Today, we pause to revisit the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Sharon McDonald, Director for Families and Youth at the Alliance, shares her thoughts about welfare.
Last month marked the 15th anniversary of welfare reform. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) is often heralded as a success. With the flexibility of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant, many states provided work supports that helped thousands of families transition off of financial assistance and enter the workforce.
The recent recession, however, highlighted some of the weaknesses of the program. The program did not adequately respond to the increased needs of families suddenly without work and whose unemployment insurance ran out, leaving them teetering on the edge and on their own. From its inception, the program has allowed too many families to fall through the cracks and into deeper poverty. Primary among them are families who experience homelessness.
Less than 20 percent of homeless families report receiving financial assistance from TANF agencies. Studies demonstrate that families who lose TANF assistance often include family members with a disability and other serious barriers to economic self-sufficiency. While some families may lose TANF financial assistance, other eligible families may never apply. With the hope of finding a new job quickly, parents experiencing a short-term economic crisis turn instead to extended families and friends. Many double up. When doubling up results in conflict, they turn to homeless programs.
TANF programs can be more effective in preventing homelessness. States can adopt policies that make it easier for families to apply for and receive financial assistance. They can work to reduce the number of families who are sanctioned off of cash assistance and who lack the means to care for themselves or their children, particularly families that include parents or children with disabilities. States can also increase benefit levels and provide emergency assistance so that families who do receive TANF can pay for housing.
TANF programs can also be more effective in ending homelessness. In communities across the country, local welfare agencies are partnering with programs serving homeless families to rapidly re-house families. In Salt Lake City, for example, the Department of Workforce Services works closely with The Road Home to help families move quickly out of shelter and back into housing of their own. The Road Home provides housing search assistance, landlord negotiation, and home-based case management to families. Workforce Services works with the Road Home to provide short-term benefits to help families pay for housing in the first few months and provide employment search assistance so families will be able to pay for housing on their own over the long-term. The evidence is clear that this approach is working. Family shelter stays are minimized and over 90 percent of the families served successfully retain their housing with the short-term, upfront help the program provides.
The 15th anniversary of welfare reform provides an opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned from PRWORA on how TANF programs can be improved. TANF programs can be a more effective buffer to prevent family homelessness and a critical partner in re-housing families who do become homeless. Ending family homelessness requires the investment of state and local TANF agencies. With sufficient political will, the 20th anniversary of welfare reform can provide an opportunity to reflect on the great advancements made by TANF agencies to end family homelessness.