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2005 TANF Re-authorization Testimony

 
Testimony of Kathleen A. Curran, Policy Advisor
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Before the House Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Human Resources
Thursday, February 10, 2005

Chairman Herger and Members of the Subcommittee, my name is Kathleen A. Curran and I am a policy advisor on health and welfare issues with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  I welcome this opportunity to share with you the views of the Bishops' Conference as you consider proposals for re-authorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program (TANF).  This testimony reflects the criteria for welfare reform adopted by the Administrative Committee of the Conference.

When considering proposals for TANF re-authorization, the Bishops’ Conference turns to both Catholic social doctrine and experience in serving the poor.  The Bishops are guided by consistent Catholic moral principles and traditional values: respect for human life and dignity; the importance of family and the value of work; an option for the poor and the call to participation; and the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. 

The Bishops’ Conference also draws upon the Church's experience living with, serving, and welcoming as members the poor among us.  The poor are our neighbors and our parishioners.  The Catholic community is the largest nongovernmental provider of human services to poor families.   We meet the poor in our soup kitchens, shelters and Catholic Charities agencies.  The Catholic community has lived with the realities of welfare reform, encouraging and helping people to make the transition from welfare to work.  Some are moving ahead and we welcome and celebrate their progress.  But we also live with those who are left behind, who turn to our parishes, eat in our soup kitchens, sleep in our shelters and ask for our help.  Refining our policy to help “the least of this” is the unfinished task for our nation, pledged to "liberty and justice for all."

As the Bishops wrote in their statement, A Place at the Table, our efforts to serve and stand with the poor recognize and build on the essential roles and responsibilities of four institutions. Families and individuals must work for and respect their own dignity and rights and those of others.  Community organizations and faith-based institutions help families by helping them make good choices, assisting with material needs and working to overcome discrimination and injustice.  The private sector – the marketplace and institutions of business, labor and commerce – contributes to the common good through production and the creation of jobs, and should do so in a way that reflects our society’s values and priorities. A key measure of the marketplace is whether it provides decent work and wages, especially for those on the margins of economic life.  Finally, government has an essential role and responsibility in serving the common good, providing a safety net for the vulnerable, helping to overcome injustice and addressing problems beyond the capacity of individual or community efforts.  One problem in the poverty debate is that many focus on one of these institutions and ignore the importance of the others.

With these themes and our everyday experiences in mind, our Conference applies six principles, first articulated by the Administrative Board of the Bishops' Conference in 1995, in evaluating proposals for changes during TANF re-authorization.  The Conference urges lawmakers to enact policies that:

  • Protect human life and human dignity:  A fundamental criterion for all public policy, including welfare policy, is respect for human life and human dignity.  Our nation must protect the lives and dignity of all children, both born and unborn, and develop policies that safeguard children and discourage inappropriate or morally destructive behavior.
  • Strengthen family life:  Welfare policy should affirm the importance of marriage, strong intact families, personal responsibility, self-discipline, sacrifice and basic morality.  It should help mothers and fathers meet the social, economic, educational and moral needs of their children. Our society should strive to keep marriages strong and families together, and, when that is not possible, to keep both mothers and fathers involved in the lives of their children in a healthy and constructive manner.
  • Encourage and reward work:  Work is the means by which individuals support themselves and their families, and participate in God's creation, express their dignity, and contribute to the common good of society.  Those who can work, should work.  The challenge is to ensure that our nation's policies support productive work with wages and benefits that permit a family to live in dignity.
  • Preserve a safety net for the vulnerable:  Society has a responsibility to help meet the needs of those who cannot care for themselves, who cannot work or whose work is caring for young children or disabled family members.  Our policies should help and sustain the most vulnerable among us, enhancing the ability of all children, including immigrant children, to grow into productive adults.  Legal immigrants should be eligible for benefits on the same terms as citizens, and the children of undocumented persons should not be left without help.
  • Build public/private partnerships to overcome poverty:  Overcoming poverty and dependency requires creative, responsive and effective actions in both the public and private sectors.  Our nation must bring together the roles and responsibilities of the federal and state governments, private entities, and faith-based institutions and community organizations in fighting poverty.  While the active role of states and of faith.based and community groups is crucial, their efforts cannot replace the essential responsibility of the federal government, on behalf of our entire society, to establish just public policy and to commit sufficient national resources to insure that the basic needs of the American people are met.
  • Invest in human dignity:  The commitment and effort of individuals seeking to leave welfare for work, poverty for self-sufficiency, must be met by continued public commitment to provide jobs, training, education, child care, health care, transportation and other supports necessary to make that transition successfully and to help families live in dignity.   

In pursuing these principles, the Bishops’ Conference believes welfare policy should not be a choice between encouraging greater responsibility or promoting greater social responsibility - both are necessary to help families overcome poverty.  Welfare policy should not be a choice between investing in work, child care, and education and training, or recognizing the importance of healthy marriages and responsible parenthood - both are necessary to improve children's lives.  Children's lives and their hope for the future are enhanced or diminished by the choices of their parents and the policies of their government.  re-authorization is an opportunity to improve TANF to encourage wise choices by their families and wise investments by our nation in decent work, child care, and education and training.

