Testimony Before U.S. House of Representatives on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) Re-Authorization, April 11, 2002

Testimony of Kathleen A. Curran, Policy Advisor
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


Before the House Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Human Resources


Thursday, April 11, 2002

Chairman Herger and Members of the Subcommittee, my name is Kathleen A. Curran and I am policy advisor on health and welfare issues with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB).   I welcome this opportunity to share with you the views of the Bishops' Conference as you consider proposals for re-authorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program (TANF).

In the 1990s, we as a nation reexamined the welfare structure that had evolved over several decades, and called for a reform of the way in which we help those among us in need.  Our Conference was among those urging fundamental reform of a system that did not serve recipients, taxpayers or our society as well as it should have.  The debate over how to change that system culminated in the 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children entitlement program with TANF block grants to the states, a time-limited assistance program focusing heavily on reducing welfare caseloads and moving people into work.  While it is encouraging that caseloads have fallen by over 50% through fiscal year 2001, it is clear that not all recipients who leave TANF do so to take a job of any sort, let alone stable full-time work that allows them to support their families in dignity.

In considering whether and how to amend TANF, facts and figures, numbers and statistics can be necessary and important tools, both in assessing the effects so far of the 1996 law and in developing new policies and new ways to measure future effects.  But I urge you to remember that is all they are -- tools.  Simply setting, meeting and assessing numerical goals – whether for reducing caseloads, boosting work participation rates or increasing the incidence of marriage – must not become the measure of our nation's welfare policy.   We must not lose sight of the real families, real individuals, real children whose lives will be deeply affected by the changes that will be made in TANF.   We must seize the need to reauthorize the TANF program as an opportunity, and a challenge, to sharpen our focus on the persistent problem of poverty in this, the most prosperous of nations.  We must do our best to make sure no one who works in this country will see their family in need.  We must give states the policy tools and resources they need to help low-income Americans leave poverty and dependence and achieve self-sufficiency.

Thus, as the nation turns to TANF re-authorization, we must make clear that reducing poverty, especially among children, is a central goal of our national welfare policy.  We can do this in two ways.  First, we should amend the law to include poverty reduction among the stated goals and develop appropriate incentives for states to reduce the extent and depth of poverty within their borders.  Second, we should assess welfare policies, both current and proposed, by whether they will be effective in alleviating the poverty of our sisters and brothers and in helping them to improve their own lives and the lives of their families. 

The central challenge we face is not just people in need of help, but the tragedy of so many families living without dignity and hope in our nation.  While some would focus instead on child well-being, these goals are not contradictory.  There ought to be a way bring together both goals, measuring welfare reform by how it reduces poverty in a land of plenty and how it improves the lives of its children.

Principles For Welfare Reform

The Administrative Board of the Bishops' Conference articulated principles for welfare reform in 1995 which retain their relevance today.   I reiterate what the Bishops said then: the Conference's intent in offering its reflection on welfare policy is not to align itself with a particular partisan or ideological agenda.  We draw our directions from consistent Catholic moral principles, guided by traditional values: respect for human life and dignity; the importance of family and the value of work; an option for the poor and the call to participation; and the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. 

We also draw upon the Church's experience living with, serving, and being the poor among us.  The poor are our neighbors and our parishioners.  The Catholic community, perhaps the largest nongovernmental provider of human services to poor families, meets 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.  Some are moving ahead and we welcome and celebrate their progress.  But some are left behind and this is the unfinished task for our nation, which seeks "liberty and justice for all."

