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House Committee on Ways and Means

Written Testimony of Elizabeth J. Clark, PhD, ACSW, MPH, Executive Director National Association of Social Workers For the Committee on Ways and Means
Hearing to “Review Outcomes of 1996 Welfare Reforms”

Chairman Thomas and other distinguished members of the Committee, on behalf of our members nationwide, we are pleased to submit this testimony as you review the outcomes of welfare reform. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, with 150,000 members. NASW works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain standards for the profession, and to advance sound social policies. NASW also contributes to the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its work and advocacy.

Social work is the largest social service profession in the United States. Social workers help people function better in their environments, improve their relationships with others, and solve personal and family problems through individual, social, and psychological support.

The most commonly reported practice areas for licensed social workers are mental health (37%), child welfare/family (13%) and health (13%). Social workers also work with older adults, adolescents, in schools, and in various settings and populations.

Ninety-one percent of NASW members hold master’s degrees in social work and 92 percent maintain some type of license, certification, or registration in their state; 70,000 also hold advanced credentials from NASW.

Overview

The social work profession has a long tradition of involvement in reducing poverty and strengthening families, and we welcome the opportunity to provide our feedback on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Social work has an extensive history of addressing poverty at the individual, community and national levels. In fact, one of the six ethical principles guiding social workers – working for social justice – cites poverty as a primary problem. In 2002, we established the Blue Ribbon Panel on Economic Security to bring visibility to the Association’s advocacy activities related to congressional reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families legislation and subsequently published policy statements covering the most critical components of a comprehensive safety net.1

The 1996 welfare reform law made dramatic changes to the welfare system designed to aid American families with low incomes. The law repealed the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and with it the individual entitlement to cash welfare benefits. In its place, the 1996 legislation created a new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant that provides fixed funding to states to operate programs designed to support families with low incomes.

While AFDC and TANF have helped thousands of families at different points in time, the programs’ underlying philosophy is based on the erroneous assumption that poverty is temporary. For example, cash payments are provided for no more than five years during the recipient’s life and states must comply with mandated work requirements to maintain block grants. We know that families cycle in and out of poverty due to job insecurity, lack of affordable housing, health concerns, unmet childcare needs, and many other reasons. Therefore, time limited services such as the current five year-limit often prove shortsighted and insufficient for many families with low incomes.

Since passage of the 1996 welfare reform law, Administration officials often extol the fact that welfare caseloads have dropped by more than 60 percent as nearly eight million parents and children have left the welfare rolls. But the reality is that the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by nearly three million people since 2000 to 34.6 million, according to a new report released by the Census Bureau.2 Approximately 12.1 percent of Americans are living in extreme poverty. 3 

Nearly 10 years after welfare reform was passed, the Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005 (DRA) P.L. 109-171 was signed into law by the President on February 8, 2006. It provides guidance for numerous programs including the reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Stamps, Child Support, and many others. The TANF program, in spite of its funding limitations, provides important resources and services to families and children with low incomes. These services must be preserved and expanded when one considers that 16% of American children – more than 11 million – are living in households where their parents’ income is at or below the federal poverty level. These parents are typically unable to provide their families with basic necessities like stable housing and reliable child care.

A close examination of poverty reveals that it is about much more than money alone. Poverty results from a number of factors that include political, social, and economic dynamics. For instance, as the country shifts from a manufacturing to a service economy, wages have been dramatically lowered for the average “nonprofessional” worker. In addition, the feminization of poverty has been exacerbated by persistent disparities in salaries between women and men, as well as the disproportionate economic burden that single mothers face in raising children by themselves.

With this background, we offer the following recommendations to improve the TANF program:

Child Care

Not surprisingly, a primary issue for families with young children is the lack of affordable child care. While families have increasingly left welfare for employment, many are in jobs that pay low wages struggling to make ends meet. Without sufficient child care, a participant’s employment efforts are undermined. We hear from our frontline social workers that their clients face long waiting lists for child care, ranging from months to a year in length, during which time they are forced to find alternative arrangements that can be costly or unreliable. Some are fortunate to have family members supervise their children when needed.

Every day, 13 million preschoolers – including 6 million infants and toddlers – are in child care. A 2003 study by the Children’s Defense Fund found that child care for a four year old in a child care center averages $4,000 to $6,000 per year in cities and states around the country.4 Some centers charge more than $10,000 per year. Families with more or younger children face additional costs. Further, families with special needs children may experience difficulty in locating adequate facilities.

The high cost of child care presents a challenge to all families, but is particularly burdensome for families with low incomes. These families must have reliable child care so parents can get and keep the jobs they need to lift them out of poverty. Since the new welfare system no longer assures them a safety net should they lose their jobs, safe and reliable child care has become increasingly important to the well-being of these families.

