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presentation by Dr. Gwendolyn Mink
To the ADA Economic Policy Committee


The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF changed welfare in two fundamental ways. First, it severely constricted poor families' access to income assistance. Second, it required recipients to surrender rights and personal autonomy as a condition of receiving assistance.

TANF chokes off access to welfare by repealing the entitlement to benefits and by imposing stringent lifetime time limits.The repeal of the entitlement means that, even if one meets all of the eligibility criteria for welfare, one is not guaranteed a benefit. The imposition of time limits means that after 60 cumulative months, one is no longer eligible to participate in the federal welfare program even though one has played by the rules and even if one's family continues to need income support. Time limits have received particular attention of late, both because the five-year clock is about to expire on the first big cohort of recipients who have participated in welfare under the 1996 law and because the current recession makes time-limited former welfare recipients especially vulnerable to desperate and unmitigated poverty.

The second major change under TANF has to do with the terms of participation in the welfare system. Those terms require recipients' submission to a rigorous disciplinary regime armed with expanded coercive power to engineer their lives. Rules familiar to welfare policy since the 1960s – rules promoting wage work, paternity establishment, and child support enforcement – acquired new force in 1996 statutory provisions and in ensuing administrative guidelines that spell out harsh punishments for applicants and recipients who do not comply. The stiffened welfare rules forward two principal policy goals. One is to compel labor market attachment among poor mothers notwithstanding the care needs of their children. The other is to pressure poor single mothers to form heterosexual, marital, two-parent families.

Labor Market Participation

TANF forwards its labor market goals by requiring recipients to be engaged in one of certain specified "work activities" in order to continue to receive benefits. The work requirement stresses getting a job, any job, regardless of whether the job's wages and benefits are sufficient to support a family. Codifying the value of work for work's sake, the work requirement specifically impedes recipients' participation in education or skills preparation and enhancement, two endeavors that would make movement into the labor market more secure economically and more remunerating for participants.

With its "work first" discipline, TANF pays very little attention to how work outside the home might, in fact, win economic security. Recipients are impeded or discouraged from preparing for jobs at living wages, in fact, while jobs at living wages are not guaranteed to recipients who comply with work requirements. Moreover, the social supports that make wage work affordable for those who work for low wages are not assured. The childcare entitlement that existed in the Family Support Act of 1988, for example, was rescinded for individuals by the PRWORA.

The work requirement is enforced by sanctions, or punishments. An adult recipient who does not engage in required outside work activities can have her family's benefits cut or terminated. Although all states must sanction recipients who do not meet the work requirement, the scope and content of the work sanction are up to the individual states. Some states terminate assistance the first time there is a work requirement violation; some states reduce benefits incrementally, terminating TANF participation after multiple violations; some states punish whole families; some states punish only the adults to whom TANF rules apply. Despite these and other variations, the overall sanction environment is one that is extremely crucial to the enforcement of TANF's work discipline. Recipients know that they are only a sanction away from concatenating hardships, including possible homelessness and possibly jeopardized custody of their own children.

There are a whole host of problems with TANF, not the least of which is that it does nothing to promote economic opportunity or to reduce poverty. Recent studies show that TANF's sanction policies actually deepen poverty among those who fall under its bludgeon. Equally important are recent findings by Sanford Schram at Bryn Mawr and Joseph Soss at American University who have documented the extent to which there are racial disparities in the imposition and scope of sanctions states with more people of color participating in TANF tend to have more extensive and more intrusive sanction policies.

Compulsory labor market participation under TANF is troubling also because work rules and sanctions injure recipients's Constitutional rights. TANF impairs vocational liberty, for example, in that it legitimates only labor market work as work that has any kind of social value. Moreover, in its insistence that any-job-will-do, as long as it's in the labor market, TANF violates the vocational liberty to perform care giving work for one's own family in one's own home. In both respects, TANF vitiates the 13th Amendment's prohibition on slavery and indentured servitude. It also singles out poor, mostly unmarried, mothers in a separate caste, barred by statute from putting care giving above wage earning.

Family Structure

The second aspect of TANF discipline targets the family decisions and family structures primarily of mothers who are participants in the TANF system. The PRWORA signals TANF's family formation goal in its findings and in the statutory purposes it assigns to the cash assistance program. Three of TANF's statutory purposes involve promoting father-mother family life, including by reducing or preventing independent childbearing by women. Because the goal of the 1996 law really is to restore paternal headship, at least financially, it should be of concern to people who are interested in and care about women’s rights, including a poor mother's right to parent independently.

The pro-marriage, pro-paternal family headship provisions of TANF revolve around child support and paternity establishment enforcement requirements. Ever since the early 1970's, federal welfare law has said that participants in welfare need to cooperate in the establishment of biological paternity and in securing and maintaining child support. The 1996 law ratchets that requirement up several notches by attaching strong sanctions that states must deliver against non-cooperating participants – women who either may not be able to identify biological fathers or who may not want them involved in their families. Mothers who do not provide government the information either to establish paternity or to collect child support expose their families to a mandatory, automatic 25% reduction in the family's benefits, which TANF requires the states to impose. TANF invites states to apply meaner sanctions, such as terminating cash assistance. Thus does TANF turn income support into a reward for obeying government's stipulations defining what a family is.

