TANF at 20: personal & profesional reflections.

Author:Kone, Alicia
Position:Temporary Assistance for Needy Families



I recently ran across a copy of a 1995 Business Week article about some surprising demographic data the Census Bureau had released on welfare recipients.

The Census data found that, on average, welfare mothers were older (30 years old), were or had been married (53%), and were better educated (19% had finished some college) than the stereotyped single, unwed teen mom the reformers so frequently referenced in their arguments for change. I had kept the article because I was featured in it as an example of a welfare mom who didn't fit the mold--at the time of the interview I was 24, my oldest son was 2 years old, and I was a college senior looking forward to a career in health and human services. My only quote in the article was, "I see a big future in front of me ..."

It was poignant to find a reminder of the history of welfare reform and my own personal journey with workforce development, since this August 22 is the 20th anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PWRORA) of 1996, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Anniversaries are as good a time as any to reflect on where we've been and where we are today, and assess what we could do to better help our lowest income families improve their circumstances.

Babette Roberts, who manages Washington State's TANF program, and I highlight our country's progress in helping low-income families obtain a job, a better job, and, ultimately, a family-wage career through examples from Washington's current successes and challenges, contrasted with my own personal case study as a welfare recipient. We have also both recently been inspired by a book called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. (1) We weave into our reflections some places where concepts like tunneling, the bandwidth tax, and slack might influence new thinking about workforce development. We also propose a few key areas where we think Congress and the Administration could make it easier for states and counties to effectively serve TANF families.

My first experience with the social safety net was in 1992. I had begun my junior year in college, and was expecting my first child that November. I had been visiting child care centers that offered student discounts, but even those centers cost about $900 for infant care. Like most college students, when I realized I had a financial problem (I was tunneling, to use a term from Scarcity, and finding it hard to even concentrate in school), I went to the financial aid office to find out how my aid package (loans and work study) could be increased to help me cover the cost of child care. The aid officer explained that financial aid was for students, not for family support, and if I needed help with things like that I needed to apply for assistance at a Community Services Office (CSO, a welfare office in Washington State).

I went home and leafed through the telephone book's government listings for the number to call for more information. I found a long list of CSOs, but I figured out that I should probably call the one nearest my home. I called the office and got a voice mail instructing me if I wanted to apply for services I needed to come in Monday-Friday from 8:30-3:30, except Wednesdays, which were paperwork days. I didn't want to miss my class or my work study job in order to apply because I would lose money. (Nowadays, most programs do a much better job of accommodating working families, but there are still ripe opportunities to improve how much the system puts a bandwidth tax--another concept from Scarcity having to do with how much tunneling or worrying about something uses up brain power--on the minds and executive functioning of the low-income people they are trying to help). In 1992, there was no way to speak to a person when you called the CSO, so I made arrangements with my supervisor to miss work the following week so I could visit the office to apply ...


Twenty years later, TANF programs are designed to accommodate working families. Alicia would have been able to apply for benefits online through the Washington Connections (WaConn) benefit portal. This could have been done in the evening, allowing Alicia to attend her classes and be at work and not tax her already overburdened bandwidth.

If she hadn't known about the WaConn option, she would have found, in those same government listings, a number for the Community Services Division Statewide Contact Center. There, a triage navigator could have listened to her needs and explained her options. She would also have been offered the opportunity to apply for child care on the phone and been transferred right away to a child care eligibility worker.

Finally--if none of these options were visible or accessible for her, local community-based organizations (community colleges, libraries, food banks, WIC offices, community action agencies) now partner to provide assistance with the online application process--many even sit with clients and help them complete the application.

By increasing access points through online application portals, telephonic navigation, and increasing local community-based access points, we make accessing services less stressful, less painful, and reduce the bandwidth tax on already overburdened low-income individuals and families.


The first day I visited a welfare office was a typical gray and rainy October day in Seattle. I passed the...

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