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As welfare reform turns 25, it isn’t working, advocates for poor families say

  • Kate Giammarise/WESA
A pedestrian walks past the dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

A pedestrian walks past the dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019.

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Twenty-five years after President Bill Clinton signed into law a sweeping welfare overhaul, the program isn’t helping families to meet their basic needs or escape poverty, according to a report released this week.

The report, from the Meet the Need Coalition, examined the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, program. Meet the Need is a group of current and former TANF participants and social service advocacy organizations, including Community Legal Services, Pennsylvania Health Access Network, Black Women’s Policy Agenda and Just Harvest.

In Pennsylvania, the dollar amounts paid to families in the program are low (about $400 monthly for a family of three) and have not increased since the 1990s, and the paperwork required to enroll and stay in the program is challenging, according to the report.

The way the program operates means that Pennsylvania’s state government accepts that children who receive TANF will grow up in deep poverty, living on just a fraction of what we know is needed to get by,” the report’s authors said.

Among the ways the report proposes changing the program to help more people: increasing the amount of money given to families, improving work and job training programs, not ending benefits as abruptly when a recipient transitions to work, and letting families in the TANF program save money (there’s currently a $1,000 savings limit).

The monthly cash assistance amount is set in the state budget, so raising it would require approval from the General Assembly.

State human service officials have said they must follow legal requirements for the program but have aimed to ease paperwork burdens when possible.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services also has spent the past several years overhauling its employment and training programs.

“We have been working to change the focus of our program to provide more opportunity for our TANF recipients to get more education credentials like GEDs or job credentials and move away from simply focusing on getting individuals into low-wage jobs, only to have them lose those jobs months later and return to our programs,” said Ali Fogarty, a spokesperson for the agency.

“Redesigning this program allows us to shift the focus away from keeping recipients in compliance with the work requirements and to what we can do to help them move and stay out of poverty,” Fogarty said.

Welfare reform was signed by then-President Clinton 25 years ago this month.

The federal changes meant the program transformed from one that was considered an “entitlement” — meaning families who were poor enough to qualify were guaranteed aid — to a “block grant” — meaning states got only a set amount of funds for the program, and not every person who needed help was guaranteed to receive it.

Enrollment in the TANF program has declined significantly through time, though rates of deep child poverty have not. In Pennsylvania, fewer than 65,000 people in Pennsylvania now receive cash assistance, according to the most recent state statistics.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: In this Aug. 22, 1996, file photo President Bill Clinton prepares to sign legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House overhauling America’s welfare system. Visible, from left, are former welfare recipients Lillie Harden, of Little Rock, Ark., and Janet Ferrel, of W.Va., Vice President Gore, West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and former welfare recipient Penelope Howard, of Delaware.

More than 531,000 Pennsylvanians were receiving welfare in August 1996, when welfare reform was signed into law.

Enrollment continued to decline even during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of high unemployment and greater use of other safety-net programs. Critics have pointed to the fact that the program doesn’t expand during an economic downturn as one of its weaknesses.

The pandemic put into stark relief how much TANF has failed to respond to increased childhood poverty. The data shows that 24.4% fewer Pennsylvania families were receiving TANF in November 2020 than were receiving it in November 2019, despite the obvious effect of the global pandemic devastating the state economy and plunging more families into poverty,” the report’s authors noted.

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