On October 16, during the second in a series of hearings on welfare reform, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness focused its attention on the work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Subcommittee Chair Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) noted, “The focus on work requirements has changed the whole culture of the program for all those involved.” He pointed out, “Recently released Census Bureau Data show that female-headed families had their lowest measured poverty rates ever,” and that “the proportion of single mothers with earnings has increased dramatically in the last few years.” He added, “We know that welfare reform played a significant role in helping women make this transition into work.”
In her opening statement, Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI), the subcommittee’s Ranking Member, expressed her concerns about “the shortcomings in TANF,” specifically “the limited education and training opportunities under TANF.” She said, “We need to look at the limitations structured in the legislation regarding the opportunities for welfare recipients to improve in direct proportion to educational opportunities.”
Testimony from several of the witnesses highlighted the need for better education and job training opportunities to move individuals from welfare to work. There is a definite “relationship between education and training and job retention,” said Martha Davis of the National Organization for Women. She told the subcommittee that if the goal of welfare reform is to reduce poverty among the most vulnerable families, “the next round of welfare reform must concentrate on insuring that women have jobs that pay them enough to support their families.” She added, “Including education and training as part of the welfare program will help with both these goals.”
Ms. Davis also stressed the need for enhancing the “access of women” to nontraditional jobs that pay higher wages, better benefits, and provide opportunities for career advancement. Additionally, she urged the subcommittee “to address barriers to self-sufficiency, such as domestic violence.”
Jennifer Brooks of Wider Opportunities for Women agreed. “It is clear that if we are to meet the goal in the welfare reform law of moving families to self-sufficiency, education and training opportunities must be made more available, both after welfare recipients have taken a first job and in preparation for that job,” she said. “TANF severely limits access to education and training,” she added. Under TANF, “vocational education is permitted for only one year, and only for 30 percent of the caseload, and higher education is not permitted at all,” she pointed out.
She urged the subcommittee to “provide supports, such as child care and literacy programs that strengthen basic skills in the context of employment, and ‘stop the clock’ for families receiving TANF who are engaged in work but whose earnings are so low that they remain eligible for partial TANF grants.”
Representing the research community, Dr. Lynn Karoly of the RAND Institute in Santa Monica, California, testified that 13 studies of the effectiveness of the work requirements under the 1996 welfare law have netted three conclusions: “Employment rates increased and welfare rolls decreased; there appears to be no effect on income, although poverty may have improved; and there appears to be no change in marriage or fertility when work requirements are implemented.”
Mona Garland of the Wisconsin Works program recommended that federal welfare programs should retain flexibility so that states can address individual needs. “What is necessary for a person to be successful in Wisconsin may be different from Minnesota,” she said. “TANF reauthorization must maintain current funding levels to states and allow program flexibility to allow addition of components needed by the TANF population such as basic education, skill training and support services to accomplish our goal of moving people toward work,” she added.
Rodney Carroll of the Welfare to Work Partnership told the subcommittee, “More than 20,000 employers have answered our challenge and committed to hire and retain former welfare recipients.” He testified that, in his experience, the retention rate for welfare recipients has been higher than for the standard population, “92 percent from welfare compared to the 63 percent normal standard.” “It’s not about welfare to work,” he said, adding, “it’s about dependence to independence.”
Rep. McKeon asked the witnesses how the “economic changes” will affect our ability to handle the needs of working families.
Dr. Karoly responded that the “robust economy has contributed to the success of welfare reform” and that “we can expect that there will be job loss.” She said, “Some will return to welfare, and some may qualify for unemployment benefits, which for some will be an alternative system.” Additionally, she recommended that reauthorization should “combine work requirements with financial incentives” and allow “working folks to also receive some welfare benefits,” without being hampered by time limits. “Reducing poverty contributes to child well-being,” she said.
Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) asked the witnesses to share their insights into barriers to welfare such as transportation and restrictions on states that may be “too extreme.” Dr. Karoly responded that “transportation is a major problem, a significant barrier to welfare reform.” She added, “Only 6 percent have access to cars.”
Ms. Davis urged the subcommittee to drop the “12-month limit on vocational education and the prohibition on using federal funds for post secondary education.” She also stressed that “we need to train people for the jobs that are available.” We should make “changes in job training to adjust to the changing job market.”
LaShunda Hall of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Greater Milwaukee had only one recommendation for the subcommittee. A former welfare recipient, she urged the subcommittee “to continue TANF funding.” She declared, “Thanks to the Wisconsin Works program, I can come before you this morning and honestly say that I am happy with my life,” and added that, “through TANF funding, many of us benefited from such programs as “basic skills education, High School and GED, and On-the Job training.” She said, “Today, I am earning an honest living, providing daily for my children and me.”