In considering how to amend TANF, Congress must keep in mind the real families, real individuals, and real children whose lives will be deeply affected by the changes that will be made in TANF.  TANF re-authorization is both an opportunity and a challenge.  Congress must sharpen its focus on the persistent problem of poverty and the tragedy of so many families living without dignity and hope in our nation.  The goals of national welfare policy should be to reduce poverty in this, the most prosperous of nations, and to improve the lives of our children. 

To accomplish this, TANF policy should seek to reduce poverty through a three-part strategy of (1) supporting work, (2) strengthening family life and marriage, and (3) sustaining the needy and vulnerable among us, especially our children, and it should ensure adequate resources to accomplish these goals.  The Bishops’ Conference is grateful that over the past two years Congress has remained committed to maintaining the current TANF block grant funding level, and we urge you to continue that commitment. 

The Bishops’ Conference advocates several specific policy directions in each of these three areas, some of which have been included in bills considered by this subcommittee over the past two years.

Supporting Work

The Bishops’ Conference strongly supports continuing the emphasis of TANF on work.  Work is the ordinary means by which individuals support themselves and their families and contribute to the common good.  Our nation(s policies should support productive work with wages and benefits that permit families to leave welfare and poverty behind and to live in dignity and self.sufficiency.  Many who leave welfare, even those who leave for jobs, are still living in poverty.  The TANF program must be improved to provide participants with the support they need to get, and keep, a job that will take them out of poverty.  Policies that would continue the work-first focus of TANF while supporting family life include: 

Expanding the definition of work:  TANF recipients need more than just any job - they need a pathway out of poverty, and for many that means access to education and job training, and in some cases, treatment for substance abuse or mental or physical disability, as well as a job.  Serious efforts at education, job training or overcoming addiction are hard work and should be recognized as such. States should have greater flexibility to count genuine job training, vocational and post-secondary education as work.  Currently, states may only allow individuals to count such activities as work for 12 months; the Bishops’ Conference supports increasing that to 24 months.  The Conference also supports allowing states to count serious treatment for substance abuse, mental or physical disabilities, and domestic violence toward core work requirements, for a length of time sufficient to complete effective treatment programs.

Sensible and fair work requirements:  Under TANF, states are evaluated on the basis of the proportion of families receiving TANF who are engaged in work activities (the work participation rate) for a minimum number of hours per week.  The caseload reduction credit rewards states for reducing their caseloads with a reduction in the work participation rate they must satisfy.  Many of the proposals considered over the past two years have called for increases in the work participation rate, the minimum weekly work requirement, or both, as well as changes in the caseload reduction credit.

The combined effect of any changes in these policies should not unfairly burden either states or families on TANF.  Our welfare policy should have sensible and fair work requirements that will allow parents on welfare to meet their obligations to their families while working.  The Congress should also be wary of limiting state flexibility by imposing “one size fits all” rules that would hinder states’ ability to continue or create programs that will effectively help TANF families move from welfare to achieving self-sufficiency through work.

The Bishops’ Conference has previously expressed our deep concerns about bills that have come before the House of Representatives that would both increase the work participation rate for all states to 70% and raise the minimum weekly work requirement to 40 hours – for all parents, including those with children under six years old.  We would urge Congress to maintain the current weekly hours requirement, and to continue to require fewer hours of parents with young children.  The Conference also suggests that Congress consider replacing the caseload reduction credit with a mechanism that rewards states for placing TANF recipients in stable jobs with adequate wages.  Finally, any increase in the work participation rate should focus on encouraging states to improve their own current efforts, instead of imposing a uniform requirement on all states.

Work supports: child care, Medicaid and food stamps:  Finding and paying for adequate child care can be one of the biggest challenges facing parents trying to move from welfare to work.  The problem is exacerbated for parents who work at times when child care is particularly hard to find.  All working parents, including those who must work weekend or night shifts, must have access to safe, affordable child care at the times they need it by increasing funding for federal child care assistance.

As welfare recipients make the transition from cash assistance to relying on their wages alone, access to noncash benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid can mean the difference between success or failure, hunger and illness or progress.  The law should ensure that those leaving welfare automatically receive transitional Medicaid and food stamps for a full year after they leave TANF. 

Because of our concern that parents struggling to leave welfare receive these and other work supports, the Bishops’ Conference has expressed concern with two aspects of bills previously approved by the Subcommittee:  the provisions to allow some states to block grant food stamps, and to all Cabinet agencies to grant cross-departmental waivers in several programs.  We urge you to reconsider these proposals to make sure that families leaving welfare are guaranteed access to the supporting benefits they need, such as food stamps for example, to successfully leave welfare behind.

Strengthening Family Life and Marriage

The Catholic community has consistently affirmed the vital importance of marriage for raising children.  Children do better economically, emotionally, and spiritually when raised by both parents in the context of a stable, healthy marriage.  Our nation should make appropriate efforts to encourage abstinence before marriage, to assist single parents considering marriage and to help married parents to stay together.  Unfortunately domestic violence, destructive behavior and the widespread tragedy of divorce are realities for far too many families, leaving many single parents struggling to support children on their own.  These families deserve our help, too.

