This post was written by Paul Shinn, CAP’s Public Policy Analyst.
CAP Tulsa recently published the second issue in our Better Benefits for Oklahoma Families series, covering Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF is the only program that provides cash assistance to very low-income families with children. Too many Oklahoma children go without this essential support and are thus at risk for child maltreatment, poor health, and not succeeding in school.
Since federal welfare reform in 1996, Oklahoma has dramatically reduced its help to these most needy of families and children, even though there has been no drop in child poverty. As the chart below shows, Oklahoma only provides TANF cash assistance to 4,100 poor families, down from more than 30,000 in 1996. While TANF participation has fallen across the nation, Oklahoma’s drop has been much more severe.
While the welfare reforms were designed to move families from welfare to self-sufficiency, that’s simply not possible the way Oklahoma operates TANF. Several factors play a role.
- Income guidelines keep most families who need help from getting it. The most a family of three can make and qualify for TANF in Oklahoma is $824 per month, only half the poverty level.
- TANF benefits are too low to do anything but fight off an emergency. The most a family of three can receive is $292 a month, well below the national average of $429. Many families don’t even qualify for this maximum benefit, which is only equivalent to 20 percent of the poverty level. Since Oklahoma has not raised benefits, the current payment to families is 32 percent less than in 1996, adjusting for inflation.
- Most families do not receive assistance long enough to support themselves. More than half of Oklahoma families get TANF help for less than a full year. One reason is Oklahoma’s strict sanctions policy that denies help to the whole family, even young children, for minor violations of program rules.
Oklahoma can continue its strict approach to TANF cash assistance, but it won’t protect children or support work and move families toward self-sufficiency. If it expects to achieve those important goals, the state should take these relatively simple and affordable steps:
- Increase program benefits at least to where they were in 1996– that is, 30 percent of the poverty level.
- Make sanctions less severe so adults can continue on the path to education and employment and children are not put at risk for hunger, homelessness, and poor health.
- Support work by allowing TANF families to earn more and keep their assistance while getting on their feet.
- Let families keep more child support without losing benefits. Parents are required to cooperate in collecting child support, but they get none of the payments the state collects.
- Increase amounts paid to families in “child-only” cases, where a child lives with grandparents or other adults. This will encourage adults to support and protect the most vulnerable young children among us.
Oklahoma is justified in demanding better outcomes from those who participate in TANF, but it needs to create a TANF program that moves us toward those outcomes.