The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), representing 1,160 public and private nonprofit child-serving agencies, offers the following recommendations regarding the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). The well-being of children should be the primary goal of TANF. Our comments emphasize what we see as the issues most critical to children, youth, and families.
There is a long historical link between Title IV-A of the Social Security Act and the child welfare system. The links that existed under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) continue under TANF, including funding, the families and children served, and the way the two programs are administered. A significant percentage of families in the child welfare system receive cash assistance and services funded by TANF. TANF funds are also used to provide needed supports to prevent children from ever coming in contact with the child welfare system.
The TANF program includes the Emergency Assistance program, formerly under AFDC. These funds were used to address family emergencies, including situations that addressed the welfare of the child. The AFDC and now TANF programs have also been an important source of support for relatives caring for their kin. TANF, of course, also touches the lives of many children not in the child welfare system through the funding of cash assistance, child care, and other services targeted to children.
The 2002 TANF reauthorization will offer an opportunity to review the impact and successes of the TANF program. The reauthorization should focus on ways to improve the services that best address the continued needs of vulnerable children and families. TANF must remain a core safety net program for the more than two and a half million families and five and a half million children currently receiving TANF assistance. While the nation strives to make sure that there are fewer families and children dependent on cash assistance, there will continue to be many who need our continued support. TANF cannot be simply labeled as a success or failure-its mission will not end. The TANF program should be structured in a way to help the most vulnerable children and families through the most difficult of times.
Purposes of the Act
The TANF program includes four specific purposes in its preamble. In many instances the purposes of a law or act may provide historical context regarding what the Congress and Administration intended at the time of enactment. Frequently, the purposes of the Act in a public law may never be referenced again except in instances of a legal case or historical study. The four purposes of TANF, however, have taken on a significance not normally assigned to other laws.
The current TANF purposes are likely to be changed or expanded in the 2002 reauthorization. CWLA is concerned that the current purposes reference children only in purpose one, “provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of their relatives.” 1 The other three purposes reference ending dependence on government benefits; promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encouraging two-parent families. The current four purposes fail to include any connection between the program and child well-being. All the goals listed are admirable, but the promotion of work, marriage, two-parent families and even current efforts to address poverty reduction should all have as their ultimate goal the improvement of child well-being. This ultimate goal must take into account how TANF effects all children including older children and youth.
CWLA recommends that child well-being be included in the purpose section of the TANF block grant. It should be made clear throughout the purpose section that the well-being of children, including older children and youth, is a primary focus of the program. The current law should also be clarified to link each of the current purposes to the improved well-being of the children in families receiving TANF assistance. In this way, any programs implemented to address these other goals, such as the promotion of two-parent families or marriage, will have as their ultimate goal the improvement of the lives of the children involved.
Current law establishes one outcome measure for the TANF program. The law requires that specific percentages of a state’s TANF caseload meet federally defined work activities. These requirements vary by family type (single and two-parent families) and by time period. States may adjust these rates downward to the extent that the caseload has decreased since 1996.
A second “unofficial” outcome has been created-the rate at which a state has decreased its TANF caseload. While declining caseloads do effect the required work rates, this figure is not a required outcome. It has, however, been the focus of political leaders, policy analysts, and the media. CWLA believes this unofficial outcome is not a true measure. Recent evidence indicates that some of the families exiting the TANF caseload may not be accessing the support services they are still eligible for, and in many instances are entitled to, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and child care. Caseload reduction statistics alone do not tell us that families are doing well.
CWLA recommends that the current outcomes for TANF be redesigned to provide a more comprehensive measure of how families and children in these families are fairing as a result of receiving TANF assistance. The law should be amended to include child well-being as a more accurate measure.
Many approaches can be taken to re-design or create outcomes for TANF. New outcomes can still allow great state flexibility, recognizing state differences such as budget constraints, economies, populations, and geographic conditions. The range and number of factors a state can be measured on, or used to measure itself, should be expanded. These choices should include strategies that could address poverty reduction, post-TANF job advancement, wage progression, and access to needed support services including child care, food stamps, health care, and most important of all, child well-being. These outcomes can be flexibly defined by states. We believe it would be an important advancement if a state, even by its own design, included outcome measures for the well-being of children in their TANF plans.
TANF and Child Welfare
One of the intersections between the child welfare system and TANF is the “child-only” caseload. The current regulations under TANF allow for care of children by a relative other than the child’s parent, frequently referred to as “kinship care.” This is an important way for states to serve children in the most appropriate and beneficial setting.
