By Rep. Tom Reed
In 1996, a Republican Congress and a Democrat President reformed our nation's welfare system, creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to replace the floundering Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Established in the era of the New Deal, AFDC had grown heavy with waste and fraud and gave recipients no incentives to leave welfare and lift themselves out of poverty. Instead, it became a trap, with AFDC recipients spending an average of eight years collecting welfare checks.
Since TANF replaced AFDC, the new program has successfully cut welfare dependence, reduced child poverty and helped more low-income parents go to work. Seventeen years after its creation, we must continue to refine the program to best serve those in need.
The original welfare reform law required Congress to regularly review the TANF program to make sure it continues to work as intended. As Congress reviews TANF this year, it is important that we strengthen policies designed to return welfare recipients to work and lift themselves out of poverty. As a member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee which oversees TANF, I plan to focus on several central principles for strengthening the TANF program and providing recipients with the tools they need to get good jobs and rise out of poverty.
My first principle is to reform welfare so that it assists, rather than traps, the working poor. We need to reward those recipients who attempt to get back to work rather than penalize them. One of the ways we can do this is by staggering benefits so that recipients have incentive to try to get off public assistance.
The key is to break the cycle of dependence on public assistance. I believe that the government has a responsibility to help our needy neighbors, but it must do so in a way which encourages and assists them in becoming self-sufficient again.
We should not do it in a way which discourages them by ensnaring them in a system where dependence on government is a better choice than depending upon themselves.
Unfortunately, last year the Obama administration took unprecedented action to waive the current work requirements for TANF recipients. Such an unraveling of a central component of the program not only deters recipients from engaging in work or work-related activities, it also flies in the face of bipartisan collaboration needed to extend and strengthen the TANF program.
Weakening this program by removing incentives to try to find work is the last thing recipients need if we are to give them a hand up. In fact, simply preserving the status quo is unacceptable. We need to strengthen the program.
Some principles are simple, like the idea that welfare programs should not inadvertently discourage marriage. For example, TANF today includes a separate and higher work requirement for two-parent families than single-parent families. For a variety of reasons, states have responded by simply ignoring two-parent families and not helping them find work. Treating all families the same, including subjecting them all to a single work requirement, should help states engage previously ignored two-parent families.
Another principle involves removing obstacles that stand in the way of a recipient going to work. I hope to continue to encourage states to engage in simple, low-cost drug-screening methods which will identify applicants with substance abuse issues and help direct them toward the resources they need to get clean.
Time and time again, I hear from employers who have to turn down job applicants because they cannot pass a drug test. By identifying abuse problems and helping to fix them early on, we can help low-income recipients satisfy employer qualifications so they can move into the workforce.
A final principle involves ensuring the law is working as intended and not subject to fraud and abuse. Last year Congress passed meaningful, bipartisan reforms to TANF that prohibited TANF funds from being withdrawn in casinos, liquor stores or adult entertainment establishments and created penalties for states that fail to enforce those requirements.
We also reviewed some disappointing ways by which some states have manipulated program accounting to reduce the number of recipients that have to engage in work and training. And we have taken steps to ensure that TANF agencies start using a consistent data format so that the TANF program can talk to other programs, easing program administration, better serving customers, and reducing improper payments.
A great deal of progress has been made over the past twenty years to ensure meaningful and effective support is given to our nation's needy.
By strengthening the TANF welfare program and moving more recipients into work and other productive activities, we can help reduce poverty and improve the lives of many recipients and the futures of their children.