In light of our principles and our everyday experiences,  our Conference will apply six principles in evaluating proposals for changes during TANF re-authorization.   We urge lawmakers to enact polices that:

  • Protect human life and human dignity:  A fundamental criterion for all public policy, including welfare policy, is respect for  human life and human dignity.  In particular, we must protect the lives and dignity of vulnerable children, whether born or unborn, and develop policies that safeguard children and discourage inappropriate or morally destructive behavior
  • Strengthen family life:  Our welfare policy should affirm the importance of marriage, strong intact families, personal responsibility, self-discipline, sacrifice and basic morality.  It should help mothers and fathers meet the social, economic, educational and moral needs of their children.  We should strive to keep marriages strong and families together, and, when that is not possible, to keep fathers involved in the lives of their children in a healthy and constructive manner.
  • Encourage and reward work:  Those who can work, should work.  Work is the means by which individuals support themselves and their families, participate in God's creation, express their dignity, and contribute to the common good of society.  The challenge is to ensure that our nation's policies support productive work with wages and benefits that permit a family to live in dignity.
  • Preserve a safety net for the vulnerable:  Society has a responsibility to help meet the needs of those who cannot care for themselves, who through no fault of their own cannot work or whose work is caring for young children or disabled family members.   Our policies should help and sustain the most vulnerable among us, enhancing the ability of all children, including immigrant children, to grow into productive adults.  Legal immigrants should be eligible for benefits on the same terms as citizens, and the children of undocumented persons should not be left without help.
  • Build public/private partnerships to overcome poverty:  Overcoming poverty and dependency requires creative, responsive and effective actions in both the public and private sectors.  Under the TANF block grants, states have been given a high degree of flexibility in shaping programs to meet the needs of their populations and to draw more upon the skill and responsiveness of community institutions. We must strive to achieve and preserve the appropriate balance between the roles of the federal and state governments and private entities in fighting poverty.  This is why we support the President's faith-based and community initiatives proposal.  While we support the active role of states and of faith-based and community groups, their efforts cannot replace the important responsibility of the federal government, on behalf of our entire society, to establish just public policy and to commit sufficient national resources to meet the basic needs of the American people.
  • Invest in human dignity:  To continue and complete the work of welfare reform begun in 1996, we will continue to need significant public investment in TANF.  We cannot let declining caseloads deceive us into thinking we can reduce TANF block grants.  The commitment and effort of individuals seeking to leave welfare for work, poverty for self-sufficiency, must be met by a public commitment to provide the jobs, training, education, child care, health care, transportation and other supports necessary to make that transition successfully.   

In pursuing these principles, we urge the Congress to avoid casting TANF re-authorization in terms of false choices that will diminish public debate and peoples' lives.  Refuse to pose welfare reform as a choice between encouraging greater responsibility or accepting greater social responsibility – both are necessary to help families overcome poverty.  Refuse to pose welfare reform as a choice between investing in decent work, child care, and education and training, or recognizing the importance of healthy marriages and responsible parenthood – both are necessary to improve children's lives.  Children's lives and their hope for the future are enhanced or diminished by the choices of their parents and the polices of their government.   re-authorization is an opportunity to improve TANF to encourage wise choices by their families and wise investments by our nation in decent work, child care, and education and training.

Do not draw our circle of concern too tightly.  Single parents and two parent couples struggle to raise their families in dignity.  The children of parents who were born here and of those who came here to escape poverty and conflict are equally deserving of our help.  Help not only those who can move from welfare to work with a little push and minimal assistance, but also those trapped without skills or education or facing addiction or disability.  Do not be afraid to insist on performance and commitment from states as well as families in need, holding states accountable for programs that help people not only leave dependency, but also to leave poverty behind. 

Lastly, avoid an overly ideological, polarized and partisan debate over TANF re-authorization that will only undermine the steps our nation must take to overcome poverty and restore human dignity for our families and children.

A Strategy For Addressing Poverty Through TANF Re-authorization

With these principles in mind, we urge that a central goal for TANF re-authorization should be to address the moral scandal of so much poverty in the richest nation on earth.  To accomplish this, TANF should seek to reduce poverty through a three-pronged strategy of supporting meaningful work, strengthening family life and marriage, and sustaining the needy and vulnerable among us, especially our children; and to ensure adequate resources to accomplish these goals by committing to TANF funding levels at least equal to current levels adjusted for inflation.  I would like to suggest some policy directions in each of these three areas, touching on only some of the many issues that TANF re-authorization will encompass.   I am pleased to note that several of these ideas are reflected in various of the re-authorization proposals that have already been put forward.