Child-only cases under TANF, and under the AFDC program, have always represented a significant percentage of the overall cash assistance caseload. In 1999, child-only families represented 29 percent of the total number of families receiving TANF. This does not mean, however, that all of these families did not have a parent in the household or that all these families were kinship care families. In fact, a majority of the child-only caseload includes a parent. That parent, or parents, may be ineligible for TANF because of their legal alien status, disability status under TANF, or because they receive Supplemental Security Income. In 1999, of the 29 percent of the caseload that was considered child-only, 30 percent were children in a family where the head of the household was related but not the parent. These child-only kinship families represented approximately nine percent of the total families on TANF.
CWLA recommends that the flexibility to serve families through TANF be maintained and not altered in ways that would restrict states abilities to address the needs of children eligible for child only grants.
Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance
The 1996 TANF law repealed the eligibility standards for AFDC. However, TANF requires states to look back to the AFDC rules that were in existence on July 16, 1996 to determine Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance eligibility.
CWLA recommends the eligibility link between Title IV-E foster care and adoption assistance and AFDC be removed. This change will eliminate a costly administrative burden and will treat all children with special needs equitably.
TANF Funding Level
CWLA recommends that the TANF block grant be funded at a level that will allow states to maintain the capacity and services states had in 1996. The current level of funding of $17 billion, including bonuses and the supplemental, should serve as the base block grant. Funding for the TANF block grant should be adjusted in each of the next five years by the rate of inflation and population growth.
We reject proposals that would reduce TANF funding on the premise that the current TANF caseload has been reduced since 1996. The caseload is lower in some instances than it was in 1996, but in many cases the families that had been receiving TANF are now receiving other supportive services such as job training, transportation, wage subsidies, and child care. Families receiving these services are not always counted in the official caseload figures.
States must have a continuation of TANF funding to continue expansion of family supports and to provide continued assistance to some families who need assistance overcoming more difficult barriers to work such as mental health, substance abuse, and learning barriers.
CWLA recommends that TANF funds that have been a part of the TANF block grant as a supplement to states should be maintained in some form. We recommend such a supplement to the TANF block grant be carefully targeted to assist states with the highest levels of poverty.
The supplemental grant that was created in 1996 is an important support for states that qualify. However, some needy states were left out. For example, the current supplemental TANF grant fails to assist states such as West Virginia. According to the2001 Kids Count Data Book, 13 percent of that state’s children are in extreme poverty and another 11 percent are in working poor families. 2
As Congress debates TANF reauthorization in 2002, it will take place against the backdrop of a recession. This is the first time since TANF was created that the economy has experienced a slowdown. As a result, the TANF contingency fund that was created to help states in times of recession has not been tested. The contingency fund was based on the economy of the early 1980s and 1990s. As a result, the two triggers – unemployment and food stamps – that allow a state to access this fund are set too high. A state must reach a 6.5 percent unemployment rate to access the contingency fund. From 1995 through the end of the decade unemployment was at 5.5 percent or lower, with the rate at 4.2 percent by late 1999. For some states, an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent could require the unemployment rolls to double from their low point of the last five years. The food stamp trigger is based on food stamp caseloads of 1994 and 1995. It requires food stamp caseloads to increase by 10 percent to access the contingency fund. The crisis in food stamp enrollment since 1996 would make this an unobtainable target for many states in a recession.
CWLA recommends that the TANF contingency fund be maintained and made more accessible to states. The current triggers in the law are outdated. The unemployment and food stamp threshold should be lowered to make them more accessible to states.
Under the 1996 law, states are required to spend between 75 to 80 percent of what they had spent under the previous AFDC program (including child care, JOBS, and Emergency Assistance). This is referred to as a state’s maintenance-of-effort or MOE.
CWLA recommends that the required MOE spending level for state TANF spending be maintained at the 75 percent to 80 percent level. The MOE requirement should not be weakened by vastly expanding what is “countable” toward the state spending requirement.
State TANF spending is a vital part of this program. States currently contribute approximately $10.5 billion a year. Reducing that total in some instances would place great pressure on some state and local policy makers to reduce a state’s fiscal commitment to human service spending. Similarly, greatly expanding what a state can count toward this spending requirement would allow some states to count current human service spending, thereby reducing overall state spending on human services.
Use of TANF Funds
Under current law and regulations there is a great deal of flexibility in how states may spend federal and state TANF funds. Federal and state TANF funds can have distinct spending requirements. This flexibility has allowed states to invest in important family and child welfare supports.
We are concerned that this same flexibility could be stretched so far that some states might supplant current state human service spending by using their federal or state TANF funds. Both of these TANF funding streams should be used to supplement or expand human services and not used to supplant or replace state spending on child welfare services, as well as other programs like child care. The TANF block grant is intended to help vulnerable families. If it becomes a method to substitute one TANF dollar for a current state dollar it will not reach its goal of helping these families and children.
