Mending the Safety Net: Why Pennsylvania Must Restore Its TANF Program to Protect Its Neediest Families

Posted by Community Legal Services on September 26, 2016

Executive Summary

Twenty years ago, “welfare reform” overhauled the nation’s cash assistance program for needy families with children. In ending the entitlement to benefits and creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, Congress created very strong incentives for states to reduce their caseloads. No longer could struggling families count on a national safety net to ensure that their children have diapers, heat, and shelter. Pennsylvania’s most destitute families need the TANF program to protect them from homelessness and instability, and to help them get good jobs to escape poverty. But Pennsylvania’s program helps too few families, with too meager benefits that are too difficult to get.

Since early 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) has made dramatic improvements to the Commonwealth’s safety net for low income families by strengthening its Medicaid and SNAP (formerly food stamp) programs. DHS should be applauded for taking these important steps to improve access to SNAP and Medicaid. Now, DHS should take similar, much needed steps to improve access to cash assistance through the TANF program. Twenty years of harmful policies and administrative barriers to TANF have made it increasingly difficult for pregnant women and families living in deep poverty in Pennsylvania to access the income supports that they need while they stabilize their lives. The number of families on TANF has declined significantly in Pennsylvania over the last twenty years, from 487,000 adults and children in 1996 to 158,000 in June of this year. This decline should not be celebrated: based on an analysis of available data from DHS, Community Legal Services (CLS) is disturbed to conclude on behalf of its clients that the caseload decline cannot be attributed to successfully moving poor parents into the workforce.

Instead, many vulnerable families are unable to access the program, or are leaving TANF due to overzealous sanctions or bureaucratic roadblocks. They are falling deeper into extreme poverty because of harmful outdated policies that have not been addressed. For every 100 poor families in Pennsylvania, only 31 families receive cash assistance from TANF. In 2014, at least 35,000 Pennsylvania families with children receiving SNAP were poor enough to qualify for TANF, but did not receive it. These families may be homeless, dependent on help from family or friends, and desperately trying to get by, and TANF could make the difference.

More in "New Resources"

Stay Current in Philly's Higher Education and Nonprofit Sector

We compile a weekly email with local events, resources, national conferences, calls for proposals, grant, volunteer and job opportunities in the higher education and nonprofit sectors.