20 Years Since Welfare Reform: The Safety Net Needs Repair

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), which was created with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act – you may know it better as “welfare reform.” TANF fundamentally shifted spending away from cash assistance to other programming through federally funded block grants managed by the states.

In the past 20 years. Goodwill® has provided more than 2.6 million TANF recipients with pre- and post-employment services, including skills training, job search assistance, job retention support and other career programs targeting their needs. Goodwill career counselors assist the people we serve through targeted, personalized career plans to help them find jobs and prepare for career advancement, while providing access to a range of supportive services such as child care, transportation and stable housing to allow everyone the opportunity to be successful.

When TANF was created, work and family supports were cited as priorities to provide a safety net and promote work, but over the years flaws in the program’s structure have become apparent. As a result of multiple barriers fewer families in poverty are being helped. In 2014, 23 out of every 100 families in poverty received TANF benefits, as opposed to 68 out of 100 in 1996. Currently, fewer than one in five poor children receive help through TANF. In addition, states spend very little – 8 percent — of TANF funds on work-related activities that necessary for people to succeed.

Based on the experience of our network of local Goodwill organizations in communities nationwide, Goodwill Industries International has the following recommendations for Congress as they consider reform and reauthorization of TANF:

  • Support strategies to increase access to TANF and reduce barriers to obtaining it, especially for populations that have historically higher-than-average unemployment rates
  • Adjust the block grant for inflation. President Obama’s proposed budget would increase the block grant and require states to spend at least 55 percent of funds for core purposes such as work-related activities, child care and cash assistance
  • Allow post-secondary education to count as training
  • Support innovation by nonprofits to provide job training and employment services to those receiving TANF, which would supplement federal funds.

Many people have been helped since TANF began, including Elizabeth from Minnesota, who accessed Goodwill services to complete her GED, find a job and enroll in college to pursue an associate’s degree, which gave her the ability to expand her career until she no longer needed assistance. TANF must be reformed and reauthorized to ensure that the program is effective in supporting people and families as they work toward stability and success.