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Welfare Reform No. 165

Adopted 2002
Amended 2003
Reaffirmed 2004
Amended 2005

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program coerces parents to enter the labor market at any wage; permits only one year of job-related education and skill development; does not address barriers to full time employment at living wages such as mental illness, inadequate education, and unaffordable reliable transportation; requires wage work without guaranteeing affordable, accessible, safe, and appropriate child care; injures poor women's reproductive liberty through mandatory paternity establishment and child support enforcement rules backed up by sanctions; further pressures poor mothers to marry biological fathers, regardless of their reasons for not wishing to, such as domestic violence, through marriage promotion bonuses and incentives to states; expels families from welfare into destitution through brutal sanction policies; and arbitrarily limits the availability of welfare to parents to a lifetime total of five years. In these and other ways, TANF violates and denies basic rights.

In far too many cases, the law fails to equip parents to hold a steady job at a living wage that will support a family. The program must take into account the many different reasons parents end up on welfare, in addition to a lack of skills and support services, such as low wages, unaffordable and/or unacceptable child care, lack of paid family leave, mental illness, physical disability, drug dependency and domestic violence. Moreover, TANF also fails to require the additional steps needed to prevent racial discrimination, which continues to be a major factor limiting economic self-sufficiency for both individuals and families.

Rather than focus on ending poverty through economic support for care giving, living wages, family-friendly labor market policies such as child care and paid family leave, and redistributed opportunity to women and people of color, TANF privatizes social inequality and blames the poor. The privatization of inequality and emphasis on the behavioral reform of poor mothers is most extravagantly played out in provisions that license the federal government and the states to promote marriage. Marriage promotion interferes not only with basic constitutional rights; it also proceeds from a syllogistic interpretation of census data showing that two-parent families generally are economically better off than one-parent families. Instead of focusing on employment and care-giving supports that would enable poor mothers to make free choices about whether to marry or whether to live independently, TANF pressures them to foreswear a social wage for a husband.

In 2003, HR 4, the House TANF Reauthorization bill that passed that body earlier this year, requires states to develop marriage promotion programs and measures as part of their state plans; earmarks more than a billion dollars over five years for marriage promotion activities; authorizes states to spend TANF funds that should go to family grants and support services for marriage promotion; and stipulates that state marriage promotion spending can be counted toward the state's Maintenance of Effort (MOE).

ADA rejects the prescription of marriage as the solution to poor mothers' poverty. TANF proposals and provisions that pressure or coerce recipients to enter heterosexual marriages should be repealed. At the same time, mothers who choose financial relationships with biological fathers should be supported in their choice through an effective child support collection and enforcement system that directs child support payments to families rather than to government. ADA will fight for the right of poor families, especially poor mothers, to the same constitutional guarantees of intimate associational freedom and reproductive liberty that are available to non-poor Americans.

ADA therefore urges the following specific steps:

