DMI Blog

Maureen Lane

Mis-Guided Welfare Policy Missiles

Let us set the stage. Last winter, in the dead of night, after a lot of pressure, the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) of 2005 passes the House of Representatives by two votes. Tucked up in the DRA is a welfare bill of sorts. The House leadership could not deliver for the administration a welfare bill that had ill conceived and wrong-headed law changes. Therefore, they tucked up in the DRA a request to HHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) to put out new TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families - federal welfare program) regulations.

Since 1996, the States have been implementing TANF in ways that they saw fit. Some states have concentrated on stabilizing families and offering access to education and training. TANF was touted as a program that would give states' flexibility in organizing their assistance programs as their families' needs required. The States knew that most that the families receiving assistance had a variety of needs and each case presented distinctive challenging elements: For example, death of a spouse, illness of a child or other household member, loss of a job or housing. After Medicaid, food stamps, rent assistance or all three reinforced families, so often, the state identified heads of household needed skills building to reenter the economy in a family-sustaining job.

The HHS regulations put out June 29, 2006, are a testament to inefficiency and inequity. The writers of the regulations say they want to make uniform various definitions of activities that they said originally, were left to states for flexibility. In fact, the definitions and uniformity HHS presents will limit access to education, from ESL, GED, Literacy, and Adult Basic education classes. States will be challenged to meet their required work participation rates if they want to receive the federal funds they need to provide aid to families. Moreover, families will be regulated into compliance by rules that cap economic mobility and family opportunities.

One particular paragraph in the new regulations is a slap at families close to moving into economic security. HHS writes that welfare is not a college scholarship program. This paragraph demonstrates a lack of clarity and comprehension about TANF history and law on the part of the writers and maybe a little disingenuousness as well. The only way that a person receiving welfare, be it the head of the household or a child in the household, goes to college is through financial aid. The state and federal grants available to all are available to the poorest families as well. One concern that students receiving government assistance have is that TANF families are often the few that qualify for grant funds because the family income is so low. We at WRI believe that PELL and other government Higher Education Grants need to be available to more people not fewer. The grant's income threshold needs to be raised.

College classes have not counted as a qualifying "work activity" except in States that have made the decision to inlcude them. Here in New York City, students do work-study, internships, and other work to stay in school. The challenges of not counting education as a core activity for families to move into the economic mainstream is daunting for people and counter productive for the states and localities. I will continue to write about the regulations and bring their inequities to public light. Stay Tuned.

Maureen Lane: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 10:21 AM, Jul 28, 2006 in Economic Opportunity | Education | Politics | Welfare
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