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Subcommittee Examines Ties Between Welfare and Workforce Development

The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness held a March 12 hearing to examine the coordination between the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the One-Stop Career Centers established by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) (P.L. 105-220). The hearing was the third in a series held by the subcommittee in preparation for the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law (P.L 104-193), which emphasized moving people from welfare into the workforce.

Approved by Congress in 1998, the WIA consolidated employment and training programs, requiring states and localities to establish a centralized delivery system, a one-stop center, that would provide federally funded employment and training services.

“Enhancing coordination and linkages between TANF and the WIA one-stop workforce development system could have positive impacts on clients,” stated Subcommittee Chair Howard McKeon. “Coordination could encourage a continuum of services for low-income individuals who may become unemployed after leaving welfare,” he said, and added, “Creating a connection to the WIA system would ensure TANF clients have access to labor market information and job listings maintained at the one-stops and could increase connections to the business community.”

Ranking Member Patsy Mink (D-HI) said she looked forward to examining the “optional partnership” between TANF and One-Stop Centers, and “ways in which we can improve that relationship or make it mandatory.” She stressed the importance of providing welfare recipients with adequate education and training. Under TANF, the focus is “work first,” she said. “We criticized that approach because it meant any job, not the best job,” she continued, and added, “We want to make sure that TANF recipients have a better life.”

Dr. Sigurd Nilsen of the General Accounting Office testified that ties between TANF and WIA have increased since the spring 2000, when WIA was first implemented. “Even though TANF was not made a mandatory partner under WIA, we see some early evidence that states and localities are increasing their efforts to bring services together to fit local needs,” he said.

Dr. Nilsen also described some of the barriers that states and localities are experiencing in bringing the two services together. “Infrastructure limitations, in terms of both facilities and antiquated computer systems, continue to challenge states and localities in their efforts to coordinate TANF-related programs with one-stop centers,” he said, and added, “The need to respond to the multiple, sometimes incompatible, federal requirements of the separate programs” is another barrier.

Greg Gardner of the Utah Workforce Services described how his state has successfully implemented coordination between TANF and WIA. “One of the benefits of our integrated system has been our ability to leverage resources to better serve the ‘universal customer’ as defined by WIA,” he said. “Under our consolidated system, customers have access to important work supports such as child care, food stamps and medical assistance,” he added.

Despite the progress that has been made, the program in his state still faced challenges “because of lack of alignment between federal rules and regulations,” he testified. “The complexity of program rules and requirements has been a significant burden on our front line workers as they attempt to provide integrated services in a consistent and accurate manner,” he stated. Erika Kates of the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University told the subcommittee that her experiences “lead me to believe that there is almost no coordination between WIA and TANF.” Ms. Kates explained that she has spent years “teaching, working with, and conducting research on low-income women,” and her observations and experiences have shown that at both TANF offices and one-stop centers, “the message that low-income women hear is ‘Get a job, any job.’”

According to Ms. Kates, even though TANF caseloads have decreased from five million to two million, studies show “that large numbers of families are still living in precarious financial circumstances.” She asserted that “the average wage of women leaving welfare is $6.61 an hour, with annual earnings that are typically less than $8,000-$10,000, and mothers who earn income over $8,000 often do so by working more hours, rather than receiving higher wages.”

She said her “major concern is that coordination and integration are not advantageous unless they help low-income people gain access to substantive education and training, particularly postsecondary education.” Postsecondary education is essential “to upgrade skills” required in the modern economy and “to provide a living wage for families, especially those headed by women,” she stressed.

Barbara Gault of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research agreed. “The next challenge for the implementation of the Workforce Investment Act and for welfare reform is to improve the employment and earnings outcomes for welfare recipients through high quality, job-focused education and job training,” she said.

“Forty percent of women living in poverty do not have a high school diploma, compared with 13.5 percent of those living above the poverty line,” cited Ms. Gault. “Investing in high quality education and training is important for both economic development and to promote long-term self-sufficiency and reduce poverty among low-income women,” she said. One effective way to increase the income and employability of low-income women would be “to train women for non-traditional jobs” such as construction workers or mechanics, she recommended. According to the Department of Labor, those jobs paid $475 and $627 weekly, while the more traditional jobs of cashiers and hairdressers averaged between $275 and $340 weekly.

Ms. Gault urged the subcommittee to expand flexibility to the states and provide more funding for education and training. She also recommended that TANF’s 12-month limit on vocational education and training be removed. Under current law, there is “a 12-month time limit on vocational education and training as a countable work activity,” she explained.

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