Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work
Rebecca M. Blank

A Growing Policy Concern

Recent changes in federal legislation will increase states’ attention to women on welfare who have not successfully transitioned into employment. In January 2006 Congress passed revisions to the TANF legislation that require states to have 50 percent of their current welfare caseloads at work or in workrelated programs. Although the original 1996 law also had a 50 percent work requirement, it reduced the share of the caseload required to work in states whose caseloads fell over time. For example, if the caseload fell 25 percent in a given state, that state’s work requirement would be 25 percent (50 percent minus 25 percent). Because all states experienced caseload declines, their work requirements declined and, over time, the required share was much lower than the 50 percent standard. The reauthorizing legislation sets the 50 percent work requirement on current caseloads, thereby eliminating previous caseload declines from the work requirement calculation. It also requires states to include women who are in SSPs in their welfare caseloads. States that do not meet this new work requirement will lose part of their federal block grant.15

Virtually no state now meets the 50 percent work requirement; some are far from meeting it. Using the counting rules in the new legislation, the average state participation rate—the share of the caseload meeting the work requirement—in 2003 would have been 30 percent.16 States that do not want to face financial sanctions must find a way to move more of their nonworking caseload, both in TANF and in SSPs, into work. These new requirements create a strong incentive for states to remove disadvantaged women from the caseload through time limits and sanctions, so that more women on welfare can hold at least part-time work. An increasing share of hard-to-employ women may thus lose TANF benefits and join the already growing group of women who are not on welfare and not working.