Supporting Meaningful Work

  1. Expand the definition of work to include  education and substance abuse treatment:    TANF recipients need more than just any job – they need a pathway out of poverty, and for many that means access to education and job training, and in some cases, substance abuse treatment, as well as a job.  Under current law, individuals may count only vocational education training towards work participation, for a maximum of 12 months, and states may allow no more than 30% of their caseload to do so.  But serious efforts to get a college degree or overcome an addiction is hard work and should be recognized as such. States should have greater flexibility to count job training, vocational and post-secondary education and substance abuse treatment towards work requirements, alone or in conjunction with an employment requirement.  For instance, states could be given the option to allow participants to count education towards work after a one or two year period of employment. 

    Several of the current re-authorization proposals include ideas in this area which deserve support.  For example, most of them include some provision for allowing states to count as work activities, for limited periods of time, substance abuse or other programs to address work obstacles.  We hope the final legislation will include similar provisions, and in the case of substance abuse, will give states the flexibility to include longer treatment programs of up to nine months.  With respect to educational activities, allowing states to count 24 months of vocational and educational training as work, or allowing states to have a percentage of TANF recipients in so-called "Parents as Scholars" programs, combining work and post-secondary education, are promising ideas found in current proposals. 
  2. Ensure that those leaving welfare have access to transitional benefits: Food and basic health care are essential building blocks for life.  As welfare recipients make the transition from cash assistance to relying on work income alone, access to non-cash benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid can mean the difference between success or failure, hunger and illness or progress.  The law should ensure that welfare leavers have automatic and meaningful access to Medicaid and food stamps for a full year after they leave TANF.  TANF leavers are eligible for one-year transitional Medicaid coverage; they should be automatically eligible for food stamps for one year as well.

    In addition to granting automatic eligibility, states should be required to make sure  those leaving TANF understand that they are eligible for these benefits and that they are able to access them. Studies have indicated that former welfare recipients who are eligible for but do not receive food stamps and Medicaid often do not realize they are eligible, or are unable to navigate complicated administrative requirements, including midday appointments at state offices forcing them to miss work.   States must streamline their processes so new workers do not have to choose between obtaining needed benefits and keeping their jobs, between work and feeding their families, between employment and health care.
  3. Child care assistance: Finding and paying for adequate child care can be one of the biggest challenges facing parents trying to move from welfare to work.   The problem is exacerbated for parents who must work weekend or night shift jobs, times when child care is particularly hard to find.   As with food stamps and Medicaid, many families leaving TANF do not receive child care assistance even though they are eligible.  We must make sure all working parents have access to safe, affordable child care at the times they need it by increasing funding for federal child care assistance programs such as the Child Care and Development Block Grant (which must also be reauthorized next year) and the Social Services Block Grant, by making sure low-income parents know they are eligible, and by increasing the availability of adequate child care facilities.  Several re-authorization proposals call for additional CCDBG funding, and we urge the Subcommittee to incorporate additional resources for child care in its TANF legislation.
  4. Flexibility in time limits:  A five-year time limit on federally-funded cash assistance was one of the hallmarks of the 1996 law, and for many time limits appear to have provided the motivation needed to get into, or back into, the workforce.  But for others, especially those who must overcome many obstacles to work, time limits can be arbitrary and punitive.  I urge you to look seriously at ways to give states more flexibility in how they apply time limits while continuing to use federal TANF funds, so they can make time limits work for all recipients.  For example, states could have the option to "stop the clock" – to continue providing cash assistance to recipients complying with work requirements and not count those months towards the five-year time limit.  Or states could experiment with allowing working TANF participants to "earn back" time against the time limit.  States could be given the option of granting extensions to the five-year time limit, for example when a downturn in the economy means working former participants face layoffs and the inability to find work despite their best efforts.   
  5. Caution in modifying work requirements:   Under current law, states must have 50% of families that receive TANF engaged in specified "work activities" for a total of 30 hours per week, with a shorter list of activities countable for the first 20 hours.  (Single parents of children under six need work only a total of 20 hours per week to be counted, and higher standards apply to two-parent families.) States are eligible for a credit that reduces the 50% work participation requirement – a percentage reduction in total caseloads earns an equal reduction in the participation rate requirement.   Caseloads have fallen so significantly that most states were subject to minimal or even no work participation requirement.  Nonetheless, on average states had 34% of their caseloads meeting the work requirements in 2000.
Among the proposals for TANF re-authorization that have been put forward, two would increase both the work participation rates that states must meet (from 50% to 70%) and the hours of activities individuals must engage in to be counted towards the work participation rates (from 30 hours to 40 hours per week).   In one proposal, the first 24 hours would be limited to employment, work experience or community service activities, with no flexibility to include job search or vocational education activities (which are now allowed to count toward the first 20 hours of the 30 hour requirement.)  Both proposals would end the caseload reduction credit.  (In one proposal, the caseload reduction credit would be replaced by a new employment credit, a promising idea we urge you to pursue.)

