Welfare Hypocrisy at Work in Washington

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In 2015, Ohio officials contacted the Department of Health and Human Services with a request to change state work requirements for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the program commonly known as welfare. Federal TANF requirements prioritize work over education and training, and Ohio officials wanted to make it easier for low-income parents to access training programs that could help them secure better jobs. Ohio based its proposal on a 2012 Obama administration memo, which invited states to submit proposals to modify TANF work requirements to “[help] parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.”

Under federal rules, there are strict time limits on job-hunting and education and training programs. Ohio wanted to secure permission for TANF recipients to “engage in activities that make sense based on their individual circumstances.” State officials sought to max out the vocational training time limit from 12 months to 36 months, since many certification programs take longer than a year, and include other modifications, such as increasing the job-hunting timeline from six weeks to 12 weeks and giving parents more flexibility to meet job or training timelines if family emergencies interfere.

But in late August, the Trump administration denied Ohio’s still-pending request and quietly rescinded the Obama-era memo that could have provided the states with some flexibility in designing these requirements. The HHS move not only did away with yet another Obama-era rule, it undermined a core conservative tenet that encourages shifting decision-making powers for federal programs from Washington to the states.

The GOP blasted the original HHS memo, complaining that President Obama intended to move toward “gutting” work requirements and giving welfare recipients “free checks.” In the ensuing uproar, Ohio was the only state that submitted a request to modify its TANF work requirements: Obama administration officials suggested that other states were “deterred in part by inaccurate claims about what the policy involves.” Indeed, the Republican attacks were baseless: Federal officials did not want to eliminate work requirements. They wanted states like Ohio to investigate better ways to help TANF recipients to find good jobs. Indeed, Republican Governor John Kasich wrote a New York Times op-ed noting that the federal government should “[work] with states to fix this broken system once and for all, so low-income Americans can get the help they need to move into meaningful employment.”

Meanwhile, Trump administration officials have replaced the Obama-era policy with “an expectation that work should always be encouraged as a condition for receiving welfare,” still echoing the disingenuous political spin that greeted the memo five years ago.

Ohio attempted to use its federal TANF dollars to bolster education and training programs, which are hallmarks of the more successful welfare programs. Hannah Halbert, a Policy Matters Ohio researcher, says that Ohio’s request was “an attempt to address some of the problems inherent in work requirements,” including the concern that requirements don’t consider the barriers to employment that many low-income people face.

Work requirements “don’t provide a whole lot in return in terms of people gaining skills and getting the kinds of employment that would allow them to reduce or eliminate the need [for TANF],” Halbert tells The American Prospect. In 2016, seven out of the ten most common jobs in Ohio had annual median wages that were less than 130 percent of the poverty line for a family of three, or $26,208 a year. Halbert points to voluntary, individualized education and training programs as avenues for people to build the skills and obtain the kinds of educational and vocational certifications that lead to higher-paying work. Yet, in 2015, only 7 percent of states’ TANF budgets were used to fund work, education, and training activities.

Instead of moving people into decent-paying employment, work requirements actually just reduce the number of people who receive TANF. Republicans and some Democrats point to statistics that show a decline in the numbers of families receiving assistance as proof that the law helped reduce poverty by pushing people into work.

But fewer families on TANF does not mean that fewer people need assistance: in 1995, the last year of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TANF’s predecessor), 68 percent of families in poverty received cash assistance. AFDC was an entitlement program and provided income support to most families in poverty. TANF is a block grant program: that framework means that states can impose extremely strict eligibility requirements, and even choose to divert TANF funds away from basic assistance to low-income families. Today, only 23 percent of families in poverty receive TANF assistance. Since TANF’s passage, the number of families in extreme poverty (living on less than $2 per day) has more than doubled.

In Ohio, improving access to education and training programs could have helped low-income parents find stable work, which conservatives say is the best way out of poverty.

But it’s also likely the loosened requirements would have made it easier for more low-income Ohioans to access TANF—which may have factored into the denial of the request and the rescinding of the policy by Trump’s HHS officials.  

Prioritizing any employment over the education and training that could lead to a better job results in participants taking the first, worst, lowest-paying positions available. In an environment without a minimum living wage and strong unions, specialized skills and training are often necessary for poor people to land the kinds of jobs that pay the bills and help propel families out of poverty.

Stringent work requirements appear to be one of the Trump administration’s favorite policy solutions for intractable problems like poverty. The rescinding of the Obama-era TANF policy may also signal that the Trump administration intends to approve state plans to implement work requirements in other programs like Medicaid. If so, Americans may see even more tears in an already-shredded social safety net.

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