A U.S. General Accounting Office report 3 found, “supplanting was a common budget practice among the 10 states in our study.” That same report observed that in spite of this fact, overall spending in various human services did increase. The GAO report, however, only studied state practices during prosperous economic times. The ability to reduce state investments by replacing state general fund dollars with federal TANF funds or required state TANF funds could have an overall negative impact on support for human service funding including child welfare services, especially in times of economic slowdowns and recessions.
CWLA supports efforts to prevent supplantation and to maintain state commitments to use TANF funds to expand services to TANF families included in the official caseload, in transition from TANF, and for other vulnerable families.
Child Care Funding
Child care should be recognized as an important service for both children and their families. It is a critical support for families attempting to leave public assistance, as well as a fundamental support for working poor and middle income families. Additionally, child care can be an important part of a child’s development and well-being. The reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) must be enacted with this dual mission to serve both family and child in mind.
Preserving the level of federal and state spending on TANF is critical to the continued expansion of child care. In fiscal year 2000, the amount of TANF funds transferred into the child care block grant or spent directly out of federal TANF block grant on child care exceeded the total of federal child care funds available through the CCDF ($3.9 billion in TANF funds compared to $3.5 billion in available CCDF funds). Additionally, states have invested TANF MOE funds above the amount of spending required as part of the CCDF block grant. States have invested state dollars as matching funds to draw down part of the federal CCDF dollars. If any of these sources of funding are reduced, child care programs and services will be reduced and investments in quality initiatives to improve services will be lost.
CWLA recommends that all TANF funding streams be maintained as a first step to maintaining the current child care system.
Funding for the CCDF should be increased. Current estimates indicate that approximately 12 percent of potentially eligible children are receiving federally funded child care services. When the 1996 TANF block grant was created, initial estimates suggested that the child care funding provided would be so great that states would not draw all the funding for which they were eligible.
CWLA recommends that the Child Care and Development Fund be substantially increased. Federal and state CCDF funding should be increased gradually each year to ensure that every child eligible for assistance under the CCDF receive assistance within five years.
In addition to these two important funding issues, there are several other steps that should be taken to improve child care access, quality, stability and the workforce.
Creating a more seamless system of care would enhance child care systems throughout the country. Because TANF is such a significant resource for funding child care, this method of using TANF funds can create some unanticipated difficulties or barriers. TANF funds spent directly out of the block grant (instead of being transferred from TANF to CCDF) is considered either TANF “assistance” or “non-assistance.” This classification depends on whether or not a parent is working. An adult receiving child care “assistance” is subject to time limits and other TANF requirements even if they are not receiving TANF cash assistance. Additionally, direct spending of TANF funds on child care does not subject those funds to the CCDF quality set-aside (4 percent of CCDF funds must be spent on quality services) and they are not subject to child care data collection requirements.
CWLA recommends that the distinctions between CCDF funded child care and TANF-funded child care be eliminated. Child care funded through TANF should not be considered “assistance.” TANF funds spent on child care should be subject to the quality set-aside and the same data collection as CCDF funds.
Under current CCDF regulations, children in foster care are not an eligible category for child care services unless a state specifies in its state CCDF plan that the foster care system is part of the child protection system. A child in a family that is receiving, or needs to receive, protective intervention is eligible for child care subsidies if he/she remains in his/her own home, even if the parent is not working, in education, or in training. In these instances, child care serves the child’s needs as much as, or more than, the parent’s needs. Likewise, child care services may also be necessary when a child is placed in foster care. Under current law and regulation of the CCDF, if Lead Agencies (Child Care) do not include foster care in their definition of protective services, they must tie eligibility for CCDF child care of children in foster care to the status of the foster parent’s work, education or training. This requirement is a barrier to the care necessary for this population of children.
CWLA recommends that the current option to cover children in foster care become a requirement for CCDF services. Foster care is an integral part of the child protective system. This requirement would not entitle care, but would make these children an eligible population.
In the past, CWLA has supported legislation that would increase the payment rates that child care providers receive. This is an important element of creating a stronger child care workforce. It is also important to efforts to improve the quality of care. We reaffirm our support to increase the current reimbursement rates for child care providers. Most states reimburse below the 75th percentile-meaning that rates are not sufficient to cover the costs to provide access for 75 percent of child care providers. While the market rate survey process and rates based on those surveys is not the perfect payment system, strong efforts must be made to increase reimbursements so that staff salaries, training, and the quality of child care services will improve. An additional strategy for addressing quality is to improve current training of child care workers.
