The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report, TANF Action Is Needed to Better Promote Employment-Focused Approaches that concludes there are effective strategies to move adults from public assistance (TANF) to work but that the current law and funding are limiting the use of these strategies by states.

The GAO looked at ten programs, nine which partner with other organizations such as community colleges, workforce agencies or nonprofits agencies. These work programs combine a variety of effective approaches such as subsidizing the pay of the worker with an understanding that the partner agency will employ the individual after a period of time, combining work with mental health and substance abuse treatment and other approaches that had a modified “work-first” ( work immediately) approach along with training keyed toward individual needs.

The GAO report indicated that there are limited incentives for states to implement these approaches. The barriers to implementation of effective approaches include a lack of research (any funding would come from the TANF block grant), the current TANF outcome measures are not broad enough to encourage states to implement longer term education, training and treatment services and a key problem, that relates to child welfare, “state use of TANF funds for more costly welfare-to-work approaches can compete with other allowable uses of TANF funds.” The report found that in 1997 when the block grant began, only 23 percent of federal and state TANF funds were spent on non-cash services but in 2013 non-cash spending has risen to 66 percent. A major part of this other spending is on child welfare services. The latest survey by Child Trends, indicates that 22 percent of federal child welfare funding is coming from the TANF block grant with some states such as West Virginia, Connecticut and Georgia getting more than 50 percent of their child welfare funds from TANF. Due to new data collection requirements there should be more accurate accounting of child welfare spending under TANF after FY 2015.

The GAO recommended that HHS in consultation with Congress identify potential changes that could incentivize states to implement promising work approaches and to turn those approaches into legislation. The GAO also recommended more formal guidance by HHS to states on what is countable to toward work participation rates. The TANF reauthorization ran out in 2010 and has been extended by a series of short term funding bills.