Case Overview, TANF and Employment Training

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over TANF and Employment Training. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.


           In 1996 Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, fundamentally altering the nation's basic welfare policy. The long-standing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which had its origins in the Great Depression, was ended and, instead, the Personal Responsibility Act established a new welfare program to take its place. This new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was intended to reduce dependency, giving welfare recipients tough love by placing time limits on their program eligibility. Under current law those on welfare must find work on their own, be placed in work by a state's welfare bureaucracy, or enroll in an accredited job training program. With some exceptions recipients cannot be in the TANF program for any longer than two years at a stretch and for no more than five years overall.

           Since TANF went into effect welfare rolls have dropped. Part of the decline is due to the new time limits on welfare; part is due to the buoyant economy between the program's inception and 2001 when a recession took hold; and part is due to the job training available through TANF support that gives some welfare recipients skills that help them find employment. There is little agreement, however, in terms of just how much weight each of these factors should be given in assessing the drop in the welfare caseload. When TANF came up for reauthorization in the 107th Congress, a major dispute emerged between liberals and conservatives concerning the program's effectiveness and what changes needed to be made.

           A good deal of the conflict centered on the job training provisions. [Please note that another of our cases in the 107th Congress focuses on the problem of disabled welfare recipients under TANF and is listed under the title "Exemptions for Disabled Recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families."] Conservatives wanted the percentage of those on TANF required to work part-time to be raised from the percentage required under the 1996 law. For their part liberals wanted to protect the training and education option for TANF recipients. Those on welfare could not just go to college to get a general education, but they could enroll at a junior college in a program that would train them for a particular career. Straight job training programs were not controversial.

           Liberal advocates and community college leaders praised the effectiveness of the vocationally oriented educational programs. Said one advocate on behalf of TANF recipients, "It's a win-win-win situation. TANF recipients learn new skills, employers get a better trained workforce, and the tax base increases because more people are working." She added, "Education and training works. For most TANF recipients, it succeeds in getting them off public assistance." But many conservatives scoff at such assertions. Said one conservative policy analyst, "This population does not perform well in the classroom. . . the classroom is a means to avoid working or searching for work. They many not even attend. . . it's just an extension of idle dependency."

           At the end of the 107th Congress, a bridge between these two conflicting points of view had not been built; the reauthorization failed and would have to be carried over to the next Congress. The two sides have different worldviews on this issue, but all believed that a compromise would eventually be struck.