In addition to its statutory rules governing paternity establishment and child support, TANF provisions also include incentives to states to reduce "illegitimacy." The "illegitimacy bonus" provides extra money to states that achieve the greatest reductions in out of wedlock births without increasing their abortion rates. The bonus gives states a green light to interfere in women's intimate family decisions, including reproductive decisions - such as by offering bonuses to unmarried pregnant women who agree to relinquish their babies at childbirth; by pressuring unmarried pregnant recipients to marry; or by encouraging or rewarding long-term contraception by unmarried women who are poor.

The Clinton Administration, which had responsibility for devising the first guidelines for TANF implementation, created additional opportunities for states to get involved in the ways women create and live in their families. The Clinton Administration's Department of Health and Human Services propagated guidelines which specifically told states that, given the purposes of TANF, they could develop pro-marriage policies with TANF funds. As a result, several states have used TANF funds to disseminate the pro-marriage message, to provide marriage classes, or to reward actual marriage in the structure of TANF benefits. In addition, the Clinton Administration included marriage as one of the indices of high performance, so that states with the greatest increases in the numbers of children living in married-parent families will qualify for a "high performance bonus." Thus, we have implanted the idea that federal social policy about income should simultaneously be about family.

Privacy Rights Abused

TANF thrives on a number of fundamental rights abuses and, therefore, is really an offense to Constitutional liberty and equality for people who find themselves in dire economic circumstances. The rights that are jeopardized, compromised, or taken away include reproductive and sexual privacy rights. Reproductive privacy rights are severely injured when TANF explicitly and directly discourages childbearing among poor women except under heterosexual, marital circumstances. Sexual privacy rights are undermined by the child support enforcement and paternity establishment requirements which compel a woman to divulge the intimate details of her life to the government in exchange for benefits.

TANF also impairs marital and intimate decisional rights when it dictates that the biological father of a poor woman's child must be recognized as that child's parent. Only in TANF families must a mother accept a man's genetic connection to her child as proof of his social relationship with - and potential parental rights to – the child. It is well-established Constitutional law that an unmarried biological father cannot simply walk into a family and declare himself to be a parent in any socially meaningful sense. Yet, TANF declares that biological paternity establishes social paternity in poor families. It does this both to coerce financial fatherhood – which yields child support payments that the government gets to keep; and to coerce father-mother family formation – which ends poor mothers’ so-called dependency on government by transferring it to men.

Proposed Next Steps

Block grants for the welfare system expire in 2002. Reauthorization of TANF funding presents an opportunity to reconsider the TANF framework in light of its injuries to poor mothers' rights, opportunities and independence, as well as to the well being of their children.

Across the political spectrum, policymakers and advocates have been crafting their agendas for the "next steps" in welfare reform. The primary interest of many of the folks who brought us TANF is to strengthen and expand the family formation side of welfare policy through more explicit and more expansive fatherhood and marriage initiatives. Since 1998, Congress has entertained a series of fatherhood bills aimed at improving the ability of biological fathers of TANF children to fulfill their financial role, at encouraging residential fatherhood, and at promoting marital fatherhood. Fatherhood bills have been quite popular, passing the House of Representatives by thundering bipartisan majorities.

In the Bush Administration, Wade Horn, the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for welfare, is the point person for fatherhood. Horn, one of the founders of the National Fatherhood Initiative, is most famous for advocating affirmative action for married people in the allocation of social benefits, whereby single parent families either would be prohibited from receiving benefits or would be shunted to the end of the line. Although he retracted this extreme marriage preference during his confirmation hearings, Horn remains a staunch proponent of marriage who supports such proposals as rewarding women "at risk of bearing a child out of wedlock" with annual payments of $1000 for five years if they bear their first child within marriage and stay married.

Policymakers and policy experts who travel in more liberal circles also endorse the use of social policy to teach, encourage, cajole, and reward marriage. Wendell Primus, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, has argued the importance of marriage for poverty reduction, and Jesse Jackson, Jr. introduced a fatherhood bill in the last Congress. Bipartisan interest in ending single mothers’ poverty by bringing or forcing biological fathers into their families creates a very strong likelihood that TANF reauthorization will centrally feature efforts to marry poor single mothers off of welfare.

Among fundamentalist patriarchalists, the argument for marriage promotion through welfare policy is largely ideological, and turns on "family values." Among moderates and liberals, the argument often is linked to the observation that families with residential, marital fathers tend to be better off than families without them.This is not surprising, since married-parent families often have two incomes and since a father's incomegenerally is larger than a mother's.

