Revisiting Welfare Reform

A potential update to welfare reform is no substitute for poverty reduction.

In an effort to jumpstart a fresh debate on welfare reform, Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee recently released a “discussion draft” of a bill overhauling the nation’s current welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Billed as the “biggest redesign of TANF in its history,” the draft legislation includes a variety of provisions aimed at tightening the law’s current work requirements and holding states more accountable for moving recipients into work.

“Work is the only way for people to really escape poverty and achieve the American Dream, and we are eager to help more families succeed at doing just that,” said House Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R-LA) at a hearing in July.

Unlike some past conservative efforts at welfare reform, the current discussion draft contains several elements intended to court bipartisan support. While the focus on work is a must for conservatives – as well as for many moderates – the proposal also expands the kinds of activities that count as “work” and maintains funding at current levels. According to National Journal, both Republican and Democratic staffers were involved in the drafting of this bill.

Given that Congress hasn’t passed a comprehensive update of welfare reform legislation since it was first enacted in 1996, the passage of bipartisan welfare legislation would indeed be a welcome achievement. In particular, the bill could solve some current problems with the way in which states are currently spending federal TANF dollars. For example, the Congressional Research Service reports that states spent just 6 percent of federal welfare dollars on work-related programs in fiscal 2013 – while spending 7 percent on administration.

Nevertheless, welfare reform is no substitute for poverty reduction, and Congress shouldn’t treat it as such. Rather, TANF reform is only one aspect of a broader agenda Congress should tackle to move families into work and self-sufficiency.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…