Getting the Facts Straight on TANF

TANF press conference

If you are like me, you’re tired of hearing anecdotes passed off as justification for policy. Because the decisions of state legislators will have an impact on thousands of Maine people, I expect them to rely on sound data and accurate information. I want a public policy that moves beyond assumptions, one that is founded in facts and is inline with the real experiences of Mainers.

If we misdiagnose the problem, our solutions will be wrong. If we understand the problems correctly, we can shape thoughtful, common sense solutions. There’s no greater need for an accurate analysis than in the debate about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Unfortunately, much of this debate so far has been driven by stereotypes, NOT credible information.

That is precisely why, a year ago, the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Equal Justice Partners commissioned a study on the TANF program with a survey of more than 1,000 families receiving assistance from TANF, followed by focus groups. The goal was to better understand TANF’s impact on families and the Maine economy. The result is the most comprehensive and rigorous study of TANF families in Maine conducted since 1995.

The well-being of 25,000 Maine children and their families is at stake in this debate.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Ninety-two percent of survey respondents were women, reflecting the large majority of TANF families headed by women raising children on their own.

  • In most cases, TANF does exactly what it was intended to do – provide temporary assistance to families needing to get back on their feet. The median length of time that families receive TANF is 1.5 years.

  • Of the survey families that have returned to TANF at least twice in the last ten years, 50% reported that they “couldn’t earn enough from work to support my family” as their reason for applying for benefits.

  • TANF is a story about the low-wage labor market. TANF recipients by and large work in unstable and low-paying jobs. Nearly 70% of respondents reported working in the sales and service sectors. Research indicates these sectors are typically female-dominated, providing low wages and few benefits.

  • Working respondents earned a median wage of $8.36/hour—an increase of only 4.5% over the wage of a similar group of TANF recipients in 2001. By comparison, the average weekly wage for all Maine workers increased by 20% during this same period—nearly four times greater than the increase for working TANF families.

  • Read the full report here

These facts make it clear what the TANF program is really about. As Sarah Standiford remarked, "It's about low-income Mainers—mostly women—struggling in a labor market with low wages and inflexible hours. It's about Mainers struggling with the barriers presented by a work-limiting disability. And, it's about women and children managing the impact of domestic abuse. We can only arrive at the appropriate solutions when they are based on facts—not fiction."

Unfortunately, today, welfare is a term loaded with misconceptions. We need to look beyond stereotypes and see families. We need to see moms like Pam Smith, a current TANF recipient, who stated in Wednesday's press conference:

"I’m here today to speak for the 14,000 Maine families whose lives are sustained by TANF. In most instances, families receive TANF for only a short time, and for most, it does exactly what it is intended to do—provide temporary support to help people get back on their feet. As with others who find themselves on TANF, I’d much rather be supporting myself. I’m a hard worker. But, I also know that more training will give me a better chance at finding a job that provides me with the wages and hours that I need to support my family. I am very grateful to know that TANF is there for me and my boys. If it wasn’t for TANF, I don’t know where my boys and I would be today."

 

If you tuned into Governor LePage’s inaugural address, you may remember his story about Jennifer Cloukey, a single mom and TANF recipient who is graduating nursing school this fall and hopes to get off TANF. In his inaugural speech, Governor LePage cited Jennifer as an example of what he hopes to be the norm – a hardworking Mainer successfully transitioning from the program. The good news is that Jennifer’s story is the norm – the median time recipients spend on temporary assistance is 1.5 years and many, like her, have been able to access education in order to get a well-paying job and leave the TANF program behind. As Maine policymakers look to restructure the program, we will urge them to build on these successes and critical investments in access to education and find new solutions – based on credible information – to promote pathways out of poverty for Maine families.