On Friday, the Health and Human Services Committee held a hearing to look at how Nebraska is spending funds under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program.
TANF is a federal block grant program to provide short-term help to families in need. The four federally-established goals of TANF are:
- Assisting needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes
- Reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage
- Preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies
- Encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families
Beyond these broad requirements, states have flexibility in how they design their programs. In Nebraska, these funds are spent on cash assistance (called Aid to Dependent Children or ADC), job training, child care, and child welfare services.
We are encouraged that the Legislature is taking a closer look at how we are spending funds to help vulnerable families. One interesting thing about the TANF program in Nebraska is that the number of participants has remained flat, regardless of changes in economic circumstances. This defies the expectation that numbers would increase during economic downturns, and raises some important questions about how the program is working. Below we see that while extreme poverty (below 50% of the federal poverty level) grew during and after the recession, ADC enrollment remained largely flat.
We think that exploring questions about our TANF programs are long overdue and hope that the hearing on TANF was just a first step. Ultimately, we need to look not just at where we are spending our money, but at how the program is working (or not working) for Nebraska families. Is it structured in a way that supports long-term success? Are we meeting our program goals? Are there innovations that have worked in other states that Nebraska might adopt?
These are just some of the questions that the hearing raised for us. We hope that the state Department of Health and Human Services and the Legislature will continue looking at the TANF program and exploring how to best make it work for Nebraska families.