The 2010 legislative session will pass without Congress reauthorizing cash assistance for poor families with children (called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF); instead, its funding was simply continued at current levels for the next year. Reauthorization will likely occur next year, and Congress has already begun hearings on how to improve TANF. When Congress gets around to reauthorizing TANF, it must mend our frayed safety net. Ultimately, the key to improving TANF will be to measure success not by caseload reductions but by the elimination and alleviation of poverty.
The federal poverty line in the U.S. for a family of four is just $22,050. In Illinois, 15% of families with children under 18 were poor in 2009. Those who live in extreme poverty have income totaling less than half of the poverty line. It is unconscionable that the safety net in an industrial democracy such as our own still leaves nearly nineteen million people living in extreme poverty in 2009. In Illinois 8.5% of children are growing up in extreme poverty, and many are not being helped by TANF at all. The same picture is playing out around the country.
Since federal welfare reform was enacted in the 1996, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that caseloads have plummeted across the country—declining 87% in just 10 years. Meanwhile, extreme poverty is 18% higher than it was in 2000. The decline in TANF caseloads is due almost entirely to a huge rise in the number of eligible families who are not receiving benefits. Even before the recession, the GAO concluded that increasing the enrollment of eligible families to 1995 levels would lift 800,000 children nationally out of extreme poverty. Welfare has declined, but the real human need for it has not.
A few months ago, the Senate Committee on Finance concluded a “Hearing on Welfare Reform: A New Conversation on Women and Poverty.” The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law submitted testimony to that hearing. Among other suggested reforms, we highlighted the need to fundamentally rededicate TANF to its purpose—to be a robust and flexible safety net to lift people out of poverty.
Here in Illinois, we have made significant strides to improve TANF through Public Act 96-0866, (described more fully here), which went into effect on July 1, 2010. By making benefits available sooner, and to more poor individuals, our TANF program has become a more robust safety net during the recession. In fact, Illinois has experienced a relatively significant increase in TANF receipt during the recession, rising approximately 40% in two years and 15% in just the months since Public Act 96-0866 went into effect on July 1, 2010. But we are still not talking about many families; only one in nine Illinois families in poverty receives TANF.
TANF reauthorization presents the opportunity to rededicate the program to its most critical goal, the alleviation of poverty, while at the same time furthering the aims of reducing dependency on aid and strengthening families. It is time to reauthorize TANF.