While we support continuing TANF's emphasis on work, we share the serious concerns that have been raised about whether current proposals that combine these three elements –  increasing state participation rates, increasing hours per week, and ending the caseload reduction credit – are achievable and whether they would limit the flexibility of the states to continue the programs they have developed to implement welfare reform in a way that meet the needs of their people.  Given the potential impact of such changes in the work requirements, we urge Congress not to adopt an approach that combines these elements as currently proposed.

For the most part, states appear to have preferred to focus on getting recipients into employment, over establishing large work experience or community service programs.  Two-thirds of the recipients who counted towards work participation rates in FY 2000 were pursuing unsubsidized employment, while 10.6% were in work experience and 6.4% were doing community service.  Studies of welfare-to-work programs in the 1990s indicate that programs combining a range of strategies and services, including mandatory work, job search, life skills, and work-focused education and training, were more successful at moving recipients off of welfare and into work than more rigid programs that used only one strategy. 

The combined impact of the proposed changes in the work requirements would almost certainly force states to divert more resources to developing large-scale work-experience or community service programs to ensure that the new work targets would be met.  States would also have to find ways to increase spending on child care – more single parents would have to spend more hours each week engaged in activities and away from their children.  Unless such changes were accompanied by significant increases in the TANF block grants and for child care programs, states would face the prospect of having to turn programs designed to get people into employment, into programs that simply keep people busy for the required number of hours, and to focus their child care spending on TANF recipients, at the expense of other low-income workers. 

Press reports of a recent survey of states by the National Governor's Association and the American Public Health Services Association indicate that states are concerned about the impact of such proposals.  According to the reports, 39 of the 44 states participating in the survey fear these increased work requirements would be counterproductive, undermining their efforts to end welfare dependency by moving recipients into the workforce.  They are also worried that meeting such requirements would limit their ability to dedicate resources to work supports such as training, child care and transportation services.

The intent of such proposals appears to be to ensure that TANF retains a strong "work-first" emphasis, by seeing to it that recipients are engaged in a full workweek of activity.  The assumption is that 40 hours of activities per week constitutes a full workweek.   But for many American workers, especially those in the kinds of jobs TANF recipients are likely to have, the average workweek is 35 hours or less.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) considers 35 hours per week to constitutes full-time work, and reports that in 2001 service sector workers averaged under 33 hours per week, while retail-sector workers on average worked just under 29 hours pers week.  BLS data also indicates that 24.1% of American workers –and one-third of unmarried women – work fewer than 35 hours per week.   When gathering these data, BLS counts as hours worked paid-leave time, such as sick leave or vacation.  It does not appear that holiday, sick time or other forms of necessary time-off would count towards the proposed higher 40 hour TANF requirement.  This would be a particular hardship for TANF recipients, who tend to face more of the kinds of obstacles that require time away from work, such as child care crises, care giving for sick or disabled relatives, and the need to interact with the benefits system during office hours.  Thus, requiring TANF recipients to engage in 40 hours of activities per week actually holds them to a higher standard than many other parents who work.