It is essential to provide the resources necessary to enable all parents, married or single, to meet the needs of their families; to develop appropriate policies to support and strengthen marriage; and to assist and protect families threatened by domestic violence.

Remove barriers and disincentives to two-parent families.  Many states continue to implement policies that make it harder for two-parent families to qualify for and receive TANF assistance.  For example, two-parent families may be forced to wait longer for benefits to begin than single-parent families, or be disqualified because of the parents' recent work history, even if the family's income is below the poverty level.  Congress should require states to discontinue policies that act as a disincentive to marriage.  Congress should also end the separate, more stringent work participation rate requirements for two-parent families in TANF itself.  The Conference was grateful that the bills previously approved by this Subcommittee encouraged states to treat two-parent families equitably.

Help States Do More to Support Effective Marriage Programs:   States should be encouraged to assist low-income married couples who would benefit from marital counseling or marriage-skills programs.  The Conference supports efforts to provide new funding, in addition to the block grant, for grants to states to help low-income parents who are married, or who seek to marry, gain access to services they otherwise might not be able to afford, such as marriage counseling, relationship skills classes, premarital counseling and marriage preparation, marriage-skills classes.  While many groups and faith-based organizations, including our Church, sponsor a range of marriage-support programs, there is still much to learn about what strategies are most effective in addressing specific problems.  Research and demonstration programs can help to identify and share effective and appropriate marriage and family formation programs.  The Conference was pleased that several re-authorization proposals, including bills previously approved by the Subcommittee, would create funding for these purposes.

Involve non-custodial fathers in their children's lives.  When parents are not married, our welfare policy should encourage the active presence of both parents in the lives of their children.  Most often, that means keeping non-custodial fathers involved with their children.  As with marriage-support programs, TANF should assist states to identify and support effective fatherhood programs that help fathers develop the economic and emotional capacity to support their children.  The law should be also amended so that child support paid by non-custodial fathers actually goes to support their children on TANF.  This is another area where, the Conference is pleased to note, the bill approved by the Subcommittee last Congress took promising steps forward.

Sustaining the Needy and Vulnerable

Restore benefit eligibility to legal immigrants:  The 1996 welfare reform law treated legal immigrants harshly, categorically barring them from public benefits programs.  The Bishops’ Conference has worked to change the law, and are grateful for improvements that have restored eligibility for some legal immigrants.  But most legal immigrants are still ineligible for public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and TANF unless they have been here for more than five years. The Bishops' Conference has long advocated for the availability of basic necessities to all those in need, regardless of their race, creed, ethnic origin, or nationality.  Legal immigrants pay taxes and make significant contributions to our economy with their labor.  As a matter of justice, when people are in need, especially children, they should have access to the public programs supported by their family’s taxes.

End state family cap laws:  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long opposed policies that restrict or deny additional cash benefits when a TANF family's size increases because of the birth of a baby.  The Conference is deeply concerned about their impact on the well-being of children, both born and unborn.  We urge Congress to amend TANF to ban state family cap policies on both pro-life and pro-family principles.  States should not be allowed to tell women they will pay for their abortions, but will not help them support new children.  Policies that penalize families for having a new child by denying them additional TANF resources cannot be seen as pro-family or pro-life

Allow TANF recipients to care for young children and disabled family members: Young children, the sick and the disabled are among our society's most vulnerable members.  Their well-being often depends upon the ability of parents and family members to take care of them on a full-time basis.  Under current law those same parents and family members may be forced to work outside the home or face the loss of the cash assistance their family needs to survive.  Congress should amend the law so states have the option of using federal funds to continue cash assistance to full-time care givers for children under six or seriously ill or disabled family members. 

Ameliorate harsh sanction policies:  It is not easy to develop welfare policy that ensures assistance for the needy without enabling the dependency of those who can and should support themselves. We must continue to demand responsibility and hard work from all those who can work, but we cannot abandon those among us who cannot help themselves, or who, with a little more time, patience and assistance would be able to help themselves and their families.  The nation’s goal must be to ensure that no one falls through the cracks of federal or state bureaucracies.  To that end, the Bishops’ Conference urges Congress to take a careful look at TANF sanction polices, and to consider requiring states to provide clear, understandable information to all recipients on what is required of them and the sanctions they face if they violate those requirements; to identify and work with families at risk of sanctions; to end full-family sanctions for a first violation; and to restore benefits immediately when a violation has been remedied by positive action by a recipient.

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Thank you for the opportunity to share the Bishops' Conference's principles and policies on TANF re-authorization. As a nation we must strive to create an effective and flexible system of accountability and incentives for both individuals and states, a system that empowers a partnership of government agencies, community groups and recipients to meet the needs of individual families and to give them the tools they need to leave poverty and government assistance.  The moral measure of our society is how we treat "the least among us."  (Matt. 25).  The Bishops' Conference is grateful for the Subcommittee’s hard work and efforts over the past two years to address TANF re-authorization, and we hope our comments prove helpful as you take up the task again this year. The Bishops' Conference looks forward to working with this Subcommittee and Congress on the moral imperative of overcoming poverty in our land.



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