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A bipartisan compromise to improve TANF

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When Congress returns for the lame-duck session starting next week, one important piece of unfinished business will be what to do about the central cash welfare program in the US, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Extending the program for a few years while testing the outcome-based performance standards in a few states would provide something both parties could cheer. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

TANF provides welfare checks and other supports for low-income families with children. Ever since it replaced a New Deal-era program in 1996, TANF has included an expiration date meant to ensure that it is regularly reviewed and updated so that it continues to meet low-income families’ needs. That is, the program would end if Congress does not formally act to extend it. And despite massive shifts in both the broader economy and other low-income benefit programs, coupled with near-constant discussion of reform, recent years have seen repeated short-term extensions with few other changes to the program itself. In all, TANF has been significantly reformed exactly once — in 2006 — while getting three dozen short-term reprieves in other years.

As that trend suggests, Republicans and Democrats regularly agree on simply continuing current TANF rules and funding without changes. But it also means that there has been no agreement on reforms designed to make the TANF program more effective at helping low-income parents go to work.

With the nation experiencing full employment — even a labor shortage — key policymakers have argued the time for such reforms is now. Republicans proposed making TANF’s work requirements more focused on states achieving the outcome of helping parents on welfare find jobs and move up the economic ladder, a move some Democrats have rhetorically supported as well. The House Ways and Means Committee approved such a bill in May along party lines, with Democrats opposing the effort, citing a lack of increased welfare funding. And with the Republicans focused more on extending the 2017 tax cuts, that legislation didn’t go anywhere in the House in September.

The question now is whether something more than another short-term extension of the status quo is possible in this Congress’ few remaining days. With a narrowly-divided Senate needing 60 votes for any significant legislation to pass — a fact that did not appreciably change Tuesday night — change was always less likely than more of the status quo. But if Congress can find agreement on even modest improvements — like extending the program for a few years while testing the outcome-based performance standards from the Ways and Means legislation in a few states — that would seem to benefit both sides. Democrats, along with new governors, would be more assured of TANF’s continued funding, helping them design better programs to assist the poor. And Republicans would be able to test whether their focus on outcomes does a better job of moving low-income parents into work — including in businesses starved for employees in today’s strong economy.

That would be a win-win, and here’s hoping Congress gets at least that done. Otherwise, look for a 37th short-term straight extension sometime before TANF hits its latest expiration date next month.

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