By Michelle Madaio
In October 1996, Maryland adopted new laws for providing cash assistance to families in need (following Congress enacting the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in August 1996). Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (in Maryland called Temporary Cash Assistance) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children and was intended to “end welfare as we know it.” Living up to its promise, TANF detrimentally changed how we provide cash benefits to low-income families with children.
Reflecting upon the past twenty years, the question is: What have the reforms accomplished?
The reforms made it extremely difficult to apply for and receive TANF. Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the number of families receiving TANF has significantly dropped, despite an increase in the number of families eligible for the benefit. In Maryland, less than 30% of families with children who were living in poverty received TANF in 2013-2014.
One of the reforms was the sanctioning system, perhaps the biggest obstacle HPRP’s clients face in accessing TANF. Federal law requires states to impose work requirements on families in order to receive TANF (with some exceptions). Most families are required to participate in work activity programs up to 40 hours a week. The work programs are generally unpaid and not effective in providing the education, skills, and training necessary to secure unsubsidized employment. Federal law gives states the option to impose full family sanctions if a family does not comply with the work requirements. Maryland opted for full family work sanctions.
In Maryland work sanctions are cumulative: The first time you miss work, you must work one day before your benefits resume. If you miss a second day, the sanction is 10 days loss of benefits. For the third day, it is 30 days. Your benefits are terminated and you must work – even if you have no income – for 30 days. Only then will your benefits reopen for the next month.
Even if a family is able to get approved for TANF, benefit levels are extremely low. Maryland has not increased the benefit amount over the past two years, despite other cost of living increases. The benefit for a two-person household is $503 a month (which would break down to $3.14 per hour for a 40-hour work week). For a three-person family, it’s $636 a month, also significantly below the minimum wage. Compare that to the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore: $1,380 a month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Even without all the barriers to access and strings attached, TANF falls short of meeting families’ most basic needs to survive. We’ve opted for a system that manages poverty instead of ending it.
TANF is long overdue reform, this time for the better.