Many families with low incomes have no choice but to place their children in lower cost, often lower quality care. As a result, too many children are placed in unstimulating or even unsafe settings, depriving them of the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive. The research is clear that the quality of child care has a lasting impact on a child’s well-being and ability to learn. Children in poor quality child care have been found to be delayed in language and reading skills and to display more aggression toward other children and adults. School-age children’s academic performance is enhanced by attending formal child care programs of at least adequate quality, according to several studies.

The DRA reauthorizes the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) for five years and provides $1 billion in new mandatory funding, in addition to the current level of $4.8 billion ($2.1 billion in discretionary funding and $2.7 billion in mandatory funding). CCDF mandatory funding will be $2.917 billion for each FY 2006 through 2010. The law contains no additional discretionary funding. This amount falls short of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimation that $12.5 billion will be needed for child care as more people are moved into work activities.

Recommendation: Enhance funding for child care to $12.5 billion, the amount estimated by the CBO. Prior to the changes made in the DRA, the Administration had already projected a five-year loss in federally subsidized child care slots. With these changes, less federal child care assistance will be available for the next five years. The increased TANF work requirements, coupled with the lack of increases in discretionary child care funds, means that the demand for child care services will be even greater while funding will not increase. These changes will also create pressure on states to move the TANF funds they are currently using to provide child care to fund other services such as job training, transportation, tracking TANF requirements, and subsidized employment.

Economic Security and Livable Wages

People with low incomes are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, child care, health care, and education. Being poor can mean that one is an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from homelessness or extreme poverty. Although welfare caseloads have dropped dramatically since the implementation of TANF, there are serious concerns that declining welfare rolls have not translated into economic security for those moving out of welfare and into work. Consider these facts:

  • 46% of the jobs with the most growth between 1994 and 2005 pay less than $16,000 a year; these jobs will not lift families out of poverty (National Priorities Project, 1998).5
  • Current median TANF benefits for a family of three are approximately one third of the poverty level; thus, contrary to public opinion, welfare does not provide relief from poverty (Bringing America Home: The Campaign).6
  • Income levels for previous welfare recipients have not increased over five years; most of the employment they find pays at or below the federal poverty level (Joyce Foundation, 2002).7

 Recommendation: Congress must pass legislation that creates a livable wage, not just a minimum wage, to truly lift families out of poverty. States must support collaborative public-private efforts to move welfare recipients into work experiences that offer a livable wage, appropriate levels of training, adequate health benefits, and intentional efforts to provide opportunities for economic advancement.

Support for Responsible Fathers

We are pleased that the DRA includes $50 million per year of the $150 million per year marriage grants that can be used for fatherhood activities to promote responsible parenting, foster the economic stability of fathers, and promote responsible fatherhood.

States are already using TANF funds to encourage nonresident fathers to pay child support and become more actively involved in their children’s lives by offering them employment services and relationship-building services. Adding responsible fatherhood to this goal would simply affirm what states are already doing and possibly encourage more to act.

Recommendation: While we recognize the goal of the program is to prepare fathers to be better parents in the context of marriage, we know that fathers matter to their children, irrespective of their marital status or where they live. Studies that focus on nonresident fathers and unwed fathers have tended to find that their involvement is associated with greater academic success, improved well-being, and reduced behavioral problems for their children.8 Since these fatherhood support grants are geared toward those who are married, we encourage states to screen for domestic violence and issues of anger management. While we encourage the formation of healthy families, we recognize that some parents will need additional support in this area to ensure that safety is not compromised in the name of achieving a two-parent household.

Conclusion

The federal and local governments should focus on the causes of poverty, provide long term opportunities through post-secondary education and vocational training for people with low incomes, and strengthen family supports such as increased spending on child care. We know that poverty is often not a one-time occurrence in families and that their needs must be continually evaluated with services rendered in a timely fashion. Further, we believe that federal policies should support the integration of TANF policies with child welfare, housing, economic development, mental health, and substance abuse policies and programs if we are to truly lift families out of poverty. The social work community stands ready to offer our experience and expertise in supporting families with low incomes, and we welcome any opportunities to partner with the federal government on this important issue.

 References

 1 National Association of Social Workers. (2003). Promoting economic security through social welfare legislation. NASW Blue Ribbon Panel on Economic Security. National Association of Social Workers: Washington, DC. 

2 U.S. Census Bureau. American fact finder: Poverty. Retrieved from http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/QTTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-qr_name=DEC_2000_SF3_U_QTP35&-ds_name=DEC_2000_SF3_U
on July 25, 2006.

3 Id.

5 National Priorities Project and Jobs with Justice. (1998). Working hard, earning less: The future of job growth in America. Available from the National Priorities Project: Northampton, MA.

6 Bringing America Home: The Campaign. Income factsheet. Retrieved from http://www.bringingamericahome.org/income.html on July 6, 2006.

7 Joyce Foundation. (2002). Welfare to work: What have we learned? Retrieved online from www.joycefdn.org on June 23, 2006.

8 Paul R. Amato, Joan G. Gilbreth. (1999). Nonresident fathers and children’s well-being: A meta-analysis.Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 61, No. 3, pp. 557-573.

 
 
 
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