Ending Wellness as We Know It – Again

President Bill Clinton speaking on welfare reform at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville in October 1996. It is time for Congress and the states to fix some of the reforms resulting from Clinton’s promise to “put end to welfare as we know it”.PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

When he was running for president, Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it”. And in 1996 he signed a bill that did just that. By replacing the New Deal-era welfare program that was in place at the time with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—or TANF—Clinton’s welfare reform imposed new restrictions on eligibility for government assistance, including work requirements and lifetime limits. It also gave states the freedom to spend social grants in almost any way they please, such as college scholarships, foster care, or child protective services, instead of direct aid in species.

The law was so flexible, in fact, that states didn’t have to spend the money they received at all — and the past two and a half decades have made it clear that many aren’t, even in the event of need. In 1997, TANF’s first year, states collectively spent $14 billion, or 71 percent of the funds allocated to the program. In 2020, states spent $7.1 billion, or 22% of allocated federal funds.

This decline in spending at the state level cannot be attributed to success in the fight against poverty. On the contrary, poverty soared during the Great Recession, and the poverty rate in 2020 was roughly what it was at the start of the millennium. All the while, as a ProPublica report recently pointed out, states are hoarding more and more money, with many state governments choosing to sit on huge TANF reserves while rejecting the vast majority candidates for the program. In fact, TANF acceptance rates have dropped so much that they have started to resemble the admissions statistics of Ivy League schools. Texas, for example, approved just 7% of applications in 2020 despite reaching just 4% of families living in poverty, down from 47% in 1996.

Today, more than $5 billion has accumulated from unused TANF funds. And with poverty persisting and hopes of passing the Build Back Better Bill fading, the need for a new round of welfare reforms – this time to build a stronger and safer safety net. Ensuring that the money that Congress allocates to fight poverty is actually spent – ​​is clear. Although the shortage of social spending is particularly prevalent in the more conservative states of the South and Midwest, it is a problem found across the country. Maine, for example, is one of the worst offenders, having more unspent money per person living at or below the poverty line than almost any other state. This is why reform must take place at both the state and federal levels.

With Congress seemingly unable to take major legislative action at this time, states should act first. And while not all states have a problem spending their TANF funds—Massachusetts, for example, is one of six states that no longer has unspent money—all would benefit from streamlining application processes. cumbersome and often confusing that discourage people from trying to receive benefits. Indeed, the number of requests for TANF has dropped dramatically over the past decade, and not because families no longer need it.

One of the most effective ways for states to use their TANF reserves is to increase the amount of supplemental income that goes to those who qualify — low-income families with at least one child under 18. This is especially relevant today, as high rates of inflation reduce Americans’ purchasing power and weigh disproportionately on the poor. And the reality is that TANF cash benefits have not kept up with inflation over the years. “Some states haven’t increased their grants since 1996,” LaDonna Pavetti, vice president of family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told The Globe’s editorial board. “We know that the way to solve poverty is to increase family income. This is a first step in being able to really use TANF to reduce poverty,” said Pavetti.

One of the reasons TANF came into existence was to create a welfare-to-work pipeline, providing temporary assistance to families who have fallen on hard times before getting back on their feet. But the problem is that many states have underinvested in job training programs, essentially penalizing people who don’t have jobs instead of actively helping them find a stable one that pays enough to make ends meet. . One study found that in Maryland, for example, only 22% of welfare recipients had stable jobs five years after leaving TANF, while the rest could only find temporary jobs or jobs with poverty wages. That’s why states should use a portion of their TANF funds for more robust, individualized job training programs that can actually help people find gainful employment.

Eventually, the federal government will have to step in and raise the standards to which the states are held. This means requiring states to peg their cash payments to inflation so poor families are less burdened by rising costs, and requiring states to spend the bulk of their TANF funds on direct cash assistance. Congress should also reconsider the TANF Act of 1996’s five-year federal cap over a given beneficiary’s lifetime and require states to be more flexible with their time limits on the program. Although the original law allowed states to grant extensions to families facing particularly difficult circumstances, such as disabilities that prevent them from working, some states, such as Maine, have made extensions nearly impossible, leaving behind the families who need the most help.

Congress can’t sit on this. Studies show that states where black children are more likely to live tend to underinvest TANF funds in direct cash assistance. And research also shows that significant extra income for poor families has long-term positive outcomes for children, leading to better education, health and employment. So it’s time for America to end welfare as we know it now – except this time expand the social safety net instead of leaving it hanging by a thread.

Editorials represent the opinions of the Editorial Board of The Boston Globe. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.

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