Case Overview, Disabled Recipients under TANF Reauthorization

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over disabled recipients under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.

           During the 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it." The nation's basic welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was widely criticized by both the left and the right. Conservatives believed AFDC was too easy to get onto and promoted dependency by creating few incentives to get off of welfare and into the workforce. Liberals denounced AFDC because they believed it did little to give people the educational or job skills they needed to escape welfare. With the 1996 election approaching, President Clinton was under pressure to deliver on his promise. But to get a bill out of the closely divided Congress, he had to agree to some provisions that Republicans wanted but congressional Democrats didn't. The new legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, abolished AFDC and replaced it with a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF is a dramatically different welfare program. Most welfare recipients may not be on the program cumulatively for more than five years over their lifetime. Most able-bodied recipients cannot stay on the program for more than two years at any one time.
When the program came up for reauthorization in 2002, much of the debate focused on Republicans' insistence that a greater percentage of the TANF caseload be required to work. President Bush asked Congress to require that 70 percent of the TANF caseload be required to find work by the end of the two year limit. They reasoned that TANF, despite claims by critics to the contrary, had been successful in getting 50 percent of the welfare population onto the workforce. Thus, the goal should be set higher, saving taxpayers more money and helping welfare recipients break the cycle of dependency by offering them tough love.
Liberal legislators and many interest groups sympathetic to the poor and disabled believed that the Republicans had badly misunderstood TANF's initial success. Able-bodied welfare recipients were leaving the program to find work, but as one Senate Democratic staffer noted, "Studies are showing that the individuals left on the welfare rolls are by and large individuals with disabilities." In other words, those fifty percent that were the first to move into the workforce were the "easier cases;" individuals left on the rolls had major barriers to workforce participation. A lobbyist speaking on behalf of those on the program said that those people "with say severe depression . . . or substance abuse-those folks can't just one day wake up and say 'okay, I'm going to get my act together and go to work.'" Advocates of individuals with substance abuse problems and disabilities worked to have work-training programs and rehabilitation time to count as workforce participation. Further, these advocates tried to make the point that "for people with mild mental retardation, there's no treatment programs. You have it, it's not going to go away." They therefore argued that waivers and exemptions should be allowed for all individuals who would never be able to enter the workforce, instead of a cap on the number of exemptions. A coalition effort tried to education member of Congress about the types of individuals left on TANF rolls and as one advocate put it, "if you kick them off, they will simply fall through the cracks and wind up in shelters and soup kitchens."
As was often the case in the 107th Congress, Republicans had their way in the House, which they controlled, but the Senate, with its bare, one-vote Democratic majority was a different story. In the end the bill failed to clear the Congress and it was back to work on TANF in the 108th.