If policymakers proceed from the statistical correlation between family structure and income to impose a family structure on poor single mothers, they will commit grave harms against women. Some of the harms have been discussed above, in the context of TANF's injuries to poor mothers’ intimate rights. A critical, additional harm will follow from the failure to examine how injuries to women's economic rights enforce single mothers' poverty. The failure to remunerate care giving work in families – work historically performed by women - is one injury to women's economic rights that impedes a mother's ability to maintain an autonomous household when she is parenting alone. In the labor market, meanwhile, the failure to pay women a just wage saps a mother's ability to secure an income that will sustain her family and purchase surrogates for her care when she is working outside the home. These injuries are especially daunting for mothers of color, for inequality in the labor market is not only gendered, it simultaneously is raced. African American women who are employed full time earn only 64 cents to every dollar earned by white men and only 84 cents to every dollar earned by white women. The wage gap for Latinas is even larger: they earn 55 cents to the white man's dollar and 72 cents to the white woman's. Given the economic inequalities that attend and shape women's participation in the labor market, it is no wonder that so many TANF single mothers, disproportionately of color, remain poor.

TANF reauthorization may provide family engineers an occasion to promote fatherhood and marriage, but it also presents progressives an opportunity to try to attenuate some of the worst consequences of the new law.Indeed, given the rights abuses, inequalities, double standards, and immiseration visited by TANF on poor single mothers, progressives have an obligation to undo the damage of the 1996 anti-welfare "reform."

Many progressives have been preparing for this moment for several years. The challenge has been how to keep poor mothers' equality rights in the foreground of discussions and proposals to repair the economic safety net. The challenge has been how to fix TANF to support poor single mothers in the choices they make and in the work that they do - whether in the family or in the labor market; and to support caregivers - married or single, female or male, gay or straight, of color or white - when the labor market makes them poor.

In October, Congressmember Patsy T. Mink (D-Hawaii) introduced a TANF reauthorization bill (H.R. 3113) that confronts these challenges. This legislation is the fruit of exchanges among activists, advocates, recipients, researchers, and scholars. It also is the fruit of painstaking legislative drafting by attorneys at NOW-LDEF and me.

Social justice ultimately will require repealing TANF and replacing it with a comprehensive income security system that supports both care giving and labor market work and that redresses inequalities rather than fomenting them. In the meantime, H.R. 3113 would rid TANF of some of its worst abuses while also stretching its framework to provide more accessible, fair, flexible and reliable income support. For example, H.R. 3113:

  1. Redefines the statutory purposes of TANF to be [a] the provision of assistance to families in need so that children can be raised in their own homes and [b] the reduction of poverty, including by supporting care giving as well as by strengthening and expanding labor market work supports. This redefinition of TANF's mission would halt the family engineering currently provoked by TANF's statutory goals.
  2. Expands the concept of "work activity" to include [a] education and job training at all levels and of any duration; [b] a parent's full-time at-home care giving for a child under age six or for a sick or disabled child of any age; [c] part-time care giving for children over age six who lack adequate after-school care or supervision.
  3. Attenuates time limits by stopping the clock for TANF families that are in compliance with program rules, including work requirements based on expanded definitions of allowable "work activities."
  4. Ends draconian punishments that enforce TANF's rights abuses by prohibiting full family sanctions and by repealing sanctions against non-cooperation in paternity establishment and child support enforcement.
  5. Restores the Constitutionally guaranteed privacy and intimate associational rights of poor mothers by making paternity establishment and child support enforcement voluntary for mothers. As an incentive to voluntary participation in these programs, H.R. 3113 designates mothers, not government, the recipient of all child support payments.
  6. Assures the safety interests of families enrolled in TANF by making various requirements more flexible for families dealing with domestic or intimate violence and by requiring states not only to honor this flexibility but also to count treatment for domestic or sexual violence, as well as for substance abuse or mental health problems, as "work activities."
  7. Protects all children in poor families by prohibiting the "family cap" which withholds benefits to a child born to a mother enrolled in TANF.
  8. Ends the "illegitimacy bonus" and replaces it with a poverty reduction bonus to reward states that lower poverty rates the most.
  9. Assures children that their care needs will be met when parents enter the labor market by restoring the child care entitlement for TANF families.
  10. Guarantees enforcement of anti-discrimination and labor standards laws and due process guarantees within the TANF regime and guarantees equal access to TANF regardless of marital or citizen status.
  11. Stops the clock for all TANF families in recessionary times and temporarily restores TANF eligibility for former TANF families for the duration of the recession.
  12. Provides incentives to states to mount programs to reduce barriers to employment, to offer job training and encourage education, to ensure delivery of work supports to recipients as well as to former recipients who remain eligible for such supports as Medicaid and Food Stamps.

These reforms will not end TANF; they will only attenuate the terms of participating in it. Still, changing the terms of TANF will open opportunities (e.g., education and training); reward all forms of work (including at-home care giving); return fundamental rights (reproductive, parental, associational, vocational); and assure equal protection in its broadest sense, by guarding the safety of families and meeting the care needs of children in poverty. So reformed, TANF will provide basic economic security for poor families as we pursue an agenda to end poverty altogether while guaranteeing equality to all.


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