Future of TANF
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
April 2002

Congress and the President have started work on the reauthorization the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, commonly known as welfare assistance. In the last column, I discussed comments made by state Catholic conference directors to the Bush Administration on the reauthorization. This column continues that discussion.

TANF should maintain state flexibility yet not foster the diversion of TANF funds, or the supplanting of state funds currently directed to TANF-eligible populations.

Catholic social teaching includes a “principle of subsidiarity,” which affirms the value of local responses to problems. At the same time, subsidiarity is only effective when the local agency has the resources to meet its responsibilities. Therefore, states should be given latitude in developing programs. However, states should not be able to divert TANF funds for other purposes, especially for programs already funded by other sources.

There is some talk in North Dakota of doing just that. An interim legislative committee is studying whether to establish an alternatives to abortion services program. It sounds, however, as though some legislators, rather than funding abortion alternatives, want to use TANF money to fund family planning clinics.

Time limits on TANF funds and services should be modified and in some cases eliminated.

Time limits provide incentives. However, for some persons it will take more time to adjust to permanent self-sufficiency. Moreover, the current time limits on assistance provide incentives to the state to move people into work, but not necessarily self-sufficiency. The time limits should be reexamined.

TANF should provide greater opportunities for students to learn abstinence.

One of the goals of welfare reform is to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Another goal is to foster the formation of
two parent families. A key to achieving both of these goals is furthering abstinence education.

Upon further analysis, it becomes clear that abstinence, being a life-style of making responsible choices, will not only lead to less unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases, but would also lead to less substance abuse and greater achievement of long-term education and career objectives. In short, abstinence is a key component of achieving self-sufficiency.

However, states have made little use of TANF funds to expand abstinence education. North Dakota has not used any of the TANF assistance block grant for abstinence education programs. Without sacrificing important assistance programs, we must look at how TANF funds can be used to address the causes of poverty and economic dependence.

TANF should affirm the value of work and foster investment in people.

In Catholic teaching, work is not merely an economically productive job. Work is also the means by which we fulfill our potential. TANF recipients are required to participate in “work activities.” The definition of what is a work activity should be expansive enough to include that which helps the recipient fulfill their potential. Ultimately, this is should be the true purposes of welfare reform.

Along the same lines, TANF should foster investment in people. Barriers to assistance for drug offenders and immigrants should be eliminated. People are entitled to our assistance because they are human persons in need. Their eligibility should not depend on their immigrant classification or their past acts, especially if they have completed or are enrolled drug treatment.

Finally, the reauthorization of TANF must provide new opportunities to address those with mental illnesses and tribal populations. These two groups possess unique barriers to self-sufficiency which demand special attention.