June 29, 2009

As unemployment rises, so does TANF

Just three months ago, I reported on this blog the troubling news that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) caseloads were declining in states across the country "despite a great rise in need." (Reasons for that included an array of barriers that prevent needy families from accessing the program.) Well, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that this trend is at least partially reversing: the TANF program has increased enrollment in 23 of the 30 most populous states.

Here in DC, I can report that we’ve seen a 9% increase in TANF cases, from 14,665 in April 2008 to 16,017 in April 2009. So, more people are getting help through the welfare program. Unfortunately, it’s too soon to congratulate ourselves on a strong safety net, for two reasons.

First, these new numbers do not tell us whether the gap between need and enrollment is shrinking. A new study by Legal Momentum raises serious concerns about the failure of TANF to reach millions of families struggling with poverty. On the Huffington Post, Legal Momentum President Irasema Garza shares this telling fact:

“At its inception in 1996, TANF served 84 percent of eligible families; now, the program only reaches 40 percent of these very vulnerable women, children and families.”

This chart from their study (PDF here) illustrates the gap:

The second concern is unemployment. New estimates predict double-digit unemployment going into next year and in her Op-Ed in the NY Times, Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out the disproportionate loss of jobs for blue collar workers. Most states are faced with the perfect storm of rising caseloads and unemployment, coupled with decreased state spending (i.e. fewer staff).

It is more important than ever to make sure TANF recipients are engaged with efficient, effective programs with proven long-term impacts. As I pointed out here, more recipients should be connected to hard-skills training, subsidized employment, and education opportunities to help them get a good job (when the time comes when good jobs are plentifully available again).

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