programs, he said.

Horn contends the new rules simply reinforce the deal struck between Washington, D.C., and the states 10 years ago. "States failed to hold up their end of the bargain," he said. Only 32 percent of families who received cash assistance in 2004 fully participated in work preparation programs, according to HHS.

Congress has stiffened enforcement of its requirement that at least 50 percent of welfare parents participate in work programs and called on HHS to define explicitly which activities - such as community service, job training and job search programs - qualify, taking away much of states' flexibility to devise their own programs. That flexibility was a hallmark of the 1996 law.

Most affected are programs that help students such as Henderson get college degrees so they can land jobs that pay enough to raise their families. In addition to requiring students to work at least 20 hours a week, the rules limit students to one year of cash assistance. If it takes longer to get a degree, states wanting to help will have to tap their own resources.

Also endangered are federal funds for parents trying to overcome chronic problems like drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness or domestic violence that prevent them from working.

The new rules require all parents to attend at least 30 hours a week of work or training programs. Only six weeks of counseling or rehab a year now will qualify as work participation. Welfare advocates argue that six weeks is not enough to help parents turn around their lives and find stable jobs. The new, more exacting rules will be easier for some states to adjust to than others.

A federal watchdog report found some states counted bed rest, smoking-cessation classes and even massages as ways to fulfill the law's requirement that at least half of all parents on welfare work or attend job preparation programs. The goal of welfare reform was to wean poor families from dependence by putting a five-year time limit on cash assistance. States were charged with helping parents, often single mothers, pull their lives together and start making ends meet on their own.

To ensure states did enough to help welfare recipients find jobs, the federal government imposed a rule that at least 50 percent of single parents and 90 percent of married parents be in jobs or work preparation programs.

With the aid of a strong economy, states quickly changed the profile of welfare in America.

"In many ways, TANF is a victim of its own success," said HHS Assistant Secretary Wade Horn, who oversees the program. Within the first two years, states helped so many people find jobs, the rolls plummeted and the pressure to meet work participation rates eased. As a result, some states became "overly generous" in their work programs, he said.

Horn contends the new rules simply reinforce the deal struck between Washington, D.C., and the states 10 years ago. "States failed to hold up their end of the bargain," he said. Only 32 percent of families who received cash assistance in 2004 fully participated in work preparation programs, according to HHS.

Congress has stiffened enforcement of its requirement that at least 50 percent of welfare parents participate in work programs and called on HHS to define explicitly which activities - such as community service, job training and job search programs - qualify, taking away much of states' flexibility to devise their own programs. That flexibility was a hallmark of the 1996 law.

Most affected are programs that help students such as Henderson get college degrees so they can land jobs that pay enough to raise their families. In addition to requiring students to work at least 20 hours a week, the rules limit students to one year of cash assistance. If it takes longer to get a degree, states wanting to help will have to tap their own resources.

Also endangered are federal funds for parents trying to overcome chronic problems like drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness or domestic violence that prevent them from working.

The new rules require all parents to attend at least 30 hours a week of work or training programs. Only six weeks of counseling or rehab a year now will qualify as work participation. Welfare advocates argue that six weeks is not enough to help parents turn around their lives and find stable jobs. The new, more exacting rules will be easier for some states to adjust to than others.

Florida already pays for services such as drug rehabilitation and mental health counseling outside of TANF, so most of its welfare-to-work programs will pass muster under the new rules. California last year appropriated $90 million to increase participation in state work programs and set aside additional money to help parents with disabilities and substance abuse problems outside of the TANF program.

Estelle Richman, Pennsylvania's secretary of public welfare, said for now she'll use state dollars to ensure TANF mothers such as Henderson can keep attending college. But she's unsure the state can afford the successful project year after year without federal support.

But as simple a change as better record keeping already has helped Pennsylvania boost its work rate from 7 percent, the lowest rate in the nation in 2004, to 47 percent last year. Georgia - held up by HHS as a model for new welfare reform- already has lifted its work-participation rate by making work rules clear to welfare applicants from the beginning and quickly cutting them off if they fail to attend assigned programs.

In the last two years, the percentage of Georgia's welfare recipients engaged in work programs rose from 24 percent to 64 percent, in part because people who failed to meet the requirements were dropped from the rolls.

Instead of moving more people off welfare, Arkansas plans to meet the standards by allowing parents to stay on the rolls even after they land jobs. Statewide research shows that without continued aid, most welfare recipients lose their jobs and end up back on public assistance within a year.

By counting working parents who stay in the program, Arkansas expects to hike its work rate from 28 percent in 2004 to nearly 45 percent in 2006.

New Hampshire combined the approaches of Georgia and Arkansas, passing a law that includes stricter sanctions for those who fail to comply with state work rules and a program that allows working parents to stay on welfare until they reach a certain income level.

Gov. John Lynch (D) signed the law under protest, saying it did not go far enough to help poor people become self-sufficient. To supplement the law, he issued an executive order committing additional funds for child care, transportation and education "to ensure that TANF clients can truly move from welfare to work permanently," he said.

But not all states have the option of caring for their neediest families without federal support. Some will be hard-pressed to meet the new work-participation rates, predicted Jack Tweedie, welfare expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Vermont state Rep. Mark Larson (D) said one consequence of the new rules is that states will have to come up with more money for child care, as more moms work or attend job preparation classes.

Larson said the new rules effectively will shift more of the cost of caring for the neediest families to state budgets - or else parents with chronic life problems who are unlikely to attend work programs will go without help. The federal government may be able to claim success because TANF rolls will shrink, "but it won't tell the whole story," Larson said.

The preceding article was excerpted from State of the States 2007 , Stateline.org's annual report on significant state policy developments and trends. This 48-page publication will be available early next month. Our limited supply of print copies is already exhausted, but to order an electronic version, click here.

Stateline.org highlights significant state policy developments and trends each year in its State of the States report, which will be available in early January. In the _____ of a series of excerpts from the publication, we look at state welfare policy.  
 
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