Improving the Welfare Reform Success Story

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Who said government programs don't work? Since enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), in conjunction with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), unprecedented numbers of people have made the transition from welfare to work.

The '96 reforms eliminated the notion that individuals were "entitled" to welfare. They largely left responsibility for program design and implementation to the states, and emphasized self-sufficiency through employment. As a result, welfare caseloads have dropped by nearly 50 percent since 1996.

One thing has been proven for certain. Employers are far better at judging an individual's employability than are bureaucrats. Of all the aspects of the '96 welfare reforms, TANF has proven to be the component that makes it work, and it should be reauthorized this year. TANF will enable the states to achieve specific goals, including reducing welfare caseloads, focusing on children, ensuring parents live up to their responsibilities, and cutting administrative costs.

In the past, defining what actually constitutes work has been a subjective call. Currently, TANF uses participation in "work-related activities" to measure performance. Lenient states count time spent on activities not particularly work related. But by making caseload reduction the primary performance goal, measuring how well TANF works will be as easy as counting the number of families who no longer need it.

Getting down to specifics. The aim should be to lower TANF caseloads by 70 percent from 1994 levels. This goal could be phased in over four years, starting with a 55 percent reduction by the end of 2003. States that fail to meet caseload reduction goals should be required to implement or strengthen their work-first programs.

Focusing on children and ensuring both parents contribute to meeting their children's financial needs is another primary TANF objective. Funds are currently available under the program for employment assistance to noncustodial parents, most of whom are fathers not living with their children. Unfortunately, few states take advantage of this option, which is a mistake. Under TANF, states should be required to provide work-related services to absent fathers. Common sense dictates that helping absent fathers get jobs can only enhance the likelihood of their providing child support for their offspring.

It should be relatively simple to get both parents to meet periodically with a caseworker to devise strategies for becoming self-sufficient, and goals for caring for the children. Monitoring progress would also be easy. Finally, putting children at the center of the equation requires both parents to acknowledge their parental responsibilities.

Children would also be the focus of a pilot program that forces unmarried fathers to support their children. If the TANF program is implemented, these fathers would be the subject of a court order establishing paternity at birth, and they would be required to begin paying child support at that point.

Once again, this is a common sense approach. The judiciary in every state is charged with determining custodial parents and child support when couples divorce. If it is a valid governmental interest to protect children in a divorce, it is certainly a proper government function to protect all children. Determining paternity and support orders for children born out of wedlock should be no different.

Finally, while TANF has proven to be very successful, the Food Stamp program has been somewhat less so. With this reality in mind, the portion of the Food Stamp program that funds benefits to TANF recipients should also be converted into block grants to the states. These types of block grants devolve control to the state level, affording them more flexibility to direct benefits where they are most needed. Combining Food Stamp and TANF funds would also streamline the provision of services to recipients.

To provide incentive and ensure success of the program, the Food Stamp block grants should set up caseload reduction requirements similar to our proposed TANF performance goals already in place. Reducing caseloads by 20 percent the first year and a 10 percent annual reduction in each following year, up to a 70 percent caseload reduction target similar to TANF, is achievable. States that fail to meet their annual target will be required to include work requirements similar to our TANF requirements for states failing to meet caseload reduction goals.

Because of misplaced incentives, decades of relentless increases in federal welfare spending, has failed. TANF, on the other hand, has proven that welfare recipients can become productive workers. With the adoption of a few of the principles that have made TANF successful, those unfortunate people who remain part of the welfare caseload can move toward work, independence and dignity.