Letter to U.S. Senate on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) Re-Authorization, September 20, 2002

September 20, 2002

The Honorable Thomas A. Daschle
Majority Leader
United States Senate
Washington, D.C.  20150

Dear Senator Daschle:

On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) I am writing to you concerning reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant program.

Our advocacy on help for poor families, including welfare reform, reflects traditional Catholic social teaching and our experience in serving the poor.  The USCCB has consistently worked for welfare reform policies which: protect human life and dignity; strengthen family life; encourage and reward work; preserve a safety net for the vulnerable;  build public/private partnerships to overcome poverty; and invest in human dignity. 

We also draw upon the Church's experience living with, serving, and including among its members the poor and vulnerable.  The Catholic community is perhaps the largest non-governmental provider of human services to poor families.  We meet the poor in our soup kitchens, shelters and Catholic Charities agencies.  Our community has lived with the realities of welfare reform, encouraging and helping people to make the transition from welfare to work.  But we also live with those who are left behind, who turn to our parishes, eat in our soup kitchens, sleep in our shelters and ask for our help.

Based on these principles, we believe a central goal for TANF reauthorization should be to address the moral scandal of so much poverty in the richest nation on earth.  Poverty can be reduced through a three pronged strategy of policies that support meaningful work; strengthen marriage and family life; and sustain the needy and vulnerable among us, especially children and immigrants.  We must dedicate adequate resources to the struggle to overcome poverty; at a minimum, the erosion of the value of the TANF block grant over time should be corrected by adjusting it to reflect inflation.

While there are important areas in which it should be improved, the Senate Finance Committee-passed Work, Opportunity, and Responsibility for Kids Act of 2002 (the Work Act) reflects our policy priorities in several ways and provides the Senate with a strong starting point for its work on TANF reauthorization.  With states facing increasing fiscal challenges and the new pressures on the federal budget, it is important that TANF programs be improved and funding levels, especially for child care, be set this year.  We urge the Senate to take action on the Work Act as soon as possible.

Supporting Work:  We strongly support continuing the emphasis of TANF on work.  Work is the ordinary means by which individuals support themselves and their families and contribute to the common good.   Our nation's policies should support productive work with wages and benefits that permit families to leave welfare and poverty behind and to live in dignity and self-sufficiency.  Many who leave welfare, even those who leave for jobs, are still in poverty.  The TANF program must be improved to provide participants with the support they need to get a job and keep it.  Policies that would continue the work-first focus of TANF while supporting family life, many of which are reflected in the Work Act, include: 

  • Allowing states to treat genuine education and training, as well as treatment for substance abuse, mental or physical disabilities, and domestic violence – which can be barriers to successful employment – as work activities. 
  • Making sure participants have access to medical benefits and food stamps for a full year after leaving welfare for jobs, to help them make a successful and lasting transition to work.
  • Giving states more flexibility in how they apply time limits, especially when states chose to exempt those who care for young children or disabled family members, or to continue paying cash assistance to participants who meet the work requirements. 
  • Making sure low-income working parents, whether on TANF or not, have access to adequate child care. 
  • Sensible and fair work requirements policies that allow parents on welfare to meet their obligations to their families; for example, the Work Act would not increase the number of hours per week participants must work, and would continue the lower hours per week requirement for mothers with children under six. 
  • Rewarding states for moving people into work, not for simply reducing caseloads.
Supporting Marriage and Family Formation:  The Catholic community has consistently affirmed the vital importance of marriage for raising children.  Children do better economically, emotionally, and spiritually when raised by both parents in a stable, healthy marriage.  A commitment to supporting and strengthening  marriage and families should include policies that:
  • End state welfare rules that discriminate against two-parent families
  • Encourage abstinence before marriage, including extension of current abstinence programs
  • Make sure single parents considering marriage, and married parents struggling to stay together, find the help they need to help build and sustain healthy marriages, through voluntary marriage-support programs, such as counseling, mentoring, and building relationship skills.
  • Take special care to detect and assist families suffering from domestic violence
  • Help all parents, married or single, to acquire the resources they need to meet the needs of their families. 
  • Encourage states to assist parents, often fathers, who do not live with their children and may not have the economic or emotional capacity to support their children. 
  • Allow states to make sure more child support payments go directly to families, for this helps children economically and, by strengthening their bond with their non-resident parent, emotionally.
While the Work Act improves current law in all of these areas, TANF-funded marriage and family support activities should be focused on low-income couples.  Families throughout our society can face difficult challenges, but our limited TANF resources should go to help those who otherwise may not be able to afford the assistance they need to keep their families strong and healthy.  We also share the Work Act's goal of reducing out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, but we believe abstinence-only strategies are the appropriate approach to this problem.
Caring for the Most Vulnerable:  The Bishops' Conference has long worked to secure the necessities of life for all those in need, regardless of their race, creed, ethnic origin, or nationality.  Since the 1996 welfare reform law was passed, we have worked to restore the ability of legal immigrants to receive publicly funded assistance.  The Work Act makes progress in this area by allowing states to provide certain benefits to legal immigrants.  We continue to urge full restoration of benefits eligibility for legal immigrants.  We also have long opposed family cap laws because of deep concern about their impact on the well-being of children, both born and unborn.  TANF should be amended to ban such policies, which are really attacks on pro-family principles and the dignity of human life.  States should not be allowed to tell a woman they will pay for her abortion, but will not help her support all of her children.

Adequate Resources:  It is not enough to have the right polices in place; we must also dedicate adequate resources to implement those policies.  With each passing year, the value of the TANF block grant is eroded by inflation.  It would be a great improvement to allow the block grant to increase to reflect inflation.  The law currently provides additional TANF resources to less affluent states and states suffering the effects of a poor economy; these provisions should be continued.

We also urge you to increase the amount of child care funding available to TANF recipients and other low-income families.  While the Work Act would increase such funding by $5.5 billion over five years, this amount will be insufficient to allow states to provide child care for all eligible working low-income parents. 
Finally, we welcome the fact that the Work Act does not include three controversial proposals, that would allow five states to turn the Food Stamp program into a block grant; require states to use "full-family" sanctions when recipients fail to comply with TANF rules; and give unprecedented waiver authority to five Cabinet agencies, with too few protections and little accountability, that could undermine the integrity of essential programs for the poor.  We urge you to oppose efforts to include these provisions in the final Senate bill.

Our faith teaches that the moral measure of our society is how we treat "the least among us."  (Mt. 25).  Welfare policies should be judged on the basis of their effectiveness in alleviating the poverty of our sisters and brothers and in helping their families to live in dignity.  We ask you to bring the Work Act to the floor as soon as possible, and we look forward to working with Congress to improve the TANF program.

Grateful for your attention, and with every good wish, I am

Faithfully yours,

Theodore Cardinal McCarrick
Archbishop of Washington
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
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