TANF—is it good enough?

ECM in Maine and New Hampshire Director MaryLou Beaver weighs in with her articles in the Maine and New Hamphire newsletters.

Did you know that childhood poverty costs the United States about $500 billion per year?

One of the important safety net programs for children, TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), is set to expire this March and will need to be renewed. TANF benefits, however, are increasingly inadequate to help poor families meet basic needs, like housing, food and utilities.

Greg Kaufmann recently reported in his blog about  a top-notch panel of experts at the Center for American Progress (CAP) talking about TANF—“Learning from the Past, Planning for the Future.”

One of the speakers, Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), opened the discussion with an overview of how the program has performed as a safety net and in boosting employment—since the promise of TANF was that it would serve both purposes and thereby create pathways to self-sufficiency.

Her top line statistic in assessing TANF as a safety net is this: Before welfare reform, for every 100 families with children in poverty in the US, 68 were able to access cash assistance; now that number has fallen to just 27 (and Pavetti thinks it will be even lower when the 2012 data comes in). The benefit for those lucky twenty-seven families who are able to access it is less than 30 percent of the poverty line in most states—so less than $5,400 annually for a family of three.

Pavetti also pointed out that in 1995—the year before TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—AFDC kept over 2.2 million poor children from falling into deep poverty (defined as below half the poverty line, or less than $11,500 for a family of four today). This means that AFDC successfully lifted over 62 percent of poor children out of deep poverty. But in 2005, TANF lifted just 21 percent of children who would otherwise be in deep poverty, or just 650,000 kids. TANF has directly contributed to the number of people living in deep poverty rising from 12.6 million in 2000, to 20.4 million people today. This includes over 15 million women and children (and nearly 10 percent of all children).

“So we have a lot less effect today on families and are not helping them deal with very, very deep poverty,” said Pavetti.

If Congress does decide to take up TANF reauthorization this year, it will give us an opportunity to have discussion about the effectiveness of the program