California’s stake in TANF

Lahn is legislative director of the Children’s Defense Fund-CA; Taylor is community programs coordinator, Esplanade House Transitional Shelter
Our leaders in Washington, D.C., are about to make decisions that will either worsen or improve the chances for thousands of children in California to succeed in school and live at least part of their lives free of poverty. Within the next few months, Congress will reauthorize TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), setting spending levels and priorities for the next five years.

California has a demonstrated track record of getting families to leave welfare. The California caseload has dropped by more than half, from 2.6 million in 1996 to 1.25 million in 2001. However, 50 percent of California parents on welfare are working in jobs with earnings so low they still qualify for welfare benefits.

Instead of taking the steps to ensure that the families get sustainable jobs, and that children are safe and learning while their parents work, President Bush, Congressman Herger, and Senators Carper and Bayh have all introduced welfare reform legislation that would dramatically increase the amount of time working mothers would be away from their children without providing for additional child care funding. The Bush and Herger proposals do not add any additional federal child care funds, despite dramatically increasing work requirements. The Carper-Bayh plan provides only inadequate increases.

In Congressman Herger’s district, these unrealistic proposals dismay working families. Dori Moura, a Butte County working mother of four children under the age of 6, explains, “I got out of an abusive relationship with my ex-husband. … As a single mom, even with child support and my salary, more than half my take-home pay would be used for child care. There is no affordable child care.”

Currently, Moura receives assistance through Valley Oak Children’s Services in Butte County, which has federally and state-funded programs that help families moving from welfare to work receive the child care services they need. “I work for three local radio stations. If I lost child care, I would have to give up my job. This program keeps me working.”

The Bush, Carper-Bayh and Herger proposals all require states to double the proportion of families in required activities and to come up with 40 hours a week in make-work assignments and other activities. After diverting most of its funds to keep people busy while on welfare, California will not have enough left over to invest in the supports that will help parents leave welfare for real jobs.

More than four in 10 parents currently receiving benefits have a disability, according to government researchers. Many others are caring for a chronically ill or disabled child. About one-quarter or more of the mothers receiving assistance are trying to extricate themselves from a violent relationship.

This disconnect between Washington policy makers and families struggling to provide for their children will have ramifications for California for years to come. If our leaders were paying more attention to the real-life struggles of working families, and to the consequences for children, they would modify their proposals to provide new child care funding and other work supports, end federal restrictions on supplements to low wages, and encourage the education and training that are the proven route to sustainable jobs.