The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 11, 2016

TANF realities can hinder child care and job training support

April 11, 2016

Like all parents, parents receiving cash assistance want jobs that support their families, the education and skills to help them access those jobs, and quality child care in a safe, enriching environment.

Federal programs providing cash assistance, child care subsidies, and job training share these goals, but the families most in need of intensive, high-quality services are the most challenging for these programs to serve. For example, parents on cash assistance may work inconsistent hours, making it hard to meet their child care needs. And unrealistic, complex, and inflexible program rules only add to the difficulty.

A recent Urban Institute report describes the opportunities offered by workforce development and child care subsidy systems, highlights the challenges of meeting the complex needs of highly disadvantaged families, and identifies implications for federal and state policy improvements.

Who are the families receiving cash assistance?

Families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits face extreme disadvantages. To be eligible for TANF cash assistance, a family of four can earn no more than $1,000 per month in most states, and even less in other states.

Most of these families have a child age 5 or younger; 14 percent have an infant under age 1. Parents with incomes low enough to qualify for TANF tend to have low education levels or limited work histories, and many have physical or mental health issues, chronically ill children, caregiving responsibilities for children with special needs, or other challenges that make it difficult for them to complete their education and maintain steady employment.

Why is it so hard for TANF families to access the child care services they need?

Child care subsidies are vital for TANF parents—without them, many parents would be unable to work. TANF families engaged in work activities usually have priority for child care subsidies, but actually getting those subsidies and using them isn’t easy.

Although the newly reauthorized child care law may alleviate some issues, the report highlights several important challenges. For example, TANF families may not know about the subsidies or may lack the time and information needed to make informed and stable child care choices. These families may have difficulty finding quality providers that accept subsidies and can accommodate their typically short-term and variable work schedules.

In addition, complex administrative structures and rules create cracks through which families can fall. Some states authorize child care only for the exact hours that TANF parents spend in work-related activities, which may not match the child’s need for a consistent care environment or the care provider’s need for serving a steady number of children. Some TANF programs may require parents to find care almost immediately and on a short-term basis, such as for a six-week training program that begins the following week, yet those programs don’t help parents find quality care providers.

For TANF parents in school, some states have chosen to rigidly tie child care subsidies to the allowed number of classroom and homework hours, requiring parents and TANF agencies to document hours closely. The resulting child care instability creates burdens for agency workers and child care providers and contributes to negative outcomes for parents’ employment and child development.

Why is it so hard for TANF families to access workforce development services?

Although recipients, with some exceptions, are required to work or engage in work-related activities, TANF strictly limits the types of activities that are allowed. Basic skills education and longer-term education and training generally do not count toward the work requirement.

Also, TANF and workforce development programs don’t share the same goals, requirements, and performance measures, which creates disincentives for states to allow TANF families access to the full range of workforce development activities. In addition, the same characteristics that make it difficult for TANF recipients to stay employed also create challenges for their participation in workforce development programs.

What are the policy solutions?

The federal workforce system (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) and child care subsidy system (Child Care and Development Fund) were reauthorized in 2014.  TANF is scheduled for reauthorization as well. All three systems allow for extensive state and local flexibility, which creates great variation across locations but also increases the potential for states to seize new opportunities, creatively address challenges, enhance connections between systems, and better meet the complex needs of TANF adults and children.

The recent reauthorizations create timely opportunities to elevate awareness of the child care and workforce development needs of TANF families. As states develop child care and workforce plans in response to new federal rules, state and local actors from these sectors and from TANF should go beyond mere program compliance and think creatively and constructively about how best to structure their systems—individually and in partnership—to meet the needs of TANF families. Our report offers five recommendations for how to do this.

There are no easy solutions, but it is clear that to move families off welfare and toward self-sufficiency, to support adults in their roles as parents and caregivers, and to support children in their development as lifelong learners and members of their community, TANF must allow for intensive services, basic education, skill development, and high-quality child care.

Carolina Fuentes fills out a form at the Sacramento county welfare office in Sacramento, California, Monday, June 1, 2009. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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