CWLA recommends an increase in required reimbursement rates so they eventually reach 100 percent of the market.
CWLA recommends that the current federal CCDF requirements for health and safety be expanded to require minimum training for child care staff in early childhood development.
Social Services Block Grant
The Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), Title XX of the Social Security Act, has a long history dating back to 1956. Much of that history has been linked to federal welfare programs under Title IV-A. Over the years the role and significance of SSBG has grown beyond just services to families receiving federal cash assistance. In 1996, the link between Title IV-A and SSBG was made in a more ominous way-SSBG was drastically cut in an effort to create budget savings for the entire “welfare reform” package. The 15 percent cut to SSBG was not based on a calculation of need, but rather a political compromise. Since the 1996 welfare act reduced the SSBG authorized funding level from $2.8 billion to $2.3 billion, funding has further eroded. The fiscal year 2001 SSBG funding level is only $1.7 billion, far below what is needed to provide adequate support to the vulnerable populations served by SSBG-the elderly, children, and people with disabilities-and far below the level it would be if it had been adjusted for inflation.
CWLA strongly recommends that SSBG funding be restored to its pre-1996 funding level of $2.8 billion.
Another change made to SSBG in 1996 was the ability of states to transfer 10 percent of their TANF block grant to SSBG. Some states have used this transfer authority to increase funding to their child welfare system. Preserving this transfer should not provide a rational for reducing funding in SSBG with the hope that states would use the TANF transfer to make up for SSBG cuts. This was not the purpose of allowing the TANF transfers into SSBG. The TANF transfer should be carried out for the sole purpose that was intended in the law, “…only for programs and services to children or their families whose income is less than 200 percent of the poverty line.” 4
CWLA recommends that the ability of states to transfer funds between the TANF block grant and SSBG be maintained.
Time Limits and Exemptions
One of the most dramatic components of the TANF program is the five-year time limit on use of federal TANF funds. Since 1996, some of the impact of the time limit has been modified by flexible regulations. States can use state TANF funds and extend benefits to families that have exhausted their benefits. States also have the ability to exempt 20 percent of their caseload from time limits. The full impact of these provisions can only be tested over time and through periods of economic recession.
We continue to have great concerns and remain opposed to an approach that ends assistance regardless of need. The inflexible time limit does not address economic fluctuations and does not adequately address the needs of individuals. These time limits are an ineffective strategy and policy for helping families on public assistance.
CWLA recommends that TANF time limits be suspended in a time of recession, depression or economic downturn. At a minimum, the current time limits should be more flexible by “stopping the clock” – not counting months in which an adult TANF recipient is working against their lifetime time limit. Adults should be allowed to earn back time as a result of work.
The current flat 20 percent exemption means that as TANF caseloads go down so do the number of families a state can exempt. In good economic times the families remaining out of work and a part of the caseload may be the most difficult to move into work. Twenty percent of a shrinking caseload may not be enough to cover all the families that should be exempted from the time limits and work requirements.
CWLA recommends that the current 20 percent hardship exemption be more flexible to adapt to changing caseloads. A smaller caseload may actually require a higher level of exemption because the remaining families may include adults who would be the most difficult to place in employment.
Teen Pregnancy Prevention
Bonus to Reward Decreases in Illegitimacy
The 1996 Act created a bonus to reward states for a “net decrease in out-of-wedlock” births. A few states have qualified for the bonus while the overall out-of-wedlock birth rate has increased. State TANF offices are eligible for this incentive fund based on the reduction of out-of-wedlock birthrates for the entire population, a population that may have little if any contact with state TANF offices or the services they provide.
The findings to the 1996 TANF law include numerous statistics on out-of-wedlock birth rates and in particular focuses on teenage births. The findings cite numerous statistics on the negative consequences of births to teens who are not married. They also link teen and adolescent births to higher use of cash assistance. It is clear that a major focus of the findings is a reduction in teen or adolescent births. This focus is not misplaced. Adolescents who experience out-of-wedlock births do have a higher incidence of cash assistance use, school dropout rates, lower job skills, and additional out-of-wedlock births. There are important programs and state efforts that address these challenges and in recent years genuine progress has been made. The current bonus, however, does not address this population of adolescents.
CWLA recommends that the TANF bonus, the “bonus to reward decrease in illegitimacy,” be re-focused to exclusively address the adolescent population.
CWLA also recommends that funds awarded to the top five states in reducing the out-of-wedlock birth rates for the adolescent population use those funds not as general TANF dollars, as they do now, but rather be required to use these funds to reinvest in teen pregnancy prevention efforts.
