November 10, 2017

Florida Can Do More to Help Struggling Families Transition to Economic Self-Sufficiency by Focusing use of TANF Block Grant Funds

Block grant structure of ‘welfare to work’ reform has resulted in continued diversion of TANF dollars to non-core purposes; in Florida, poverty and deep poverty levels remain above national average

LAKE MARY, FL – The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program, created as part of a federal welfare reform effort in 1996, has not fulfilled its promise of transitioning poor Floridians from unemployment or underemployment to jobs that enable economic self-sufficiency. In its latest report, the Florida Policy Institute (FPI) analyzed appropriations over an eight-year period and found that the state has spent a substantial share of its federal and state TANF dollars on child welfare services, which FPI considers a “non-core” purpose of TANF.

“The issue with block granting a program like TANF is that the increased flexibility has allowed the state to divert funds to areas that do not fulfill the program’s original goals, so that every dollar spent elsewhere is a dollar taken away from helping the neediest families transition to employment,” said Joseph F. Pennisi, executive director of FPI. “Florida’s experience with the TANF program should serve as a cautionary note as Washington proposes turning other safety net programs into block grants with limited funding and broad discretion.”

There are four overarching goals delineated in the 1996 law for which states can use TANF funds: provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; prevent and reduce the incidence of out of wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals of preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Child welfare services, while a critical activity that requires appropriate state investment and resources, was not included among the core welfare reform activities of TANF as laid out 20 years ago.

The report, TANF at 20 in Florida: The Promise of Helping Poor Families Transition from Welfare to Work Has Not Been Fulfilled, found that between 2008 and 2016 Florida appropriated a declining share of TANF dollars for temporary cash assistance, work-related activities and supports and child care services, all of which are considered “core” TANF activities.

In 2015, TANF’s cash assistance reached only 11 of every 100 eligible families in Florida. This figure is below the national average, 23 of every 100 eligible families, and well below the number of Florida families who received cash assistance in 1996, 55 out of every 100 eligible families.

In addition, FPI found that, as of 2015, only 12.3 percent of closed TANF cases resulted from employment.

The report recommends the following to improve TANF:

  • Invest more in innovative, effective, and flexible work, training and education programs through which TANF participants can find sustainable employment;
  • Enhance the reach of Temporary Cash Assistance to the millions of Floridians living in poverty and deep poverty who are struggling to cover basic expenses such as rent and utility payments;
  • Adjust the benefit levels of the Temporary Cash Assistance every year to keep up with inflation. The state should also increase the benefit levels immediately to make up some of the ground lost over the last 20 years;
  • Fund child care services through TANF at a level that ultimately negates the need for a waiting list; and
  • Dedicate a substantial portion of TANF funding to programs and services that advance the fundamental purposes of TANF.

“Currently, TANF funding is at risk of being cut at the federal level. This is a critical poverty-reduction program that warrants increased investment and resources,” added Pennisi.

The Florida Policy Institute is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting widespread prosperity through timely, thoughtful and objective analysis of state policy issues affecting economic opportunity.

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