Strengthening Family Life and Marriage
  1. Affirm the value of marriage, but do not abandon single parent families: For decades, our welfare policy actively discouraged the formation and maintenance of two-parent married families.  One valuable aspect of the 1996 welfare reform law was the recognition that our national policies must support families, not undermine them, and help parents in meeting their responsibilities to their children.  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 the context of a stable, healthy marriage.  Out-of-wedlock birth and divorce significantly diminish the well-being of our children. We must make appropriate efforts to encourage abstinence before marriage, to assist single parents considering marriage and to help married parents to stay together.  

    Yet we also recognize that many factors in our society, such as the widespread tragedy of divorce and the realities of domestic violence and destructive behavior, leave many single parents struggling to support children on their own.  Single parents deserve our help, too, without feeling coerced into entering into inappropriate marriages or staying in dangerous relationships.  It is essential that we both provide the resources necessary to enable all parents, married or single, to meet the needs of their families, and develop appropriate policies to support and strengthen marriage.
  2. Remove barriers and disincentives to two-parent families.    We should all be able to agree that the first step in a pro-marriage policy should be to end penalties against two-parent families struggling to meet their responsibilities. Many states continue to implement pre-TANF policies that make it harder for two-parent families to qualify for and receive TANF assistance.  For example, two-parent families may be forced to wait longer for benefits to begin than single-parent families, or be disqualified because of the parents' recent work history, even if the family's income is below the poverty level.  Congress should require states to discontinue policies, such as these, that act as a disincentive to marriage.  Congress should also end the separate, more stringent work participation rate requirements for two-parent families in TANF itself.
  3. Help States Do More to Support Effective Marriage Programs:   States currently have the authority to spend TANF funds on marriage support programs, and should be encouraged to assist low-income married couples who would benefit from marital counseling or marriage-skills programs.   For example, our colleagues at Catholic Charities USA have developed a promising proposal to create a $100 million grant program through which states could help low-income parents who are married, or who seek to marry, gain access to services they other wise might not be able to afford, such as marriage counseling, relationship skills classes, premarital counseling and marriage preparation, marriage-skills classes.

    While many groups and faith-based organizations, including our Church, sponsor a range of marriage-support programs, we have much to learn about what strategies are most effective in addressing specific problems.  Investing modest amounts of funding for demonstration and pilot programs to identify "best practices" and for a clearinghouse  on effective programs would help states get information they need to assess and implement effective and appropriate marriage and family formation programs.  We are pleased that several of the re-authorization proposals would create funding for these purposes.

    While we believe it is appropriate to take measured steps to encourage and help states to do more to support marriage, lawmakers need to evaluate every proposal to be sure it would not have the unintended effect of forcing or pressuring couples into marriage.  Congress should be wary, for example, of measuring state progress in this area in a manner that relies too much on simply counting the number of marriages or the numbers of children living with married parents.

