Yesterday the House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee held a hearing on waivers for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF). Waivers to the federal welfare program were first proposed by The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in July, 2012. Subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert (R-WA) called yesterday’s hearing out of concern that waivers could negatively impact work securement and increase dependence on government benefits. Panel witnesses included Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT); the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Director, Kay Brown; Executive Director of the Secretary’s Innovation Group, Jason Turner; Policy Coordinator and Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, Elizabeth Lower-Basch and University of Maryland Public Policy Professor, Douglas Becharov.
Responding to state feedback about administrative, regulatory and legislative barriers, HHS’ TANF waivers were proposed to allow states the flexibility to innovate for the purpose of improving efforts to help families move from assistance to jobs. They are intended to test new approaches to meeting TANF goals and require an evaluation plan, performance targets, and a compelling case that the proposed approach promotes employment, retention, and advancement that replaces the need for government benefits. Due in part to its announcement during the 2012 campaign season, the waiver proposal received a lot of attention for being controversial, with opponents raising concerns that it would weaken work requirements. In September the House of Representatives passed H.J. Res 118 expressing disapproval for the waiver proposal.
Subcommittee members, including Chairman Reichert and Representative Danny Davis (D-IL) spoke about their own childhood experiences with poverty, highlighting their interest in ensuring welfare works. Senator Hatch pointed out that TANF has been running on extensions since 2010 and discussed his preference for improving the program through legislation rather than administrative waivers. Brown reported that since HHS has proposed waivers, eight states have expressed interest in pursuing them but no state has officially requested one and none have been granted. Turner discussed the origins and rationale for TANF including reciprocal work requirements in exchange for benefits and its success over other approaches like block granting. Lower-Basch discussed how the current structure of the TANF work participation rate is undermining the goal of promoting stable employment as a path out of poverty. Finally Besharov discussed international approaches to alleviating poverty through policy, including program evaluation efforts. Each panelist’s testimony can be found on the Human Resources Subcommittee’s website.