As the debt ceiling crisis looms, negotiations are increasingly likely to include Republican demands to tighten work requirements in state Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, which provide cash assistance to families in poverty.
Each state runs its own TANF program with considerable discretion over who is eligible and how exactly states spend the funds they receive from a federal block grant. To hold states accountable and ensure they meet the goal of moving families from welfare to work, the federal government mandates that states meet certain work participation goals among TANF beneficiaries. Republican proposals for restoring work requirements are aimed at states rather than directly at families.
The TANF provisions in Speaker McCarthy’s Limit, Save, and Grow Act would change how states calculate what is called their work participation rate (WPR) for beneficiaries. As part of the 1996 welfare reforms under President Bill Clinton, the federal government began requiring states to meet a target where 50 percent of single parents and 90 percent of married parents receiving cash assistance were engaged in at least 30 hours of “work activities” each week (the target is only 20 hours for parents with young children). Eligible work activities include subsidized or unsubsidized employment, community service, vocational training, and job readiness programs.
Work activities sound fine on paper. Still, case workers and beneficiaries alike often complain that they end up spending more time tracking countable hours to comply with these requirements – filling out paperwork and checking boxes – than engaging in the sort of integrated casework focused on ensuring access to family services, intensive job-search assistance, and job training reflecting local employer demands that has proved to be more helpful in getting families back on their feet. It is unclear whether chasing countable hours leads to permanent employment that allows families to leave welfare for good.