    In sum, we urge you to seek out policies that encourage and assist states to support marriage and to work with unwed parents who wish to marry, but efforts to promote marriage should not come at the expense of single parents or their children, either directly or indirectly, by diverting essential resources or inadvertently pressuring people into inappropriate marriages.  We support efforts to reward all parents for making wise choices, but must not punish children for the choices of their parents.
  4. Involve non-custodial fathers in their children's lives.    When parents are not married, we must find ways to encourage the active presence of both parents in the lives of their children.  Most often, that means keeping non-custodial fathers involved with their children.  As with marriage-support programs, TANF should assist states to identify and support effective fatherhood programs that help fathers develop the economic and emotional capacity to support their children.  The law should be amended so that child support paid by non-custodial fathers actually goes to support their children on TANF.  Under current law, a mother receiving TANF must assign her child support rights to the state, which retains and shares with the federal government most or all of any amounts it collects from the father.  Allowing more of the father's child support payment to reach his children will be both an economic boost for the children and an incentive for the father to remain engaged in his children's lives, and we are pleased that several re-authorization proposals would make progress on this front.
Sustaining the Needy and Vulnerable
  1. End state family cap laws: Twenty-three states restrict or deny additional cash benefits when a TANF family's size increases because of the birth of a baby.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long opposed such policies because of deep concern about their impact on the well-being of children, both born and unborn.  Evidence from a study of New Jersey's experience with a family cap indicates that the policy was accompanied by more abortions in that state.  A recent GAO study notes that in an average month in 2000, about 108,000 families received less in cash benefits due to family cap policies.  We urge Congress to amend TANF to ban state family cap policies on pro-life and pro-family principles.  States should not be allowed to tell women they will pay for their abortions, but will not help them support new children.  A policy that effectively penalizes certain families for having a new child cannot be seen as pro-family.
  2. Restore benefit eligibility to legal immigrants:   A major reason our Conference opposed the 1996 law was its harsh treatment of legal immigrants.  In 1996, legal immigrants were categorically barred from public benefits programs.  We have worked to achieve changes in the law, which restored eligibility for some legal immigrants who entered the United States before 1996,  but did not cover the majority of legal immigrants, especially those who entered the United States after August, 1996.   The Bishops' Conference has long advocated for the availability of basic necessities to all those in need, regardless of their race, creed, ethnic origin, or nationality.  Furthermore, legal immigrants pay taxes and make significant contributions to our economy with their labor.  As a matter of justice, when people are in need, especially children, they should have access to the public programs supported by their families' taxes.
  3. Allow TANF recipients to care for young children and disabled family members: Young children, the sick and the disabled are among our society's most vulnerable members.  Their well-being often depends upon the ability of parents and family members to take care of them on a full-time basis.  Yet under current law those same parents and family members may be forced to work outside the home or face the loss of the cash assistance their family needs to survive.  Congress should amend the law so states have the option of using federal funds to continue cash assistance to full-time care givers for children under six or seriously ill or disabled family members.  This could be done by allowing such activities to count toward work participation requirements or allowing states to exempt such care givers from time limits.
  4. Ameliorate harsh sanction policies:   It is no easy matter to develop welfare policy that ensures assistance for the needy without enabling the dependency of those who can and should support themselves.  But we cannot abandon those among us who cannot help themselves, or who, with a little more time, patience and assistance, would be able to help themselves and their families.   Our goal must be to ensure that no one falls through the cracks of federal or state bureaucracies.  To that end, we urge Congress to take a careful look at TANF sanction polices.

    There are strong indications that many sanctioned families have multiple barriers to work – little or no education, and more incidence of substance abuse, family violence, and mental and physical health problems, and child care and transportation difficulties.  States currently have great latitude in implementing sanction policies, with little accountability.  Thirty-seven states use "full-family" sanctions, cutting benefits to the entire family when one member violates the TANF rules.  Nineteen states will impose a full-family sanction for a first violation, and eight of those states apply a minimum penalty period, so the entire family may continue to be denied benefits even after the violation has been remedied.  There is also evidence that many states do a poor job of communicating to participants what is expected of them, the consequences of failing to meet those expectations, and how to get help in coming back into compliance. 

    Congress should consider changes to the law to ameliorate arbitrary and counterproductive sanction policies, such as requiring states to provide clear, understandable information to all recipients on what is required of them and the sanctions they face if they violate those requirements; to identify and work with families at risk of sanctions; to end full-family sanctions for a first violation; and to restore benefits immediately when a violation has been remedied.  We also must require more accountability from states, particularly because TANF incentives to decrease caseloads can also be an incentive for a state to ignore high sanction rates.  But high sanction rates in a state should be a warning sign, not a rewarded behavior.   States, as well as families, should be held to meet their responsibilities.
Thank you for the opportunity to share the Bishops' Conference's principles and policies on TANF re-authorization.  Together our nation must all strive to create a truly flexible system of incentives and accountability for both individuals and states, a system which empowers a partnership of government agencies, community groups and recipients to meet the needs of individual families and to give them the tools they need to leave poverty and government assistance.  The moral measure of our society is how we treat "the least among us."  (Matt. 25).  The re-authorization of TANF represents a major opportunity to make overcoming poverty and restoring human dignity central national priorities.  The Bishops' Conference looks forward to working with this Subcommittee and Congress on these and other important aspects of welfare policy in the coming months. 
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