The 1996 Act made $50 million in federal funds available each year to support abstinence-only education programs that preclude information about contraception. In order to be funded, a program cannot undertake an education program that is inconsistent with the eight-point definition of abstinence education set forth in the law. All states except one have utilized these funds. Over the past five years funding for abstinence-only education has expanded beyond the $50 million per year authorized in the 1996 law. Two other federal sources, the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) and the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance-Community-Based-Abstinence-Education (SPRANS-CBAE) program, have also made money available.
Unfortunately, research on federally funded abstinence-only projects will not be finalized until after reauthorization. However, there is some available research on sexuality education. A review of evaluations of abstinence-only education and programs that included information about contraception by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that “there do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with reasonably strong evidence that they actually delay the initiation of sex or reduce its frequency.” 5 The report only included evaluations that met a very high level of rigor. There is some evidence that particular abstinence strategies appear to delay the onset of sexual activity. However, this good news is tempered by negative health consequences for some youth. For example, a “virginity” pledge – to abstain from sex until marriage – delays intercourse on average by nearly 18 months. However, when pledgers did initiate sexual behavior, they were less likely than a comparison group to use contraceptives, and thereby were at greater risk for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.
It is important that adolescents be taught that abstinence is the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. However, this evidence suggests that abstinence-only education does not work for everyone. Many adolescents will choose to be sexually active, and it is important to provide them with access to information about contraception, decision-making skills, and sexual health. Evaluations of programs that combine abstinence education with contraceptive information find that they can help delay the onset of intercourse and increase use of contraception. U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher adds to this analysis in the report Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior. 6 He states that informing adolescents about contraception, “does not increase adolescent sexual activity, either by hastening the onset of sexual intercourse, increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse, or increasing the numbers of sexual partners.”
CWLA recommends the continuation of research examining the positive and negative outcomes of teen pregnancy prevention initiatives, including abstinence-only education programs. In the absence of strong evaluations of abstinence-only education programs, it is important to carefully consider why teen pregnancy has dropped and the impact of abstinence-only and other sexuality education in achieving this outcome. There is a need for any evaluation to examine all strategies addressing the problem of teen pregnancy, including comprehensive sexuality education, abstinence-only education, and family planning.
CWLA recommends that the Congress create a “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Block Grant” to provide funds to states and local entities for teen pregnancy prevention initiatives and programs. By combining the various multi-sources of funding currently available, this block grant would allow states the necessary flexibility to determine for themselves which initiatives work best in meeting their state’s specific teen pregnancy prevention needs.
Minor Parent Living Arrangement
The 1996 law prohibits a state from spending TANF federal funds on assistance to an unmarried minor, custodial parent unless the teen lives with a parent, legal guardian, or other adult relative-subject to limited exceptions that reflect that some minor parents live independently in order to avoid abusive environments. Federal rules do not require states to report on the number of minors who are denied TANF assistance because of this provision.
Caseworkers may be unaware that alternate living arrangements could be made to make the mother and her child eligible for assistance. As a result, some minor mothers may be “turned away at the door” if they are not living at home. Additionally, some minor mothers may not apply for assistance because “word on the street” about the law is that they must be living “at home.” For some minor mothers this is not possible or safe.
CWLA recommends that Congress consider adding funds for training and/or technical assistance to the states in order to ensure that caseworkers inform minor mothers of their eligibility for TANF assistance.
CWLA further recommends the establishment of a federal “transitional eligibility” period to allow minor teen parents to come into compliance with the rule.
A key issue for states to consider is who should conduct the assessment of the minor’s living arrangement. It is important to provide a safe, supportive environment for the minor parent and child(ren) to live and develop, whether that environment is in the minor’s home, the home of a relative, or an alternate living arrangement such as a “second chance” home.
CWLA supports funding for “second chance” homes so that supportive settings can be provided to young parents in need.
State Plan Information
The 1996 law allows a great deal of flexibility. This has resulted in public assistance systems that are very different from state to state in terms of benefits, programs and services covered. Much of this information on state TANF programs is not included in the state TANF plan. HHS publishes some state data in its annual report to Congress. While this information can explain some aspects of each state program, it is not complete. It is also not timely. While the 1998, 1999 and 2000 reports were released in August of the following year, information from 2001 has yet to be released. TANF data and information needs to be more complete and more readily available to state and local policymakers, associations and families receiving these services.
CWLA recommends that state TANF plans include greater detail on benefits and services provided through TANF, as well as information on how benefit levels, including cash benefits, are calculated by the state submitting the plan.
As the TANF policy debate advances and specific reauthorization proposals are considered, the Child Welfare League of America looks forward to continuing to work with the Administration, lawmakers, and others to focus the TANF program on the well-being of children.
- Social Security Act