Common sense social service waivers reduce bureacracy, help adapt policies to 2012 economy

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Since the “welfare-to-work” reforms of the 90s, states have supported low-income families via federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. Each state uses its TANF block grant differently; Minnesota uses it for direct cash assistance (known as the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP) and other initiatives such as child care, employment, and child welfare programs. Most families receiving cash assistance must actively work, search for employment, or enroll in school or work-readiness programs. Barring special circumstances families are subject to a lifetime limit of 60 months of cash assistance.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently encouraged states to apply for waivers for their administration of TANF dollars. Minnesota and a handful of other states have expressed interest in participating. A waiver would not change recipients’ employment requirements and lifetime limits. What could change, however, is how states reach their employment goals and administer TANF dollars.

Examples provided by HHS include changes to program administration, longer education and vocational training programs for recipients, improved services for those with disabilities, and measuring success by employment outcomes, not just participation in job-seeking programs.

A main goal is to reduce bureaucracy that ties up families and social workers in paperwork rather than progress. HHS emphasizes that waivers will only be granted when program guidelines, budgets, evaluation systems and timelines are in place. Waivers can be revoked at any time if states don’t meet employment targets.

TANF waivers are not the “no-strings-attached handouts” the Heritage Foundation is claiming they are. States and recipients alike are still bound to employment outcomes and lifetime limits. (As the Star Tribune put it: different methods, same goals.) TANF waivers are simply a common-sense invitation for states to further adapt their programs in ways that meet local needs and reflect the modern job market. What worked at the inception of TANF in 1996 may not work in a 2012 economy.

Recent news that two-thirds of North Minneapolis residents receive some form of county assistance would suggest that we need to make more progress moving people forward out of poverty and into self-sufficiency. Some folks are getting stuck—unsurprising given the economy. HHS is wise to encourage innovation, give local governments more control over their TANF dollars, and improve families’ self-sufficiency. (Those actually sound like ideas conservatives should be cheering, not decrying.) Minnesota is wise to take part in making welfare-to-work programs actually work for our poorest residents.