In 1996, a new welfare program based on state block grants, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, became law, replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. TANF eliminated the AFDC entitlement to assistance, mandating work as a condition of receiving benefits, imposing time limits and sanctions, focusing on family formation issues, and putting most of the control over the programs into the hands of the states. TANF was set to expire on October 1, 2002, but Congress was unable to complete work reauthorizing the law. The current program has simply been extended on a quarterly basis. Congress will take up the unfinished job of TANF reauthorization this year.
The House of Representatives passed a TANF bill last year (H.R. 4737) that mirrored the Administration's proposal. The Bishops' Conference and Catholic Charities USA declined to support the bill. In the Senate, the Finance Committee approved a bill which reflected many, but not all, of our policy priorities. But the session ended without Senate action on its bill. (Go to the USCCB and CCUSA website addresses listed below for more information on last year's bills).
On February 13, 2003, the House passed H.R. 4, a bill nearly identical to the TANF bill that passed the House last year, by a vote of 230-192. USCCB and CCUSA again joined in a letter expressing our concerns with the bill. It is less clear what kind of legislation the Senate Finance Committee will propose. Indications are that the Committee will stay closer to current law, with some increases in the work requirements but smaller than the changes in the House bill.
Key Issues This Year:
Work provisions: States must have specific percentages of TANF recipients engaged in "work activities," or they lose part of their federal TANF grant as a penalty. A final TANF bill may increase the work requirements that states and welfare recipients must meet. We support continuing TANF"s emphasis on work, but we urge Congress not to change the work requirements in ways that could limit states' flexibility to develop programs that help recipients get decent jobs so they can support their families, or that put undue burdens on parents.
Also important is what activities states are allowed to count as "work." We have urged that states be allowed to count genuine education and training as work for more than the 12 months currently allowed. Substance abuse and mental or physical health problems can be significant barriers to work. The work requirements should also be structured to allow TANF recipients to get the help they need in these areas, and to reflect the needs of those caring for young children or disabled family members.
Marriage and Family Issues: The Catholic community has consistently affirmed the vital importance of marriage for raising children. Children do better economically, emotionally, and spiritually when raised by parents in the context of a stable, healthy marriage. It is essential both to provide the resources necessary to enable all parents -- married or single -- to meet the needs of their families, and to develop appropriate policies to support and strengthen marriage and families. A crucial first step in a pro-marriage policy is to end federal and state welfare rules that discriminate against two-parent families. We also support effective fatherhood programs; allowing states to pass-through child support directly to
TANF families; and funding for voluntary programs to support healthy marriages and strong families, and for research and technical assistance focusing on family formation and healthy marriage activities.
Twenty-three states have exercised their option under TANF law to deny benefits to children born while their family is receiving assistance. We will continue to work to end the family cap option, either in TANF reauthorization or in separate legislation, because of pro-life and pro-family concerns.
Fairness for Legal Immigrants: The Bishops" Conference has long advocated for the availability of basic necessities to all those in need, regardless of their race, creed, ethnic origin, or nationality, and we have worked to restore necessary benefit eligibility for legal immigrants. We strongly urge the Congress to restore full benefits eligibility for legal immigrants. The restriction on assistance to legal immigrants and their families was a major reason our Conference opposed the 1996 welfare reform act. Restoring this help is a major priority for the Bishops" Conference
Supports for Working Families: For families leaving welfare, the availability of work supports, such as health care, child care and food stamps, can be a key to making a lasting transition to self-sufficiency. Congress should make sure families leaving TANF have a full year of transitional Medicaid and food stamps, and should include sufficient additional resources to ensure that low-income working families have access to adequate and safe child care. We also urge Congress to restore funding to the Social Services Block Grant program, through which states and agencies can provide crucial support services to families leaving TANF.
TANF Funding: The TANF block grant should be increased to reflect inflation, and additional assistance to states with historically low spending or experiencing economic difficulties should continue.
We support welfare reform policies that: Protect human life and dignity; strengthen family life; encourage and reward work; preserve a safety net for the vulnerable; build public/private partnerships to overcome poverty; and invest in human dignity.
A central goal for TANF reauthorization should be to address the moral scandal of so much poverty in the richest nation on earth. Poverty reduction requires a three-pronged strategy of:
- Supporting meaningful work,
- Strengthening marriage and family life, and
- Sustaining the needy and vulnerable among us, especially our children, and by committing to funding TANF, at a minimum, at current levels adjusted for inflation.
Let your Senators and Representatives know that you want them to make our welfare system more effective at reducing poverty. Key issues include:
- restoring benefits to legal immigrants;
- sensible work requirements that don't limit states'ability to help TANF recipients to become self-sufficient, and that give states greater flexibility to count genuine education and training as work;
- ensuring that those leaving welfare have access to essential work supports, by increasing funding for child care and providing year-long transitional Medicaid and food stamps; and
- supporting marriage and families by removing barriers to two parent families receiving assistance and providing counseling resources to low-income couples where appropriate.
Putting Children and Families First (1992); Moral Principles and Policy Priorities for Welfare Reform (1995); TANF Reauthorization comments submitted to HHS by SDWP and by CCUSA, November 2001
Web sites: www.usccb.org
Kathy Curran, 202-541-3188, firstname.lastname@example.org; Mark Gallagher 202-541-3142, email@example.com,
Sharon Daly, 703-549-1390, firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Smith, 703-549-1390 email@example.com