Fixing the 'Unfinished Business' of Welfare Reform

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unveiled the “next phase of welfare reform” earlier this week, hoping to better define work participation for individuals receiving government assistance.

The new regulations for the Temporary Assistance for the Needy Families Program (TANF) will go into effect October 1. In addition to clarifying the work-participation guidelines, the new rules will ensure that states are reporting this information accurately and uniformly.

“These regulations complete what President Bush has called ‘the unfinished business of welfare reform,’” said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. “We are rebooting the system to help more individuals transition from welfare dependency to work and self-sufficiency.”

Dr. Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, presented the details of the welfare reauthorization at the Center for Employment Training facility in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

States will be held accountable if they do not fulfill the required 50% job placement for capable adults on their social worker’s caseloads. In cases with two-parent households 90% must be placed in jobs.

As the TANF reauthorization bill outlines, states are expected to plan a course of action for a work verification procedure. It will force each state to define what activities qualify as work and add supplemental categories of welfare recipients in the final calculation of participation totals, said Horn. States could be penalized with a one to five percent cut in funding if they do not comply with the new HHS standards.

“Nearly 60% of able-bodied adults on the TANF caseload did not participate in any work or work preparation activities,” reported HHS.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 fixes what the TANF program of 1996 “inadvertently” created by providing states with caseload reduction credit. The reauthorization establishes 2005 as the base year for receiving caseload reduction credit instead of 1995. States were using built-up credit from 1995 to reduce their required participation rate of 50% to apply for credit reductions in casework.

States need to have caseworkers “engage” with each and every welfare recipient in order to ensure maximum efficiency in job placement. “Good quality casework is supervision, not paperwork,” said Horn.

By “tightening the focus on work” HHS expects to see significant decreases in the number of welfare cases. Horn said that in past years this approach as been successful and that they were “again setting that bar.” He hoped that five years from now there would be an even greater drop in child poverty, as there had been since TANF began its efforts.

“Just simply giving benefits is not good enough, what we need to do is focus on helping welfare recipients go to work,” said Georgia Commissioner B.J. Walker.

“The Bush Administration believes in supporting people through work instead of welfare dependency,” said Horn. “These new regulations implement important changes to improve the effectiveness of work programs, because we know that the only way to escape poverty is through work.”