The Lawrence Journal-World’s Jan. 10 editorial characterizes state policies for the administration of the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program as a “cause for concern.” As the secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, I want to assure your readers that is just not the case.
The policy changes that DCF has implemented have primarily been to encourage, and, yes, require those who receive taxpayer-funded benefits to seek employment, participate in employment training or become employed.
Cash assistance, the federal program now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is a time-limited program meant to be a bridge from poverty to employment. TANF was created by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the “welfare to work” legislation that was the most significant reform of America’s welfare system in history. At the core of the 1996 reform act was a work requirement for all able-bodied recipients.
For the first time, welfare was to be managed like a work program, in which individuals were mandated to work or participate in work activities to be eligible for benefits, and because of this historic change to the way welfare had been administered, “welfare to work” was an unmitigated success.
On a national level, the mandated work requirement led to huge reductions in the welfare rolls, historic levels of employment, and child poverty was reduced to an all-time low. Low-income Americans gained freedom from dependency, which had plagued families for multiple generations. Through work, these individuals were given a path to self-sufficiency and ultimately an opportunity to succeed.
Full-time employment is the key to reducing poverty. This is exactly why every significant policy change we have implemented at DCF has focused on employment. When Gov. Brownback took office in January 2011, the TANF work programs were failing and individuals were languishing on the welfare rolls instead of receiving the help they needed to gain employment.
Kansas performed so poorly compared to other states in policy reforms following the passage of the 1996 welfare reform act that we received a grade of “F” from the Heartland Institute, a public policy think tank based in Chicago, in its state-by-state analysis. Most other states, through employment-focused TANF policies, had reduced their welfare rolls on average by 64 percent since 1996. Kansas’ rolls had been reduced by only 40 percent, 47th in the nation.
Our state’s welfare system needed to follow through with the policies intended by the 1996 “welfare to work” reform legislation. So, in October 2011, DCF implemented policies that emphasize work. And we are now seeing the success of those policies. The TANF caseloads are dropping, and we are getting individuals off of the welfare rolls and into employment. Since July 2011, TANF caseloads in Kansas have dropped by an extraordinary 33 percent. We have accomplished this incredible feat through sound policy changes which encourage and emphasize work.
The work requirement in our welfare system is a proven method for increasing employment and decreasing childhood poverty. Our agency is committed to helping individuals to bridge the gap between poverty and full-time employment. By providing needed support and assisting our TANF clients to become employed we offer them the opportunity to lift their families out of poverty, and in doing so we give them an opportunity for a brighter future.