Work-First Welfare Policies Don’t Work for Infants on TANF

It might be time to re-imagine TANF for the benefit of America’s children, nearly one-fourth of whom are born poor.

In 1996, Congress replaced the old federal welfare system with a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), designed to give states flexibility in helping poor families with children. Under TANF, states receive “block grants” they can use to give families cash benefits to meet their immediate needs – to help pay for diapers and rent and bus fare – but also to provide them with a customized package of services such as job training, child care, uniforms for work, or car repairs. Under TANF, states must also engage families receiving cash assistance in work activities, which prompted most states to adopt “work first” programs requiring that poor parents’ top priority should be to get a job, any job.

The original rationale behind the 1996 legislation was that if parents got a toehold in the labor market, they would be able to move up to better paying, more stable jobs over time. Unfortunately, this assumption has not proven true. Only a small minority of families have managed to work their way out of poverty and stay there. For example, one recent study of families who left welfare in Maryland found that only 8 percent earned enough to stay above the federal poverty threshold for a three-person family during each of five years after exit.

Moreover, increasing evidence shows that the “work first” policies adopted by states may be especially harmful to pregnant women and families with infants, who comprise about 15 percent of families on TANF. Thanks to a large and growing body of research, we know far more than we did when TANF was created about how experiences during the infant and toddler years, including biological responses to stress, shape the architecture of the brain and lay the foundation for future growth, learning, and health. This means that poverty in early childhood presents a grave threat to long-term health, well-being, and educational success, with persistent and deep poverty causing the most damage. It is time to take these lessons seriously, and develop TANF programs that support children’s development as well as poor families’ immediate needs.

First, today’s work-first approach to welfare poses a particular challenge for families with infants due to the logistics of managing child care. Most low-wage hourly level jobs do not provide any form of paid leave (neither sick days nor family leave), and it is not uncommon for workers who miss work to be fired. Low-wage jobs are characterized by unpredictable and unstable schedules, meaning that workers frequently do not know their scheduled days or hours until a few days in advance and may experience significant fluctuations in number of hours and timing of shifts from week to week. Many workers, particularly in the retail industry, are assigned to call-in shifts, providing no guarantee of work, but preventing them from scheduling other work or activities. Arranging stable, quality child care under these conditions is nearly impossible.

Moreover, states have used large shares of the funds provided under TANF for purposes other than cash assistance and work supports. In 2013, states reported using just 27 percent of the block grant and required state funds on cash assistance, 16 percent on child care, and 7 percent on work-related activities. Many states have, instead, used TANF funds to replace state spending on activities such as child welfare services, or college scholarships. Thus, the idea that states would provide poor families with whatever they needed to get back on their feet and succeed has largely gone unrealized.

With the growing evidence about the importance of the first year of life for children’s long-term success, it’s time to redesign TANF programs to meet the developmental needs of infants and support the families who are raising them. In a recent CLASP report, TANF and the First Year of Life: Making a Difference at a Pivotal Moment, Stephanie Schmit and I suggest an innovative framework for thinking about TANF in the context of the first year of life and present a vision for what a reformed TANF might look like.

We lay out concrete steps – such as offering cash assistance, child care, home visiting, and connections to health care, and nutrition programs – that states can begin taking right now to move their programs in this direction and make real improvements for babies and toddlers living in poverty, so that they have a better chance of succeeding at school and beyond. Because of the TANF block grant’s structure and flexibility, states can start to make changes today and can begin to make a difference at a pivotal moment in the lives of the next generation.

In 2014, nearly one-quarter of infants were poor, a larger share than any other age group. More than one-third of Black and Hispanic babies experience poverty. Because our nation’s success depends on future generations, this is a problem for all of society, not just these babies and their parents.

A number of states are starting to think about ways to support poor families with babies, from addressing toxic stress to parenting education. But TANF has rarely been included in these efforts. Helping poor families with infants without fixing TANF programs is like stepping on the gas while keeping the brakes on – imagine how much more we could do if all systems were pulling in the same direction.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Elizabeth Lower-Basch is the director of income and work supports policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).