4 ways Pa. can help low-income families recover from Clinton's 1996 welfare reform - Generocity Philly

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Aug. 19, 2016 12:39 pm

4 ways Pa. can help low-income families recover from Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform

Community Legal Services has outlined how the Commonwealth can tweak its cash assistance program to help families get out of the cycle of poverty.

Clinton's reform wanted to "end welfare as we know it."

(Photo by Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture, used under a Creative Commons license)

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton‘s welfare reform legislation became law, and many of the advocates, service providers, and even welfare system haters who found the overhauls problematic at the time find themselves in the same state of discontent.

That’s largely due to the sizable decreases in case loads for families in need of cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, designed to be a safety net for America’s most needy families struggling to achieve self-sufficiency.

“At the beginning of welfare reform we had about 487,000 [Pennslyvanians] in the TNF program,” said Kristen Dama, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services. “A few months ago we hit a milestone. For the first time ever, the TANF program dropped below 160,000 recipients.”

It’s at 158,000, what CLS considers to be an “all-time low.” So, what’s the problem?

Clinton’s reform was supposed to help move families from assistance into the workforce with incentives. A lot of those incentives, Dama said, are wrapped up in dropping TANF case loads.

What's most concerning is how much steeper the trajectory of the case load decline has been in comparison to the unemployment rate.

“Pennsylvania has really celebrated a decline in caseload because the TANF program really incentivizes that,” she said. “States are rewarded, in some ways inadvertently, for shrinking the program. They don’t have a real incentive to look closely at why this shrinking is happening and take time to ameliorate it.”

What’s most concerning is how much steeper the trajectory of the case load decline has been in comparison to the unemployment rate. If Clinton’s welfare reform was supposed to “end welfare as we know it” by eliminating poverty, it’s failed.

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“We’ve been really alarmed by that,” said Dama. “We think it’s really time to bring this to light and hope [Governor Tom] Wolf’s administration and others will begin thinking about some policy solutions.”

That’s why Community Legal Services has just published “Mending the Safety Net,” a report that outlines a number of ways in which the Commonwealth can restore TANF in order to help and protect the state’s most needy families.

The Wolf administration, Dama said, has been “really fantastic” about removing certain road blocks that make Medicaid and SNAP programs inaccessible, and Community Legal Services hopes that the administration will take a look at TANF in the same way by taking the following four steps:

  • Simplify TANF rules and eliminate “needless ‘red tape'” for families in need of assistance
  • Increase financial eligibility to make TANF more accommodating to families
  •  Improve employment and training programs through TANF
  • Commission a new study of those who have left the program

And what about taxpayers? Why should they be interested in supporting increased access to TANF?

“I think everybody benefits when we have a safety net. TANF is intended to be a program of last resort for people who really need it,” said Dama. In many cases, that’s low-income women with children dealing with domestic violence, struggling with homelessness or suffering from physical health problems. “We believe a robust TANF program for people who need it most is a multi-generational solution.”

There’s a real societal impact to giving children stability so they can go to school, have stable lives and break the cycle of poverty — basic needs that help families move into self-sufficiency, which is exactly what Clinton’s welfare reform was intended to do.

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