States and Poor Families Caught by New Punitive Federal Welfare Rules

With new federal rules slipped into the recent reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, families in poverty are going to be suffering more -- and states have seen their flexibility in helping them significantly curtailed by new rigid federal rules. As this story highlights, most states are now scrambling to meet these stiff requirements and many are protesting that the poor will be the victims:

After the 1996 welfare "reform" law was passed, some of the more punitive aspects of the law were eased by rules that gave states more leaway if caseloads were reduced below the 1995 level and gave them flexibility in what kinds of work preparation programs. But with the new rules, states no longer get any credit for reducing caseloads for the last ten years, so all the punitive parts of the 1996 bill are coming to bear on many states:

The regulations also curtail states’ ability to develop their own brands of welfare-to-work programs by strictly defining what types of activities qualify as work preparation. In addition, the new rules extend federal oversight to separate state-funded TANF programs.

The changes take the “block”? out of the block grant concept, said Michael Bird of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), explaining that the hallmark of Congress’ 1996 welfare reform was the broad authority it gave states.

Unfortunately, the model the federal government points to is Georgia, which has "increased" the percentage of people participating in "work-related" programs by using draconian rules to kick more people off welfare altogether -- dropping from 30,000 recipients to fewer than 8,000 folks receiving TANF help in the whole state. Yet poverty in Georgia has not seen any similar reduction -- 23% of individual workers earn poverty-level wages and, even when multiple wages are combined, 17% of families in Gerogia remain in poverty. So if Georgia is a "success" according to the federal government, they are setting the bar very low -- and unfortunately trying to force other states to emulate it.

As an alternative, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and CLASP have issued a report that outlines steps states can take to cope with the rule changes and help poor families in their states, from modifying work programs, expanding income supplements for poor families that do find work, and improving TANF help for those with disabilities. The report outlines important steps that states can take to cope with the new federal rules that won't harm families in poverty.