  1. 1. Shift the focus of TANF from coercion and cutting the welfare rolls to reducing poverty. Low wage jobs and intermittent employment cannot lift a family out of poverty. The availability of welfare is key to the economic survival of many low-wage families, particularly those that do not have access to social supports such as child care. Time limits arbitrarily deprive families of this safety net. Time limits should be repealed. At a minimum, the clock should stop on the five-year time limit for cutting off TANF benefits when a state's unemployment rate exceeds 5.5%; when a custodial parent is pursuing legal, counseling, medical, or shelter services to address domestic violence, mental health issues, or substance abuse; when a custodial parent is enrolled in a high school, ESL, GED, vocational education, skills training, 2- or 4-year college, or other accredited educational program; and when a custodial parent is caring for a child who has not entered first grade, a sick or disabled child of any age, or for a child of any age who is not engaged in a publicly-funded, adult-supervised summertime or school vacation activity. States should not be permitted to cease or decrease benefits after one or two violations of the work requirement, sinking families into permanent poverty.
  2. Count education as a work activity (including study-time) as long as the recipient is enrolled in an accredited program. Permissible education should include adult basic education, studies toward high school graduation or equivalency, or English as a second language, as well as pursuit of an associate's, bachelor's, or other post-secondary degree. States should not be subject to any arbitrary limit to the number of TANF recipients in education rather than work programs.
  3. Provide professional diagnostic services to determine whether mental illness or drug dependency is preventing a parent from holding a steady job. Provide treatment as necessary, while stopping the time limit clock. Provide procedures to ensure that all diagnosis and treatment will be available to recipients only on a voluntary basis.
  4. Adequately fund and require that states provide high quality daycare and preschool education that promotes child development and school readiness. Daycare should be available to mothers who are in school as well as those who are working. Unreliable daycare is a significant cause of absenteeism and job loss. Similarly, parents must be ensured the wherewithal for transportation in order to secure and maintain steady employment.
  5. Medicaid should be provided when a job fails to offer affordable medical insurance coverage, and food stamps should continue until earnings are sufficient to lift the family out of poverty.
  6. Caring for a child is hard, valuable work. To care for a child under school age, a disabled child of any age, or a child who has a serious medical condition (as defined in the Family and Medical Leave Act), a custodial parent should be allowed to remain at home, and that care should count as work, at the very least where quality childcare is unavailable. Similarly, no sanctions should be applied when a custodial parent takes a part-time job or goes to school or college while a child is at school and chooses to be at home when the child's school day is over, especially when adequate after school care is unavailable. Where a child remains at home, states should ensure that support services are offered to teach skills needed to develop the child or children socially and cognitively. Public policies should not discriminate by encouraging middle income parents to remain at home caring for a child while poor parents are coerced to enter the job market.
  7. Restore all legal immigrants to TANF rolls without a waiting period. The same considerations should apply to legal immigrants and citizens as to such services as childcare, food stamps, Medicaid, and education.
  8. Enforce all civil rights and labor laws for workers employed under TANF. The right to join a labor union should be guaranteed, and TANF workers should not be used to displace other workers. States should not be permitted to have more stringent rules and lesser services where larger proportions of poor persons of color live. We note studies by Sanford Schram of Bryn Mawr College and Joseph Sass of American University showing racial discrimination in the exercise of sanctions. Uniform requirements would lessen the opportunity for states with high proportions of minority poor families to apply stricter requirements. Since discrimination on the basis of race and sex has yet to be eradicated from the workplace, surely TANF decisions should not compound this wrong.
  9. Benefits should be high enough to keep a family out of poverty, including extra benefits where housing costs are high. Providing housing bonus prevents localities with low-cost housing from being put at a disadvantage by a uniform benefit high enough to meet needs in high cost areas. Thus benefits should be set no lower than the sum of the monthly poverty level and the amount by which family housing costs exceed 30% of the poverty level.
  10. Strengthen charitable choice requirements to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion where the service provider receives TANF funds. In addition, proselytizing and required attendance at sectarian worship or instruction should be prohibited.
  11. While we favor responsible fatherhood and the general principle that a noncustodial parent should contribute to child support, with government assistance as needed to ensure payments, coercive sanctions and social engineering are another matter. Where a mother does not know who the biological father is or has reason not to wish a possibly abusive biological father to participate in the family's life, her non-cooperation must not be the basis for denied or reduced benefits, as TANF currently requires. TANF should not be a tool to engineer the family forms of poor mothers with children in a manner that discriminates on the basis of family type. The incomplete premise for coercing poor women to marry is drawn from census data showing two-parent families are better off than one-parent families. Two-parent families are better off because two incomes are better than one, and men generally are better paid. The premise disregards the high unemployment rate of minority males -- one of many possible reasons a biological father may be an undesirable marriage partner. Nor should a minor parent be denied benefits because she is not in school or not living with an adult. All coercion to establish a heterosexual marriage should be eliminated, so that creating a family is left to the concerned parties. We also advocate eliminating bonuses currently given to states that promote marriage and reduce out-of-wedlock births without increasing abortion rates, invasive policies that unconstitutionally restrict decision making on intimate associational, marital and reproductive matters.


In March 2005, Congress passed a six month extension (April 1, 2005-September 30, 2005) of TANF. No policy changes were made, but it is likely that Congress will look to reform some provisions of TANF before it expires again in September. A current administration-backed House proposal would decrease the amount of time a welfare recipient could attend a full-time vocational program from a year to four months every two years. In addition, the House proposal would raise the number of hours per week required for work activities, allowing less time for class and studying. The result would be to deter low-income individuals from receiving the occupational training necessary to increase their earning potential.

ADA believes that this proposal will make it more difficult for low-income individuals to acquire the skills necessary to break free from poverty. We strongly oppose its adoption and instead advocate welfare reform that truly helps the needy, as outlined above.

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No. 165
Social and Domestic Policy Commission