Carmen Nazario overseas the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or welfare program.WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–For the first time since federal welfare law was overhauled in 1996, the official in charge of overseeing the program told a congressional hearing last week that the decline in the number of welfare cases is problematic.

"Caseload decline is positive if it is accompanied by decline in poverty and increases in employment," Carmen Nazario, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Service, told the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support on March 11.

If that decline is accompanied by a rise in child poverty and a drop in the employment rate of single mothers, however, then it is not a mark of success, she said.

The subcommittee hearing was one of many leading up to the reauthorization vote on the welfare program, a block grant to states formally called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which expires in September. The program, which was last reauthorized in 2005, supports low-income households headed by single parents.

When TANF was enacted, President Clinton and the Republican leadership presented the significant changes as a way to put a single parent on a path out of welfare and into financial independence through the imposition of work requirements and time limits for assistance–as well as funding limits to the states. Under the previous program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, single parents were entitled to aid, channeled through the states, although it too included work requirements and other strictures. The 1996 law included a host of rules and sanctions that permitted states to more easily end a family’s assistance and capped the amount each state could receive.

Concern When Clock Runs Out

Under TANF, the maximum time a parent could receive federal subsidies was for five years, although many states adopted shorter time limits. Anti-poverty advocates have long worried about what happens to families when the "clock" runs out, especially in a recession as deep as the current one.

"I think TANF is a lagging indicator of a recession," Russell Sykes, chairman of the National Association of State TANF Administrators, told the subcommittee. He predicted that the caseload would grow over the next two years. "We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg," he said.

The government defines poverty as a family of four earning $22,050 a year. The child poverty rate fell from 22.7 percent to 16.2 percent during the first few years following the 1996 changes in the welfare law. In 2008, the child poverty rate rose to 19 percent, while the TANF program–the primary federal safety net for single mothers and their children–hit an all-time low of 1.7 million cases. About 90 percent of the TANF heads of households are single mothers.

The program caseload has increased slightly to 1.8 million since last September, and many predict that the recession will create further demand for welfare assistance.

Tim Casey, a senior attorney with Legal Momentum, a women’s advocacy group based in New York, told Women’s eNews that the two biggest fixes needed for TANF include increased access to the safety net program, which currently reaches only 27 percent of poor children, by changing eligibility rules and relaxing sanctions that force people out of the program for minor infractions. The second fix is higher federal funding, which has flat-lined over the past decade, thereby decreasing in value, due to inflation. For the current cases, cash benefits are insufficient in many states, most glaringly in Mississippi, where a family of three receives only $170 a month.

Advocates such as Casey say the TANF program is broken and requires immediate repair to help needy families who’ve been hit hard by the recession.

Filling in Recession-Related Holes

The Obama administration in its 2011 budget has kept program characteristics and funding levels essentially unchanged at about $17 billion. It has proposed extending an emergency fund with an additional $2.5 billion and replenishing a five-year contingency fund with $1.8 billion to fill holes left by the recession.

In her statement to the subcommittee, Nazario said the administration would take on a "more comprehensive examination" of TANF this year "in preparation for a full reauthorization of welfare reform," though she declined to give a timeline.

Casey praised the administration for continuing the emergency fund, which was started with $5 billion from stimulus money last year and expires in September. The fund does three things: subsidizes jobs, gives additional assistance to states that have increased their caseloads and provides emergency benefits for expenses such as utility bills. Supporters of the emergency fund are trying to insert it into the jobs bill that’s working its way through the House, fearing that the subsidized jobs will be cut in the coming months if the fund is not continued.

The administration’s budget also calls for a new $500 million Father, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund, which shifts a Bush-era marriage promotion initiative into a testing ground for programs that would help welfare parents build more sustainable careers.

"It’s significant and important," Casey said about the additional money. "I think of it as a down payment on what needs to get done."

Removal of Education and Training Caps

Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat and former welfare recipient, seconded Casey’s endorsement of the emergency fund. But during her testimony to the subcommittee she added that Congress should remove caps on education and training, which are limited to one year. She noted research showing heads of households who lack a college degree are 13 times more likely to be poor than their more educated counterparts.

Members of Congress who advocate for an improved welfare system, such as Subcommittee Chairman Jim McDermott, D-Wash., did not rule out structural changes to TANF this year, though his staff declined to give any specifics.

Advocates for overhauling TANF point to a paper written by Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a national anti-poverty nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., as their agenda.

Lower-Basch recommends allowing welfare recipients to integrate more education and training into required work, replacing a system of federal incentives to states for lowering caseloads with one that rewards states for lifting families out of poverty and changing program requirements so that more poor families can qualify for TANF and receive increased benefits.

Melissa Boteach, a poverty researcher at the Washington-based think tank Center for American Progress, is working with the congressional committee in charge of reauthorizing TANF.

She said chances are "not strong" that Congress will address major structural deficiencies this year. But she’s hopeful that the emergency fund and the new innovation fund focused on career training will strengthen the overall TANF program this year, while laying the groundwork for more comprehensive reform next year.

Julia Marsh is a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent. In addition to reporting for Women’s eNews, she covers domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.

For more information:

CLASP Policy Paper on TANF:

Subcommittee hearing testimonies: