Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

25 years after welfare reform, the system is pared down as intended. But critics say the program is failing.

It was welcomed as a needed change by some, a racist scourge by others.

Alisha Gillespie near her Germantown home. TANF, she said, "was like a ball and chain."
Alisha Gillespie near her Germantown home. TANF, she said, "was like a ball and chain."Read moreJonathan Wilson

Not long ago, the first assignment for many incoming law students at the University of Pennsylvania was to fill out an application for federal cash assistance — welfare.

The idea was to see whether Ivy League graduate students could figure out the confounding paperwork.

“I never had one of them fill it out correctly,” said Amy Hirsch, a managing attorney with Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services, who conceived of the exercise. “Now, imagine a woman of limited literacy, possibly fleeing domestic violence, in poverty with little children, trying to do it.”

Next Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of so-called welfare reform, which produced the program of cash assistance known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

TANF was created in 1996 after Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), formulated in 1935, was ended. Unlike AFDC, the new initiative was a block grant rather than a steady-state payment, and it imposed on recipients work requirements and cumulative time limits of five years.

Historians say TANF was meant to appease critics who believed that the old system fostered dependency.

Conservatives would say it succeeded. In the 2½ decades of TANF, they have hailed it as a needed change that pared the welfare system and, specifically, ushered low-income women into the workforce.

But some scholars and advocates say what’s developed isn’t reform but a “punitive,” “racist,” “dehumanizing” institution that does little to ameliorate poverty.

“TANF has been a continuous disaster,” said Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health.

“People on TANF are stigmatized and reviled, and made to jump through hoops,” said Temple University sociologist Judith Levine, director of the school’s Public Policy Lab. “We’ve made getting TANF so hard, people don’t want to bother to be on it.”

» READ MORE: Why doesn’t the U.S. value child care? A historic look.

Since 1997, two million families have been cut off TANF due to sanctions imposed for perceived violations of work rules, advocates say.

Indeed, the number of TANF recipients in Pennsylvania plummeted from 223,629 in July 2003 to 64,976 — more than 49,000 of them children — as of June, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which oversees TANF.

In a statement responding to questions, DHS officials said the decline occurred because “income and asset limits that govern TANF eligibility are very low, so when recipients find employment ... they may move off the benefit.”

Others say it’s not so simple.

In Pennsylvania, just 20% of those who have left TANF have found work, according to Peter Zurflieh, staff attorney with the Community Justice Project, a statewide initiative of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network in Harrisburg.

“And,” he said, “most of that is low-wage, unskilled, or part time.”

Of the remaining 80%, not much is known, said Zurflieh, “but in all likelihood, they’re not doing well.”

‘Just a ball and chain’

Alisha Gillespie, 32, an unemployed hospital worker from Germantown with three children ages 6, 9, and 13, said that she’d been on TANF for around five years but that it appeared to hurt more than help.

“It seemed like a form of slavery,” she said. “It wasn’t that much money. I wanted to use it to further my education, but they kept telling me to find a job.”

TANF critics have said that the program compels a recipient to seek a job before furthering their education, which can ultimately limit the type of work a person can do. “I couldn’t always be at job centers looking for work when my kid was sick in the hospital with asthma issues,” Gillespie said. “They act like you don’t have trials and tribulations.

“In the end, TANF was just a ball and chain.”

According to the DHS statement, the agency has been offering increased opportunities for TANF recipients to garner education credentials. The idea is to “move away from simply focusing on getting individuals into low-wage jobs only to have them lose those jobs months later and return to our programs.”

Zurflieh praised the agency’s program connecting TANF recipients to community colleges for doing “a remarkable job helping students get degrees.”

» READ MORE: Hungry as a child, this Philadelphia woman now uses her own house as a food pantry

Cash assistance that hasn’t changed

In 2019, TANF cost nearly $31 billion in combined federal block grants ($16.2 billion) and state contributions ($14.7 billion), federal figures show. Pennsylvania, which administers the program for state residents, paid $514 million for TANF programs in the 2019-20 time frame, $107 million more than the minimum requirement, according to Pennsylvania DHS.

Along with cash assistance and job and education programs, individuals on TANF have access to child care.

In Pennsylvania, a family of three receives an average monthly cash payment of $403 from TANF, a figure that hasn’t changed since 1990, during the days of AFDC, according to a 2020 report from Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities.

“That’s extreme, extreme poverty,” said Hirsch of CLS. “No child should be living in such poverty.”

It’s “a travesty,” Chilton of Drexel said.

Dollar amounts are set by the states. Since 2013, 24 of them have increased their cash assistance payments; Pennsylvania hasn’t, Hirsch said.

DHS said that raising the monthly TANF grant would require approval from the General Assembly.

“There just isn’t political will to do it,” Zurflieh said.

As it happens, states such as Pennsylvania have been giving less to mothers and children in cash assistance, and redistributing the funds.

In 1997, the first full year of TANF, Pennsylvania spent 72% of the block grant on cash assistance, according to Ife Floyd, director of TANF research and analysis for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank in Washington.

It spends just 14% today. New Jersey, which started out giving 57% of its grant to cash assistance, gave just 5% in 2019, Floyd said. The U.S. average is 21%, according to the most recent figures.

Pennsylvania uses some 40% of its grant to underwrite child care for TANF mothers as well as for people not part of the program, Floyd said.

Child-care funding “was intended to support families transitioning away from TANF,” according to DHS.

‘Served to punish’

The notion that racism is baked into TANF is widespread.

“States where Black families compose a larger share of TANF recipients have less generous TANF policies,” the Hunger-Free Communities report said. “Pennsylvania [where 52% of TANF recipients are Black] spends less of their block grant on basic assistance compared to other states with fewer Black recipients.”

Floyd said, “TANF work requirements come from a legacy of enslavement and forced labor, and this belief that Black people are lazy and undeserving of support, and if we don’t coerce them to work, they won’t.

“So, harsh TANF work requirements with difficult paperwork obligations and time limits served to punish rather than help families.”

Currently, DHS is working to “move away from the punitive nature of work requirements,” the agency statement said. The agency is “hoping to mitigate the impact of poverty and trauma on our clients, which are exacerbated when coupled with experiences of systemic racism.”

Racism kept many Black women out of the workforce altogether, said Rochelle Jackson, founder and executive director of Black Women’s Policy Agenda, an Allegheny County advocacy group. “There was never a time when Black women didn’t want to work,” she said, “but always a time when they weren’t able to work because of discrimination.”

She praised DHS Secretary Theresa Miller’s awareness of the problem of racism in how Black women are treated: “Theresa was courageous enough to acknowledge we are not doing so well.”

TANF should be ‘destroyed’

For her part, Chilton of Drexel said TANF “should be destroyed” and replaced with universal basic income, in which all citizens receive an unconditional, regular stipend.

A report from the Centers on Budget and Policy Priorities suggested that TANF offer a minimum benefit, as well as an end to both mandatory work and time limits.

Instead of treating TANF recipients “like naughty schoolchildren,” Levine of Temple said, perhaps the newly expanded child tax credit will become a better form of safety net for low- and middle-income families.

Such a change, she said, could finally usher in “a more generous, forgiving system.”