On Thursday, September 22, the Brookings Institute hosted a day long discussion, The 20th anniversary of welfare reform: Lessons and takeaways., Along with the Brookings Institution, the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research.

The daylong session broke out the analysis and discussion along the lines of, child well-being, marriage and families, work and poverty, and state policy choices.  Speakers and panelists included Ron Haskins, Center on Children and Families, Brooking Institute, Robert Doar, American Enterprise Institute, Isabel V. Sawhill, Brookings Institute, Wade Horn, Public Sector Health and Human Services Leader – Deloitte, Ronald Mincy, Columbia University,  Sheldon Danziger, Russell Sage Foundation, Robert Greenstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Gordon Berlin, MDRC, and Don Winstead, Don Winstead Consulting.

Some of the consensus points were that the TANF block grant and program could no longer be looked at in isolation of other factors.  The impact on children, work, families and poverty are effected by many factors and government programs.  There was also a great deal of concern expressed about the block grant structure, whether or not outcomes for TANF (work rates) were the correct outcomes and the need to increase the funding level of the $16.5 billion block grant which has lost over a third of its value.

The preliminary discussion focused on children and suggested that child well-being is better today than it was in 1996 when the law was passed.  But there was agreement that many of the improvements were dependent on other factors especially greater access to health care.  In particular there were several Medicaid mandates enacted in the 1980s that assured child access to that program.  In addition, shortly after TANF, the CHIP, Children’s Health Insurance Program, was enacted.

Wade Horn discussed the impact of marriage and family.  As an advocate of some of the TANF funding that targeted marriage promotion he indicated that much of the research did not show significant results with some research indicating positive outcomes in relationships while other impacts were not so positive. He also said that marriage promotion was not a panacea (although data indicates the positive impact of two-parent families) but it was a goal and not “the” goal of the law.

The work discussion also was a mixed-bag of conclusions with the economy very hot in the 1990s which contributed to record high rates of single mothers in the workforce and employed.  There was also an acknowledgement that today’s economy is very different.  As part of this there was agreement that simply setting work rates for states was not effective or appropriate.  Some state representatives indicated that much of the current TANF casework is focused on tracking and documenting work hours.

TANF has not been reauthorized since 2006 and since has received a series of monthly and yearly extensions.  That is expected again this year.  To review the various Brookings Institute discussions from last Thursday, September 23, go here.